Snail business a quick success in Portugal

Wed May 20, 2009 9:44am EDT
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By Andrei Khalip

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".   Continued...

<p>Adult and baby snails slide on a table at the Corujeira snail-breeding farm, 50 km (31 miles) north of Lisbon May 18, 2009. REUTERS/Jose Manuel Ribeiro</p>