Like any other day, the cooks of Le Petit Gris restaurant are busy preparing snails. There are many ways of serving them: in crunchy pastry with flavored butter, with scrambled eggs and sun-dried tomatoes, with cheese pasta or stuffed in large mushrooms.
For Makram Rabbath, the owner of the restaurant that takes its name from a garden snail variety, the food is a throwback to his childhood: “I started eating snails with my grandmother when I was 6 or 7 years old and it became a passion! The sky is the limit when you cook snails, because it can absorb whatever flavor you give it,” he told Al-Monitor.
For true connoisseurs, however, there is only one way of cooking snails — the traditional Lebanese recipe, where they are first boiled with cinnamon, bay leaves and onion. They are then served with a tarator sauce — a mix of sesame cream (tahini), lemon juice, garlic and parsley.
The vast majority of the snails prepared at Le Petit Gris are 100% Lebanese. Rabbath gets his supplies once a year, in autumn, from southern Lebanese families who pick wild snails from under olive and orange trees. He then boils and vacuum packs them for storage.
“The idea is really to support the local traditions and the rural economy,” said Rabbath.
In the Lebanese tradition, snails are closely associated to the return of the rainy season.
Kamal Mouzawak, a food expert and founder of the farmers market Souk el Tayeb, describes snail eating as a celebration. “When the first drops of rain arrive in Lebanon, snails come out of their summer hiding places. People in small villages then come out at night with torch lights to search them under the leaves,” he told Al-Monitor.
Families eat them with the traditional tarator sauce or sometimes with lemon, garlic and coriander. Alongside the roads, vendors sell live snails in large cartons.
Traditional Lebanese cuisine pairs snails with a tarator sauce, June 14, 2017. (photo by Chloe Domat)
These traditions are still vibrant all across the country, but with the development of snail farming in Europe, snail production is starting to attract the attention of Lebanese businessmen.
The village of Bchenine in north Lebanon is home to 20,000 square meters (5 acres) of low planted fields with black nets tied around them. At night, these fields take on a life of their own. As soon as the sun sets, the water irrigation system turns on, and within minutes, tiny snails pop up from under the leaves.
“When it comes to agriculture, what we produce in Lebanon is mostly apples, oranges, cherries … and the market is saturated with these products. My idea was to find a way to develop a strategic agriculture that can give new horizons to the economy and allow us to compete in international markets,” Nawfal Daou, a former politician and TV host who switched to snail farming in 2013, told al-Monitor.
While weighing different options, he eventually chose snail farming, a profitable and growing sector that requires little land and relatively less labor.
Daou said 500,000 tons of snails were sold globally in 2015 at an average of $5 per kilogram ($2.27 per pound) and the snail market could multiply by five within the next decade.
With that in mind, Daou created a company called Lebanese Treasures Land (LTL) and partnered with an Italian institute that specializes in heliciculture (snail farming). The Italians provide Daou with the know-how of snail farming, mother snails and all the basic equipment. In return, Daou acts as their agent in the Middle East and North Africa.
Nawfal Daou, a former politician who has become a businessman, at his snail farm, July 4, 2017. (photo by Chloe Domat)
Today, LTL supervises a network of 12 franchised farms in the regions of the Bekaa Valley and Akkar. They all breed Helix Aspersa Mullers, also commonly known as petit gris. This type of snail represents 80-85% of the global snail market and can be found naturally in Lebanon, although according to the Italian partnership, LTL must import the mothers.
With farm sizes between 10,000-60,000 square meters, LTL expects to produce between 60-80 tons of snails for 2017. The vast majority of these snails will be exported to Italy, but Daou said he also wanted to develop the market in Lebanon.
A year ago, Cherif Elian and his partner Tarek Hajj started a snail farm franchise in Lebanon. They now supervise four farms in Jbeil, Baabda, Zahle and Saida.
“We sell turnkey farm projects for about $75,000 per unit. All we need is 1,000 square meters [a quarter acre] of land on which we install two 500-square-meter tents. In each tent, we spread 600 kilograms [1,322 pounds] of adult snails and we let them reproduce. Each snail will give about 90 eggs. After eight months, the little snails are about 10-12 grams [.35-.4 ounces], and that’s when we collect them,” Elian, the co-founder of Hyper Agriculture, told al-Monitor.
Like LTL, Hyper Agriculture exports most of the production to Europe, but the company also supplies about 10 local restaurants. Elian and Hajj also have a project to develop a kitchen where the snails would be prepared and stocked in a way to be able to sell them in direct retail, such as in supermarkets.