Snails slither into cookbooks as 'white caviar' captures imagination
Spanish snails are being farmed for an unusual luxury ingredient, as Harriet Alexander reports.
A kilo of the pearl-like eggs retails for 1,800 euros (£1,600)
By Harriet Alexander, Caldes de Montbui, Barcelona 7:00AM BST 01 May 2011
Joan Trobalon is proud of his small patch of land in the hills above Barcelona, where lovingly-tended fruit trees and strawberry plants sit alongside lettuces, tomatoes and peppers. But his is no ordinary Spanish finca.
Pushing open the door of a large, plastic-framed barn, Mr Trobalon shows off the surprising jewel in his farming crown: pens full of slithering snails.
The animals – 6,000 of them – are kept to feed the latest gastronomic trend sweeping Europe: "white caviar", or snails' eggs. A kilo of the pearl-like eggs retails for €1,800 (£1,600), and Mr Trobalon, a former pest control expert, admits surprise that he has gone from killing snails to actively cultivating them.
"It's funny how things turn around," he said. "I used to sell 80 tonnes of chemicals a year to kill snails. And now I'm rearing them."
Chefs throughout Spain and Europe are rediscovering the highly-prized delicacy, which centuries ago starred in banquets for wealthy Romans, Egyptians and Greeks. The tiny eggs, which taste slightly earthy and are recommended marinated in herbs, are also known as "Pearls of Aphrodite" for their supposed aphrodisiac quality.
Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, whose restaurant El Bulli was famed for its innovative menu, has experimented widely with recipes using the eggs. Harrods has begun selling small tins of the product, unofficially known as "white caviar" (producers of traditional black caviar, from sturgeon, dispute the new term).
And Spanish businessman Blas Hervías is pioneering the trend in Spain, becoming the first Spaniard to be licensed to sell the product and contracting three specialist farmers – including Mr Trobalon – to provide the eggs.
"I had read lots about snails, but became curious about the eggs and spent a fortune investigating them," he said. "It is a highly unusual product and made in a labour-intensive way. It takes four hours to fill a 50 gram tin, as each tiny egg is selected by hand using tweezers.