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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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FOOD & DRINK

From spritz to shakerato: Six things to drink in Italy this summer

Summer in Italy means lots of things - trips to the beach, empty cities, strikes, and metro works - but it also ushers in the spritz and negroni season. Here are some of the best drinks to cool down with in Italy this summer.

From spritz to shakerato: Six things to drink in Italy this summer

Spritz

Venice wins all the prizes for being the home of the spritz: the jewel in Italy’s summertime daisy crown and one of the country’s most popular exports.

To first-time customers, the sweet-and-bitter combo can taste unpleasantly like a poisoned alcopop. Stick with it, however, and you’ll soon learn to appreciate this sunset-coloured aperitif, which has come to feel synonymous with summer in Italy.

The most common version is the bright orange Aperol Spritz, but if this starts to feel too sweet once your tastebuds adjust then you can graduate to the dark red Campari Spritz, which has a deeper and more complex flavour profile.

What are the best summer drinks to order in Italy?

Photo by Federica Ariemma/Unsplash.

Negroni

If you’re too cool for the unabashedly flamboyant spritz but want something not too far off flavour-wise, consider the Negroni.

It’s equal parts gin, vermouth and Campari – though if you want a more approachable version, you can order a ‘Negroni sbagliato’ – literally a ‘wrong’ Negroni – which replaces the gin with sweet sparkling Prosecco white wine.

Served with a twist of orange peel and in a low glass, the Negroni closely resembles an Old Fashioned, and is equally as stylish. A traditional Negroni may be stirred, not shaken, but it’s still the kind of cocktail that Bond would surely be happy to be seen sipping.

Crodino

Don’t fancy any alcohol but still crave that bitter, amaro-based aftertaste?

A crodino might be just what you’re after. With its bright orange hue, it both looks and tastes very similar to an Aperol Spritz – so much so that you might initially ask yourself whether you’ve in fact been served the real thing.

Similar in flavour are soft drinks produced by the San Pellegrino brand; bars that don’t have any crodino on hand will often offer you ‘un San Pellegrino’ as a substitute. These drinks are usually available in multiple flavours like blood orange, grapefruit, or prickly pears.

A barman prepares a Campari Spritz cocktail in the historic Campari bar at the entrance of Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuel II shopping mall. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

Chinotto

Much like the crodino, the chinotto is another distinctive bitter Italian aperitivo drink.

With its medium-dark brown colouring, however, the chinotto bears more of a resemblance to Coca Cola than to the spritz, leading to its occasionally being designated as the ‘Italian Coca Cola’.

In reality far less caramelly and much more tart than coke, the chinotto has its detractors, and the fact that we’re having to describe its flavour here means it clearly hasn’t set the world alight since it was first invented in the 1930s (it was subsequently popularised by San Pellegrino, which became its main Italian producer).

If you’re looking for another grown-up tasting alternative to an alcoholic aperitivo, however, the chinotto might just be the place to look.

Bellini

What’s not to love about the bellini?

Its delicate orange and rose-pink tones are reminiscent of a sunset in the same way as a spritz, but with none of the spritz’s complex and contradictory flavours.

A combination of pureed peach and sugary Prosecco wine, the bellini’s thick, creamy texture can almost make it feel smoothie or even dessert-like. It’s a sweet and simple delight, with just a slight kick in the tail to remind you it’s not a soft drink.

Shakerato

Not a fan of drinks of the fruity/citrusy/marinated herby variety?

If caffeine’s more your thing, Italy has an answer for you in the caffe shakerato: an iced coffee drink made with espresso, ice cubes, and sugar or sugar syrup.

That might not sound inspired at first, but hear us out: the three ingredients are vigorously mixed together in a cocktail shaker before the liquid is poured (ice cube-free) into a martini glass, leaving a dark elixir with a delicate caramel coloured foam on top.

You couldn’t look much more elegant drinking an iced coffee than sipping one of these.

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