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CORUJEIRA, Portugal (Reuters Life!) - The proverbial snail's pace can be deceptive, especially if you have millions of snails to handle and a business to run.
"They're quick. You leave a plate with hatchlings open for five minutes and they run away," said Estefanio Teofilo, co-owner of Portugal's Escargots Oeste snail-breeding farm, showing a few matchhead-sized baby snails clinging to the wall well above the wooden shelves where they are supposed to sit.
The company's own story is even more fast-paced.
Born just four years ago, with no snail-handling experience, it has become the biggest breeder in Portugal and Spain and the world's No. 6. As many as 2 million snails feed on greenery, seeds and meal in its vast greenhouse and open-air "fattening parks" and over 20 million hatchlings pop up per year.
Portugal lags behind France -- the world's biggest consumer of snails where some 30,000 tonnes of the gastropods are devoured annually as an exquisite delicacy -- by market size, but not by per-capita consumption, which is about the same.
The Portuguese eat an estimated 4,000 tonnes of snails, served mostly as grilled appetizers in cheap "tasca" bars -- a type of demand relatively unhurt by wider economic hardships.
"In our first year we did so well that we expanded capacity, and we boosted it again just last year, even with the crisis on. Demand is growing," said Helder Batista, another co-owner.
"One can eke out a profit in this business. But it's a lot of work," he said as he checked the mollusks in the damp, dark mating hangar, which he dubs "the country's biggest sex lounge".
The temperature and humidity are adjusted to provide the best environment for some 150,000 snails to mate at once. Snails are hermaphrodites, which means all can lay eggs. The creatures are put in small flowerpots filled with imported soft earth to lay eggs. The soil is used only once to avoid contamination.
"It's all manual work, no mechanical means possible," Batista said. "At times one has to sift through 4,000 pots a day."
Started with 20,000 breeder snails, the farm now has 150,000 and the number of hatchlings has soared more than 20 times. Even the German Shepherd guarding the farm is Snail, by name.
Baby snails are put into round wooden boxes from French Camembert cheese, then cooled off to cause the mollusks to hibernate, and then shipped to growers across Portugal.
The farm also sells grown snails to restaurants in nearby Lisbon. But its main objective is to meet all of the Portuguese demand from snail-growers, for which it already has the necessary capacity -- 30 million hatchings per season.
"We want to avoid that the Portuguese go abroad to buy hatchlings," Batista said. "We have the product which is just as good as theirs, but it ends up cheaper as you avoid transport losses."
Baby snails for growing are now often imported from Eastern European countries like Bulgaria and Poland, home to the world's biggest breeding farms, according to Batista.
But Escargots Oeste ambitions are not confined to Portugal.
"Snail egg caviar is becoming a big thing in France and Europe and we are anxious to hop into that and make contacts. That's our chance to export," Batista said. "We are also trying to get into snail slime sales to pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies, but the Argentines dominate this market completely."
In Portugal, the company hopes to stimulate greater snail consumption by boosting availability.
"It's a seasonal snack eaten between April and September, when it's hot, when you can have snails with a cold beer," said Teofilio.
"But we hope to change the mentality so snails are consumed all year round," he added, citing examples of cooks experimenting with snail pizzas or "feijoada" bean stews with snails.
Editing by Steve Addison