What would we have done, back in the ice age, after killing the last mammoth and after all large animals were extinct, without the heroic rescue of mollusks? Andreas Gugumuck, breeders of the Vienna Snail, has a solid argument: "When man started eating more small animals again – insects, amphibians and invertebrates – homo sapiens developed much more rapidly. The brain size increased and fitness, too. As we became more sedentary when we invented agriculture, we no longer fed appropriately and stopped evolving.”
Happily, Gugumuck will elaborate on this. In any case, the conclusion is that now, several millennia later, the snail is experiencing a new heyday, not just because of their abundance of protein content, Omega-3 and important thyroid hormones.
Austria's elite chefs have rediscovered the snail. From Steirereck in Vienna to Rud Alpe in Lech am Arlberg, Gugumuck supplies the country not only with snails, but also the special snail caviar, also called snail pearls, and the snail liver. He explains: “The liver is located in the last turns of the house. And thus it has of course the shape of a small snail and has a very fine, earthy nutty flavour. It has 1 gram, which is not as little as you might think – it’s roughly the size of a small finger nail and thus relatively large for a snail.” He even posts the mollusks to Germany and, more recently to America. “We have sent a package of 60 vials of snail caviar to New York. This was the first delivery, and now we'll wait and see.”
Most chefs are still used to canned goods, where the snails are sterilised at 120°C, making them mushy while also losing flavour. But Gugumuck’s snails are fresh. He says: “We cook them for three hours in white wine and vegetables, then they are either snap-frozen or delivered fresh. Everything I send is freshly cooked, bottled while cooking and will arrive at its destination the very next day.”
That the Business Informatics expert would become a snail farmer was very far from his mind only a few years ago. Growing up on a farm in the immediate vicinity of Vienna, he learned about the tradition of the Vienna Basin as a snail metropolis through some research. “In the Middle Ages, more snails were eaten in Vienna than in France. The very limy soil is suitable not only for the production of good wine, but snails also appreciate this ground.
Finds in Carnuntum, a great Roman military and civilian town, show that many snail shells have been found near cooking areas. Later on it was the monks who have also become hedonists. For them it was a big ordeal to eat meat throughout the year and then to abstain for 70 days. They had the snail declared as Lenten food, because they said that it was neither fish nor meat.”
In fact, the snail is a cold-blooded animal and thus an outstanding winner in terms of sustainability and resource conservation. Gugumuck’s territory is situated on his own fields on an area of 1,500m² with two large sections. “We have salads, chard, thyme and fennel. The snails will eat anything that is green. And we also feed carrots, parsnips, carrots, sunflower and rapeseed. They also get an organic feed, which is powder containing 30% lime.” Snail season is twice a year. One snail breed (helix pomatia) is winter proof, because it digs itself in the ground, and is collected in May. The other (helix apsersa) is not hardy and is collected in October. Unfortunately, the long winter of 2012/13 caused some deficits, making the snails smaller and there are less of them.
Nevertheless, Gugumuck’s popularity grows steadily, not least since he was awarded a prize at the European Congress of Young Farmers. And so the family is now offering tours that will not only introduce you to life as a mollusk, but also to snail as a delicacy. “The snail is a great flavour carrier, but we use spices sparingly. Our snails are not as earthy as so many other snails. It's like wine: each soil gives the vine a special taste.” Cheers then, and enjoy your snails!