An Irish business that has taken off at decidedly more than a snail’s pace, is the Carlow based Gaelic Escargot. In Ireland, snails are better associated with (eating) our cabbages than with (being eaten on) our dinner plates, a notion that Gaelic Escargot seeks to overcome. Eva Milka arrived from Poland towards the end of 2006 to work in the Irish hospitality sector. Although escargot is not a popularly consumed product in her native Poland, she and her partner Lucas Kurowski found that they could not get enough of the delicacy after first sampling the gastronomic gastropods in France. Initially, they began breeding them in their one-bedroom apartment in Kilkenny simply to satisfy their own appetite but they soon saw the potential for growth in the project.

Eva spoke enthusiastically to tn2, expanding on the surprising health benefits linked with eating escargot. They are apparently low in fat and calories (with much less than beef and cheese), full of protein, high in Omega 3 fatty acids and packed with amino acids that are essential for the body. Evidently, the Dublin-born chef Richard Corrigan agrees, given that they featured on his menu when feeding the Irish Rugby team during their pre-season this year. This is the knowledge that Gaelic Escargot hopes to spread, aware that the Irish public is essentially unaware of snails as anything other than garden variety pests. Milka believes that because of their healthy and nutritious components, escargot will begin to grow in popularity as a naturally sourced ingredient in food supplement in the next five years.

“we have everything in Ireland to breed snails. If the French, Germans and Italians can do it then why can’t we?”

She points out that no part of a snail goes to waste, explaining that the meat and eggs, or “snail caviar,” can be used for consumption, while the slime, or “extraction”, is utilised in the pharmaceutical sector. In cosmetics snails are finding rising popularity in Japan and in snail mucus facials that are now available in Thailand. Even the shells contribute to a calcium enriched fertiliser and the liver that must be removed before cooking the larger farm variety has recently begun to be incorporated into a pâté.

Although sustainable creatures, beginning the farming process requires quite a bit of shelling out with little guarantee on return. It costs €3,000-€4,000 per tonne of snails and, with 400 snails kept per m2, the initial setup is expensive.

Next year, Gaelic Escargot intend to source their snails in Ireland, thus cutting back on some of these costs. However, Milka admits that, as it is a trial and error process, they have spent a fortune on mistakes. Their farm has been divided into 16 sections, with separate experiments taking place in each to ensure the best quality is supplied. This is where the Irish have shown them their support, giving them the confidence to know that it’s not just the two of them who believe in this venture. They’ve won numerous prizes for their enterprise, including the Bank of Ireland start-up award in the Food & Drink category, the Best Young Entrepreneur Award, and they have been funded by both the Arthur Guinness Fund for entrepreneurs and their local Carlow Enterprise Office.

After spending time gathering information, they quickly learned that differences in Irish climate and topography meant that the previous breeding systems established by Poland, Italy and France were not applicable here. Not only are they paving the way as the first snail farmers in the country, but they also consider themselves to be a research and development centre. Milka says “the work is extremely enjoyable but it’s a challenge to build a system from scratch without expertise”, going on to say that, as a farming country with excellent resources, “we have everything in Ireland to breed snails. If the French, Germans and Italians can do it then why can’t we?”

What baffles Milka is how the Irish, particularly on the west coast, are willing to eat periwinkles (sea snails), and yet they continue to regard the land version as vermin.

That Gaelic Escargot can boast their product as free-range and Irish grown certainly works to their favour in the continental market. As it stands, they’re operating through a Polish supplier to run a purely export business, giving the term snail mail a whole new context. They supply mainly to France, Italy and Spain, and a snail shortage in Europe means that they have a guaranteed demand. They have also been investigating the Irish market and although the interest is too small at this early stage in their production ― they’re in their second commercial year ― Milka claims that there has been some notable interest in both Galway and Cork.

Those looking to learn more are encouraged to attend their seminar in Carlow called Introduction to Snail Farming in Ireland, an “intense half a day” where initial set-up factors for heliculture (snail farming) as well as markets, costs and sponsorship opportunities are explained. They consider education to be the key for progress, hoping that it will lead to a thriving Irish industry in the future. What baffles Milka is how the Irish, particularly on the west coast, are willing to eat periwinkles (sea snails), and yet they continue to regard the land version as vermin. She sees the establishment of other farms as the only way forward in Ireland, as it would lead to competitive prices for the consumer, and an opportunity for the breeders to learn from each other.

At the moment, with only herself and Kurowski working on the farm, Eva feels that they currently “wear too many hats” to give cracking the Irish market their undivided attention, but she is hopeful that it will happen in time.The market trials they have done, in Dublin’s Restaurant 41 and at Carlow Food Festival, have proven to them that the Irish resistance is largely psychological as customers seem to enjoy the taste once the product is disguised. Her next aim is to find an Irish ambassador, be it a recognised chef or a renowned rugby player, to support what they’re doing, promote them as a healthy food source and ultimately break the stigma around the consumption of snails. The self-proclaimed “mother of Irish snail farming” concludes by saying that she is proud of the trail Gaelic Escargot has blazed to date and although the journey to solidify their name in Ireland will be long, she’s positive that they are taking baby steps in the right direction.