For Stéphane and Nathalie Ferrat snails are a labor of love, not for the slimy gastropods they raise but for each other.
Their escargot farm in Estoher, France about 26 miles outside of Perpignan, began as a means for the couple to live and work together. Nestled at the foot of lush, green mountains and surrounded by peach orchards, La Ferme aux Escargots provides a tranquil backdrop for what 45-year old Stéphane and 39-year old Nathalie describe as a busy but beautiful life.
“We appreciate the way of life we have,” Nathalie said. “It’s a pleasure. It’s a quiet life. There is no noise [but] it’s a job that’s very hard because we do 17 hours of work in the day.”
The couple struggled to spend time together after meeting in Dans la Marne in the North of France more than 10 years ago. At the time Stéphane worked for the French military and Nathalie was a secretary.
“[For a] long time I never see Nathalie. She works with her boss and me for [mine] so we never live together, [but we] want to live and work together,” said Stéphane. A lean, energetic man, Stéphane talks almost continuously, using his hands to further animate his voice.
After marrying in January 1999, Nathalie brought Stéphane to the Perpignan region in the South of France so he could meet her parents. Stéphane fell in love with the land so they decided to use farming as a way to work together. But the couple didn’t see themselves as traditional farmers.
“Agriculture,” Stéphane said, “it’s possible but I am not sure I have got the green hand. So no trees, no vegetables.”
Turning to animals, Stéphane narrowed their choices down farther.
“I’m afraid by cows. I think they’re very dangerous,” he said. “Horses are dangerous in the back, dangerous in the front and very uncomfortable (to sit) on.” Goats, he added, are destructive. “You can’t keep something if you have got a goat.”
Finally, he found the right animal, something safe, quiet, clean and unable to escape easily.
The French term escargot refers to any edible snail. Stéphane and Nathalie farm two types of snails popular in culinary dishes throughout the Languedoc Roussillon Region: Helix aspersa minima and Helix aspersa maxima, which they affectionately refer to as “Petit Gris” (Little Grey) and “Gros Gris” (Big Grey).
In 2003, while Nathalie attended agricultural school in Savoie, Stéphane began building their farm from the ground up. He hauled in dirt and stone to create a foundation and walls for the snail parks, long rectangular sections of land bordered by a mesh electric fence to keep the snails from crawling away.
Stéphane’s ingenuity is evident all around the farm in the small house and office he built, the gypsy caravan he designed, even in the furniture he created himself. Although untrained in any sort of construction or handy work, Stéphane wired the farm for electricity, diverting a local water source to create a small pond, and modified his Honda motorcycle to run faster.
Nathalie handles the publicity and administrative aspects of the business while Stéphane does most of the physical labor around the farm as well any artistic work. He drew their farm’s logo after seeing the shape of a snail in spilt sugar.
Their first year raising snails almost became their last when a number of snails escaped after their electric fence failed during a rainstorm. Returning home from Perpignan, Stéphane and Nathalie found many of their first crop of 300,000 snails squished on the road outside their farm.
“The first years for Nathalie and me [were] a catastrophe. A lot of money [went] away,” Stéphane said.
To be considered a professional snail farmer in France you must have at least 300,000 snails on your farm. The Administration of Agriculture considers someone with fewer snails than that only a hobby farmer.
In their seventh year of farming Stéphane and Nathalie raise 500,000 snails on 8,000 square meters and are looking to expand their snail nursery to harvest snail eggs for caviar.
By producing high-quality snails and continually expanding their product line, they hope to overcome the national economic crisis currently hitting France — and to challenge stereotypes many people hold toward snails.
“Everybody thinks snails are very expensive but they’re not more expensive than beef,” Stéphane said. “It’s in the brain of everybody that snail is a product of luxury. It’s a real problem.”
For Stéphane and Nathalie nothing is more important than the quality of the snails they raise. Although their snails are organic they shy from attaching this label to their product.
“We don’t want to have this label because it is used by everybody and by lobbyists,” Nathalie said, explaining that many businesses use the organic label as a reason to raise their prices when their product is not in fact fully organic.
Unable to afford an employee to help them on their farm, Stéphane and Nathalie use a variety of animals in place of machines and chemicals.
“We employ the animals to help us in our work,” Nathalie said. “We don’t use chemicals against the pests, the grass or the predators. It is not dangerous for the snails if they eat the chemicals but if we eat snails after they have eaten chemicals it is dangerous to us.”
Two goats, a handful of rabbits and a sheep keep the grass trimmed around the snail parks. Two ferrets and three cats hunt the rats that eat the snails, while bats, two turtles and frogs keep down the mosquitoes that damage snail eggs.
“Our philosophy is we want to use the ecosystem to have good results,” Nathalie said.
While many people in the Perpignan region pick snails from the street after it rains, the Ferrats say snails from the wild contain pollution that can affect the taste and nutrients of the flesh.
Sitting down for lunch in the shade outside their home, Stéphane and Nathalie watch their 5-year old son Marckam play in the grass nearby. Stéphane moves to check on the snails sizzling on the grill in the traditional Catalan cargolade style while Nathalie spreads Terrine d’escargots, a snail paté of her own recipe, across a piece of bread.
Across from them a neighbor’s peach orchard stretches out along the foot of the Canigou Mountain like a vivid green carpet. A bird whistles in the distance, its song rising above the soothing sound of the sprinklers watering the snail parks.
“Snail or no snail I don’t care,” Stéphane said. “It’s tranquil. I stay here not for snail but because the area is for me.”