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David Lissner
for restaurants

Haute stuff: Snail caviar … for the Avenues, not the back yard


Snail caviar

Snail caviar

Curtis Duffy

Curtis Duffy

“Echoing flavors of earth, soil, rain, oak leaves, moss and overall terroir of the forest. I cannot think of a more amazing product that exudes all of these flavors in one bite other than snail caviar,” writes Avenues Chef Curtis Duffy in his blog. “It is earthy, dirty, raw and in your face with the forest floor. Brilliant!”

In his River North restaurant, Duffy scatters the pearlescent roe over Faroe Island salmon belly or sprinkles some alongside poached blue cod. Snail caviar has also been sighted garnishing plates at such local spots as Blackbird in the West Loop and Schwa in Wicker Park.

I got a tiny taste with Duffy’s salmon recently at a press luncheon. Snail eggs are crisper, less glutinous and more subtly flavored than most fish roes, fishier and less earthy than escamoles. They pop satisfyingly in your mouth.

Faroe Island salmon belly with caper berry seeds, whipped chlorophyll and snail caviar, $21 at Avenues. (Photo by Leah A. Zeldes.)

The precious pearls, imported from France, retail for $109 an ounce, about a third of the price of the now-rare beluga caviar, but more than ten times the cost of American whitefish roe. Just what I need, a yen for another costly delicacy.

On my way home, I started wondering if I could grow snails in the back yard. Urban farming, yeah! Escargot … talk about seriously slow food.

Alas, a little research dashed my hopes. Although the practice goes back to ancient Roman times, heliculture, as the raising of snails is called, is not easy. “Snail farming on a large-scale basis requires a considerable investment in time, equipment, and resources,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Alternative Farming Systems Information Center.

Snail-roe production is even tougher. Each snail lays eggs only once a year, in a clutch of about 100. De Jaeger, the premier snail-caviar producer in France, collects about 440 pounds annually from 60,000 snails.

Helix aspersa maxima

Helix aspersa maxima

De Jaeger’s owners, Dominique and Sylvie Pierru, breed snails and process their eggs on a farm near Soissons, France, 40 miles northeast of Paris. The gros-gris snails (Helix aspersa maxima) originate in North Africa. They’re the same size, about 1-3/4 inches across the shell, as the Bourgogne escargot prized for culinary uses (Helix pomatia), but easier to raise.

The Pierrus brine the caviar in a mixture of fine Guerande sea salt, rosemary essence, starch and a touch of citric acid. Painstaking labor is involved in readying the roe for market, which adds to its expense. You can see some of the production process in this video.

Maybe I should think about developing a market for the things that grow readily in my back yard. Thistle caviar, anyone?