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ENVIRONMENT

Snail caviar a delight for Sicilian startup

It has an earthy taste with hints of grass and mushroom: snail caviar is a growing trend in Europe, the delicate white eggs sprinkled on everything from canapes to beef dishes and beetroot.

Snail caviar a delight for Sicilian startup
Italian snail caviar is fast becoming a delicacy. Photo: Francois Niscimbeni

But while the production cycles at other organic companies from Italy to France and Spain can last up to three years, one Sicilian startup has cut the time down to eight months. Their secret? Cereals.

“We feed the baby snails a vet-approved diet of cereals, calcium and vitamins which means they grow much more quickly than they do eating leaves,” Davide Merlino, one of the Lumaca Madonita company's co-founders, told AFP.

Showing off the humid, temperature-controlled indoor breeding ground – netting-covered crates with boxes of earth inside where the snails lay their eggs – Merlino said they had rejected intensive farming for an eco-friendly process.
   
Egg collection is a painstaking business, but a rewarding one: a 50 gram jar of eggs sells for €80 ($86).
   
While traditional mamma-run trattorias may not yet serve the delicacy, Italians are no strangers to eating snails, and overloaded baskets of the creatures waving their tentacles are a common sight at markets, particularly in the south.
   
They have been cultivated since Roman times, with author and naturalist Pliny the Elder raving about snails fattened on donkey's milk and wine. The delicacy became hugely popular among the wealthy, leading to the creation of the first snail farms in Pompeii.
   
Italians ate an estimated 40,000 tonnes of snails in 2014, ahead of France where annual consumption is around 30,000 tonnes. And while the latter relies heavily on imports, Italy grows almost half of its own needs, on farms from Piedmont in the north to central Lazio and Puglia and Sicily in the south.

Import numbers have dropped sharply over the last decade as increasing numbers of Italian farmers turned to this niche sector, one of the few to weather the economic crisis.
   
And snail caviar, which made a first unsuccessful appearance in the 1980s, is also winning over European taste buds.

Mucus face mask, cough syrup

Merlino and brothers Michele and Giuseppe Sansone set up the company outside Sicily's Palermo 10 years ago, researching snail farms in Greece,

Spain and France before coming up with their innovative breeding system.
   
“We now train others who want to follow in our footsteps, we've helped about 100 producers open in Italy so far,” says Merlino, adding that others have come to learn from abroad, largely from Albania, Slovenia and Bulgaria.

“We've become the reference point across the country and beyond for this type of breading system.”
   
The mahogany-striped Aspersa Muller Madonita snails crawl over one another as they head to lay their eggs.
   
The breed is a Lumaca Madonita speciality: it was bred here from French and Sicilian species and is known not only for its dark colour but also its hard shell.

The snails are eventually headed for the pot and shell strength matters.
   
With five breeds in all, the company currently has over two million snails on site in Campofelice di Roccella, and the mating season is a free for all: the molluscs are hermaphrodites with both male and female reproductive organs.

The breeds farmed here are ready to reproduce at around six months old and only lay once before being sold on.
   
The process from coupling to collecting the eggs and dispatching them to a laboratory which packages them for sale takes 50 days. The eggs are carefully selected, with only white and well-rounded ones making the cut.
   
And it's not the only snail-based product on offer: the molluscs' mucus, said to regenerate and repair the skin, is made into a face cream, tapping into a booming market.

The popularity of snail slime as a beauty treatment has soared. The mucus was used from Ancient Greece to the Middle Ages to cure skin infections, stomach ulcers and as cough syrup – a remedy still found today in some parts of the world.

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DISCOVER ITALY

Why some of Italy’s food festivals are ‘fake’ – and how to pick the best ones

Italy's countless sagre, or food fairs, are an autumn highlight. But how do you find the best events - and avoid the more commercial ones? Reporter Silvia Marchetti explains.

Why some of Italy’s food festivals are 'fake' - and how to pick the best ones

Italy’s renowned food fairs are one of the most exciting events during autumn and winter, particularly the coldest months when we’re looking for culinary weekend distractions. 

For the uninitiated, sagre are key gourmand exhibitions mixing local food, premium products, cheeses and olive oil – all the ‘excellences’ of the area – but lately I find some are just, well, fake. 

READ ALSO: The best Italian food festivals to visit in October

Instead of selling traditional indigenous delicacies, vendors sell a little bit of everything which they think appeals to foreigners and city people desperate for a rural break. 

Last weekend I went to the sagra at Osteria Nuova, near Passo Corese in Lazio, and found mozzarella from Naples and limoncello from Amalfi: now what do those have to do with the Rieti countryside?

It was sad and disappointing. Even though it takes place in an area which is famous at this time of the year for exquisite porcini mushrooms and chestnuts there was not even one single vendor selling these. Instead, there was codfish from Venice and porchetta from the Castelli Romani.

Up until a few years ago the Osteria Nuova food fair was very genuine and appealing: it was actually a real farmers’ market where animals were sold: not just rabbits and hens but cows, horses and donkeys. It was a vibrant event. 

Now the cages that once kept the animals are empty. And people just go there to stuff themselves with huge sandwiches and hotdogs. It’s always hell finding a parking spot because the fair is very close to Rome, luring day trippers on a ‘scampagnata’.

Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

My advice is to avoid visiting food fairs which are too close to big cities and towns, but pick offbeat villages or unknown rural spots where the sagre are small and with local producers selling authentic, ‘indigenous’ products. Choosing the remote hillsides, where traditions tend to survive, is of course better than the touristy areas. 

READ ALSO: Seven reasons autumn is the best time to visit Italy

Also, it’s best if the food fair is not too heavily sponsored or advertised in national newspapers. The best thing to do is search online for all food fairs in the area you plan to visit during the weekend or even during the week, and ask friends and locals as word of mouth can often be more reliable. 

Among the authentic sagre I would recommend the porcini mushroom food fair in San Martino al Cimino in the pristine hills of the Tuscia countryside in Lazio, where the woods are dotted with porcini. 

At the fair not only bags of huge porcini are sold but you can also buy a lunch ticket and taste various mushroom dishes sitting down at wooden tables. Last time I was served a delicious potato and porcini soup which inspired me to replicate (successfully) the recipe at home. 

However, the best thing is to search for the weird and unknown – food fairs with funny names and showcasing products that sound and look really bizarre. So forget about the usual truffles, mozzarella, limoncello, ham and pasta-filled events. I suggest opting for quirky food festivals in never-heard-of-before villages where the culinary adventure comes with a cultural jolt. 

Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

When I hear about something amazingly off-the-wall and tasty, with a particular story or legend behind it, my curiosity and taste buds tingle.

Last weekend I was surfing the web and came across the Ciammellocco festival in the tiny hamlet of Cretone, Lazio, which immediately aroused my curiosity. 

READ ALSO: 14 reasons why Lazio should be your next Italian holiday destination

As I had never heard of it before, I jumped in the car the following day and ventured out to an isolated woody area with a few small dwellings, where one single bakery makes this huge, funny-sounding, highly-nutritious sweet-salty doughnut with fennel seeds which has been around since at least the middle ages. Housewives used to make it for their husbands as a substitute for lunch when they went off working in the fields. 

Even though I have tasted similar ciambelle in my life none come close to ciammellocco, crunchy and tender at the same time, made with eggs but light.

Next I heard about the Sagra della Papera in Carassai, Marche region, offering succulent duck meat dishes with pappardelle pasta and roasted duck breasts, and given duck isn’t something you’d normally find in Italian restaurants, it makes the cut for authentic food events. 

Vegetarians can’t miss the Festival degli Orapi in the village of Picinisco north of Naples where guests are treated to platefuls of a unique, delicious spinach variety which is made exquisite by the fact that it grows beneath goat poo, a natural fertilizer. Locals actually roam the countryside with a knife to scrape away the poo and extract the orapi.

In Pedagaggi, Sicily, local housewives organize the Sagra della mostarda di fichi d’india, with gourmet dishes made from exotic-looking prickly pear mustards. 

READ ALSO: ‘La scampagnata’: What it is and how to do it the Italian way

Other curious sagre include the Festa del Gorgonzola set in the town of Gorgonzola in Lombardy which is the real birthplace of Italy’s iconic blue cheese. Huge pentoloni of steaming pots of gorgonzola in the middle of the piazza lure pungent cheese addicts. 

Also Diamante’s festival del peperoncino in Calabria is a must stop for lovers of strong, authentic hot dishes spiced up with chili peppers (there’s even a peperoncini eating marathon).

Real sagre tend to showcase one premium native product rather than a myriad with overlapping origins.

The more ‘local’ you dive into the deepest, remote corners of Italy full of tradition and folklore, the more genuine the sagra and the more satisfying the gastronomical experience.

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