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Taste of Travel: France

A Shell Game : On the snail trail from Burgundy farm to 3-star table

March 09, 1997|MARIA GALLAGHER | Gallagher is a freelance writer and a former food editor of the Philadelphia Daily News

BLANCEY, France — I got lost looking for Jean-Francois Vadot's snail farm even before I left the United States.

Weeks before my departure date I had rummaged through a drawerful of driving maps from previous trips and found two for Burgundy, where Vadot lived in the village of Blancey, about 150 miles southeast of Paris.

Blancey could not be found on either map. Its sum total isn't much more than a couple of houses, a couple of barns, a few head of cattle, some rabbits and about 80,000 snails. Those escargots were what I was coming to see.

I learned about the snail farm from Danny Liberatoscioli, executive director of the Restaurant School, a culinary school in Philadelphia. For three years he has escorted groups of American chef-aspirants to the farm to marvel at Vadot's patented method for raising snails year-round. It is no small feat: Left to their own devices, snails hibernate from September to April. They lay eggs twice a year, and it normally takes them three years to attain adult size.

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Vadot, however, has devised a way to fool nature and make a handsome living in the process. By regulating the snails' diet, the amount of light they receive and the temperatures at which they are kept, Vadot tricks them into laying eggs year-round and brings his "crop" to maturity in less than four months. At that point they have attained the size desired by his restaurant customers.

This system enables Vadot to produce 3 tons of snails a year. All are sold live. His biggest, best known and most demanding client is Bernard Loiseau of La Co^te d'Or in nearby Saulieu, who purchases 2 tons annually. Vadot likes to take credit for "one-third to three-quarters" of the third Michelin star first awarded to La Co^te d'Or in 1991; the restaurant retained its three stars when Michlin announced its 1997 ratings March 3.

The red Guide Michelin, which rates nearly 4,000 hotels and restaurants in France each year, awarded the coveted three-star ranking to only 18 restaurants this year. Three stars signify a restaurant "worth a special journey." Having never seen escargots in any environment other than a pool of garlic butter, I made plans to rendezvous with a Restaurant School group during a vacation in Burgundy. Liberatoscioli hinted that Blancey wouldn't be easy to find--"It's the suburbs of nowhere," he joked. I found my way there on a sunny May morning thanks to the Michelin motoring atlas for France.

When a roadside sign announced Blancey, I saw one farmhouse to my left and one to my right. I chose the left and drove up a small incline. Vadot, a lanky, soft-spoken, sun-burnished man in a denim shirt, corduroy slacks and running shoes, was in the driveway awaiting the charter bus carrying his 40 young American visitors, one of whom was my son.

Once the bus arrived we trooped down a short flight of steps into a cool, windowless stone basement with electric lighting. It was a minute or two before I realized that the small room was covered with brown-shelled snails--floor, walls and ceiling, as well as a stacked series of drawers from where this group had escaped. Most were the size of a postage stamp or larger; we were told it takes two months for them to reach this size. The students took notes. One asked how many snails were in the room. About 40,000, Vadot said.

Because Vadot speaks no English, his commentary was translated by Esther Press-McManus, a Restaurant School instructor who grew up in Morocco and Marseille.

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Vadot was born on this 440-acre farm in 1958. His father had raised cattle and pigs, but by the time Vadot took over, pigs were not profitable enough to support his wife and two children. With some difficulty, he persuaded the French government to grant permission for a snail farm. His is the only one in Burgundy, and he is assisted in his work by his wife, Michele.

"It really is genius," Press-McManus told the students. "He himself invented what they eat, the equipment, the environment, the duration of growth. He invented the whole process."

A student asked why Vadot got into snails.

"For the money," he said, prompting laughter. Press-McManus elaborated: "And he wanted to be unique in what he did."

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A collaboration with Loiseau made it possible. Vadot went to Loiseau in 1985 with a proposal: If the ambitious young restaurateur would support him, Vadot would invest in a snail farm. Loiseau, who had been using snails from Eastern Europe because there was no reliable year-round source in Burgundy, agreed.

Vadot explained that because the French government places so many restrictions on farmers--even regulating harvest dates--he wanted to farm a product that was unregulated. He considered ostriches before deciding upon snails.

Just as he tricks the snails into breeding all year, so did Vadot trick his bank in order to get capital to start the operation.

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