07/07/2012 03:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Snails: The New Shrimp?

OK, so the jobs market tanked a little bit more last month. Want to start a new career that gives you free food, lets you work at home and costs nearly nothing?


Consider starting a snail farm. The USDA tells us how. Basically it entails breeding snails in small enclosures stocked with garden soil and lettuce leaves or radish greens. One snail lays about 85 eggs at a pop.

Long practiced in France, snail farming is now booming in Bulgaria, Australia, Great Britain and Greece. Not so much in the USA -- yet.

Could snails become the new shrimp? They're rich in protein, Omega-3s, vitamin E, magnesium and selenium. They're high in cholesterol, but low in fat -- that is, unless they're fried.

Were snails to take off stateside, how would we eat them? I mean, besides the standard French garlic-and-butter style. Could these chewy, almost liver-flavored little guys go into egg foo yong, biryani, bibimbap or fried rice? These days snails are still pricey novelties, sold canned or frozen and occasionally fresh through specialty or seafood distributors. But if they became plentiful and cheap, could snails stand in for shrimp or similarly textured bits -- say, mushrooms?

Aaron French, who studied ecology and environmental biology before becoming the "eco-chef" at Albany, California's Sunny Side Café, grew up on a small farm where his back-to-the-land mother raised snails.

"She collected them on the property and kept them in cages in our house -- old finch cages she had bought at thrift stores," French told me. "After feeding the snails cornmeal for weeks, she would cook them. She tried to disguise them by putting them into red sauces for pasta, or chopping them into refried beans. Sometimes she served them up straight with brown rice.

"I never liked them, but that might have been because while my mother taught me how to really respect food, she isn't a great cook. She didn't cook snails creatively. Now I know them as a great vehicle for garlic and butter and bread. But they could also be fried like popcorn shrimp into crispy little nuggets. And it would be easy to chop snails up and put them into tacos.

"A snail mole sauce would be really fantastic," French mused. "Not one of your sweeter moles, but a traditional savory rough sauce -- not so blended or processed, and with those strong nutty flavors that would go with snails' dark-meat richness."

French chef Jessie Boucher, co-owner of the Jessie et Laurent gourmet meal-delivery service, added this suggestion:

"After traveling recently in New Zealand and experiencing pizza made with venison and cranberries, I can easily imagine a thin-crust escargot pizza would be divine. I would make it with thinly sliced Yukon gold potatoes, whole roasted garlic and chopped flat-leaf parsley. Of course, a bottle of Cotes du Rhone would be required to complete the taste experience.

"It is fantastic when wild flavors like venison or escargot can be incorporated into a refined application that is is unexpected and so much fun to eat," Boucher said.

Finding escargots -- served crispy with lemon, garlic and parsley cream -- on the menu recently at District Wine & Whiskey Lounge in Oakland, California got me started on this snaily train of thought. And who could help but wonder: Which hard liquor pairs best with snails?

"Bourbon is too sweet," said District's co-owner and spirits connoisseuse Caterina Mirabelli. "Scotch is too strong. Rye is nice and dry enough to create the perfect balance for escargot, which have so much flavor and are so fatty once you fry them."

How long before we start growing our own?

Image created by Kristan Lawson and used with his permission.