Catherine Cocollos is a woman in Galway with no ordinary job; she’s supplying high-end restaurants in the UK and France with edible snails.
A surprisingly untapped farming enterprise, snail production is an interesting and different agricultural experience. We spoke with Catherine to learn what’s involved in this slimey but fascinating business.
There’s a world shortage of snails, and this important fact was realised by Catherine back in 2014. When she inherited about an acre of land, she was told that she’d better do something with it.
That something turned out to be snail farming, and the decision has led to some great things for Catherine and her husband Richard.
The Beginning of Celtic Escargot
Richard comes from France, and after living in Nice for four years, it was time for Catherine and her husband to come back to Ireland.
“In France, snails are an extremely popular delicacy; they’re used in food and even in cosmetics too,” explains Catherine. The thought of producing them in Ireland made sense to the couple. The pair decided to get their patch of land producing something worthwhile, so they contacted two French consultants who look at snail farms world-wide.
The consultants were amazed with Catherine’s land in Kinvara, Co. Galway. After inspecting it, they realised it was perfect for snail farming. The first seed of ‘Celtic Escargot’ was planted in the lives of Catherine and Richard. In March 2015, they had their first baby snails delivered from France.
With the help of ACORNS, a scheme funded by the Department of Agriculture to help women develop businesses in rural Ireland, Catherine gained great support in kick-starting her idea. She was involved in the pilot cycle of ACORNS, and you can read more about the programme here.
“I was involved with ACORNS’ first programme in 2015, and it was very motivational. I’m still involved with the programme, and we have some meetings next year to discuss future goals and plans,” says Catherine.
Catherine (far left) with her ACORNS group, led by lead voluntary entrepreneur Anne Cusack
How to be a Great Snail Farmer
“With snail farming, it’s an ongoing process. I’m always learning. The help of having the French snail consultants onboard was great; they were actually shocked at the quality of the snails we could produce here in Galway.
“In France, you have to sprinkle them nightly with water; but here, the rain usually does that for us,” adds Catherine.
The process of snail farming officially spreads across six months. Catherine gets her baby snails in March or April, and they’re all picked by September.
“I don’t breed my own baby snails; we buy them in from France. I look after them then until September, when we manage to pick around 350,000 snails! Right now, that means that all snails have either been picked, or they’re hibernating for winter.”
“We have two types of snails. There are the Gros Gris snails that are used in cosmetics, and the Petit Gris that are used for food.
Catherine’s Gros Gris snails are used for face creams and other cosmetics by LM Nature. One of the Cocollos' consultants is Louis-Marie Guedon, and he runs the French cosmetics company that uses Celtic Escargot snail slime in its products. Guedon has actually developed a method of removing slime in a way that doesn’t harm the snails. This kind of slime extraction is the first of its kind.
The global market of edible snails is 300,000 tonnes, and is valued at €1 billion. The French and Italian market alone amounts to €300 million, and the snails market is growing at 4.5% per annum, making a very sustainable future for snail farmers in Ireland.
"As well as my own farming, I actually do snail farm visits and training with NOTS (National Organic Training Skillnet). We spoke at a NOTS seminar a few weeks ago, and 250 farmers attended," explains Catherine.
More than just Snails
Snails feed off of wild plants, but they're also fed a dry food. Celtic Escargot actually supplies another 15 snail farms in Ireland with food that they manufacture themselves.
“We’re the only ones in Ireland making snail food. It’s made here in a local mill, and this natural feed supplies other farms across the country,” says Catherine.
Some of Catherine's snails enjoying the Easter months (Facebook)
Snails on our Shelves
The future looks bright for Celtic Escargot. The business has been working closely alongside the Food Academy, a helpful programme from Bord Bia and SuperValu where small new agri-food businesses can develop their products for use in supermarkets.
Catherine has developed a product that should hit the shelves soon if things go smoothly. Celtic Escargot’s product is 12 free-range snails on a plate, frozen in garlic and herb butter. The dish can be popped in the oven for eight minutes; after this, consumers can have the French delicacy right there on their own dining room table.
However, the only obstacle at the moment is legislation. Edible snails fall under the category of meat, meaning there are more regulations in place for safe production.
“Because it’s considered to be meat, it’s actually like we have our own mini-abattoir in the eyes of the Department of Agriculture. So, right now we’re just waiting to get all that sorted.”
Hopefully Catherine and Richard’s Celtic Escargot products will be available on our nation’s supermarket shelves soon, and the Irish product can be enjoyed inside of Ireland, not just as an export product. Check out their Facebook page and Twitter for more information.