Over the last few years, the consumption of snails has gradually increased throughout the whole country but on the other hand a progressive rarefaction of these exquisite mollusks has also started taking place in the areas where they live in the wild. The world market has expanded and has started to occupy areas that used to ignore the use of this mollusk in gastronomy. Once, the springtime collection of wild snails alone was sufficient to meet the needs of the market and the territory featured all the conditions for an ideal natural breeding. The gradual increase of soil pollution, together with the diffusion of a more and more specialized and intensive agriculture which employs the use of nitrogen fertilizers, have all gradually destroyed the habitat which was once essential for the natural reproduction of snails. These factors, alongside a remarkable increase in consumption, have led to the need for the breeding of snails in human-managed breeding farms - in order to obtain significant production in the shortest possible time. It is for these reasons that in the early 70s Heliciculture was born, which actually means ‘Helicidae farming’, i.e. the scientific name used to classify snails or escargots. Furthermore, snail farming has turned from a marginal, little-known and somewhat risky business (due to the scarce knowledge surrounding the biological and zootechnical needs of the mollusk) to a proper agricultural activity, more and more widespread and popular. Due to the very little specific machinery required, the possibility of using even marginal and unproductive terrains, and above all the limited investment of money required, heliciculture has become a very common business, which enables farmers to increase their income. It also offers people the chance to escape from the city and to plunge into a purely rural environment, in close contact with nature. From the slapdash holding enclosure fences and fattening enclosures of the 50s-70s came the trials and experimentations (carried out in the most disparate climatic conditions) and then, in turn, the full natural cycle breeding was achieved: a system that features areas specifically intended for reproduction and others where fattening and finishing processes take place. Research has refined itself purely on a scientific basis: investigation of the species, genetic correlations, size, the most functional and proper alimentation, and the most considerable pathological and parasitic forms. Also the number of workers and breeding farms has progressively increased, leading to a current (2014) group of 10.000 people (on national territory) as well as 9.000 hectares of terrain in use in Italy alone.
These have been laborious years, rich with initiatives aimed at experimenting and organizing this type of breeding activity; yet these have also been years in which the biological and zootechnical difficulties concerning the commercial production of mollusks have surfaced, and the fact the heliciculture is not an easy and immediately profitable business has been made clear.
This long and strenuous stage of trial and experimentation has nevertheless confirmed some important points:
• The big qualitative difference between the products which are born and raised in a breeding farms and those which are found in the wild. The first are, at the time of picking, of homogeneous size and age and most importantly purged, ensuring the highest hygiene of the product that is to be consumed. The snails that are found in the wild, however, have not undergone the same process and the quality of their meat is often compromised by discordant tastes due to the ingestion of bitter or even poisonous herbs.
• The inexpensive possibility of the full natural cycle breeding system, also referred to as the ‘Italian method’, from birth to the final fattening stage, outdoors, on vacant terrain, using almost solely low-cost vegetable fodder. On the contrary, indoor-breeding methods (greenhouses, barns, etc.), typical of cold countries, that employ an alimentation based on concentrated flours, have increasingly proved to be too expensive, difficult to manage, and in some cases absolutely unrecommendable.
• A rapidly growing national and world market of snails for gastronomic use, alongside a more and more limited availability of wild product. The picking of wild snails has been a business for many economically poor economy places such as Eastern European, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean African countries. The increasingly rapid changes in the economic and political conditions of these countries, the civil disorders and consequent difficulties in transportation, the commercial and sanitary embargos, the diffusion of crop rotation progressively replacing the traditional pastoral agriculture, and the limited annual harvest time (no longer than 50/60 days), have all contributed to making the availability of wild mollusks collapse.Market growth is also due to the increase in industrial initiatives aimed at the preparation and distribution of ‘ready for gastronomic use’ snails, more likely to take root in a modern commercial context. Another determining factor contributing to the expansion of natural cycle breeding is the increasingly remarkable predilection of world consumers for foods in which no chemical or industrial products are involved in the production chain - foods that are ‘born and bred’ in absolutely natural conditions.
Considering all of the above, it is therefore clear that in the future only the full cycle natural breeding system will manage to provide the consumer and gastronomy industry with the real ‘snail’ product. The availability of the product will no longer be seasonal but continual over the course of the year, giving certainty to the processing industry - which requires consistent daily work for the possibility of a widespread and expanded market.
Heliciculture Around the World
From being a typically Italian business, Heliciculture has turned into a worldwide activity over the last twenty years. The Italian outdoor breeding system which uses strictly vegetable fodder, has developed and keeps on developing rapidly throughout Europe and in non-European countries.
Today it is a well-established fact that Helix-Aspersa snails are able to adapt and reproduce at any temperature and in any given climate with any type of soil conditions.
In the beginning of this century heliciculture grew in Eastern European countries much more intensively than in Western European ones.
In the so-called Eastern Bloc countries, from Poland to Bulgaria, the outdoor breeding using the Italian method has captivated thousands of operators - with over 6000 hectares in production. In particular, Greece, Slovenia, and Lebanon have stood out in terms of investments and number of initiatives. Furthermore, many breeding farms were built in Latin America and in Northern Africa in collaboration with the Heliciculture Institute of Cherasco.
The two factors for the expansion of activity in these areas are:
The first being the possibility of agreement with the Cherasco Institute for guaranteed sale of the product at European prices (European Union), whereas the second extremely important factor, is the minor hourly cost of the manpower needed for the production.
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