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Snail `ranchers' tend herds of home-grown escargot

Ever since French and Italian immigrants brought the brown garden snail to California during the Gold Rush, gardeners and farmers have waged a costly battle with the voracious pest. But where pesticides have failed, the marketing of home-grown escargot may offer a tasty solution.

``What I say is, if you can't beat 'em, eat 'em,'' says Ralph Tucker of Fresno, Calif. Mr. Tucker, a retired insurance agent, might be forgiven a certain zealotry. Founder and president of the Snail Club of America, he is to the rapacious gastropods what Euell Gibbons was to the blue-eyed scallop and wild asparagus.

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Tucker has sold his snails, which munch on lettuce and orange peels in his suburban back yard, to individual gourmet cooks for up to a dollar apiece. Nearly half the club's 875 members raise and sell the creatures fresh. And, 40 miles north of San Francisco, America's only licensed escargot cannery churns out four tons of the delicacy every month.

``The idea was inspiring,'' says Tracy Brash, a founder of Enfant Riant, the canning company. The venture, which is not affiliated with the Snail Club, packs 7-ounce cans of escargot in an industrial park in Petaluma. Mr. Brash conceived it when, as a freelance writer, he was sent to report on another snail ranch. It went out of business before he wrote the article. But he and a long-time friend, Michael Beyries, learned in the course of subsequent research that Americans gobble down between $200 million and $300 million worth of snails each year.

Tucker, predictably, sings the praises of the fresh product. ``There's no comparison,'' he exudes. ``It's like canned and fresh salmon.'' But the snails shouldn't be eaten right away, he cautions. The snails he catches are fed for a month on bran, yellow cornmeal, artichoke leaves (which is nectar to a snail), cabbage, and other such delicacies before being marketed. That interval allows the creatures to get rid of any impurities picked up on the open range.

Though commonly supposed to be Gallic, few snails that wind up on American tables actually have been raised and packed in France. Taiwan supplies 85 percent of the American market, with Italy, East Germany, Liberia, and France providing smaller shares. Less than 1 percent is produced domestically. But snails are plentiful in California, flourishing in the temperate climate that approximates the weather of their native Mediterranean. They are so plentiful, in fact, that Californians spent $37 million trying to get rid of them. It seemed a classic coals-to-Newcastle solution.

Brash and Beyries set out to change all that. Enfant Riant (French for ``laughing child,'' after Brash's daughter), fattens its slithery stock in a converted dairy barn. The herd clings to the sides of four-gallon plastic buckets and grazes on a mash of bran and soil meal, herbs, and oyster shell. In five weeks the creatures gain as much as 20 percent in weight.

Brash's company sells to 500 restaurants in 47 states. It also supplies boutiques and department stores like Macy's and Neiman Marcus, which sell a can of three dozen for between $7 and $9. Enfant Riant turned its first slim profit last quarter, when sales increased 366 percent over the same time period a year earlier.

All this business only accounts for one-quarter of one percent of domestic consumption, according to Brash. Though the company is eager to tap the export market, so far it has succeeded only in Canada. ``The Japanese have been showing a lot of interest,'' says Brash. The company is also negotiating for a possible plant and distribution in Indonesia.

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Tucker and his Snail Club members have found a ample market for fresh snails in gourmet cooks. He sees another big, and largely untapped, domestic market in ``all the ethnic people from Europe and the Orient'' who've traditionally relished snails.

In the United States, restaurateurs generally have praised the native stock. But there have been some dissenters.

``They were a little weak, really,'' said Paul Bertolli, a chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. ``I got them fresh, and it took four of us about three hours to prepare 12 for each person. I wound up deciding they really weren't worth it. I've had snails in France, and they were a lot plumper.''

Because most cooks appreciate convenience, 90 percent of Enfant Riant's snails are shipped in cans. Processed escargot have been purged for three days, parboiled, picked from the shell, rinsed in vinegar and water three times, and simmered in the can for 30 minutes.

It's similar to the way fresh snails are prepared at home, according to Tucker. ``It has to be the most practical animal that ever lived on earth,'' he says. The snail is hardy, prolific, cheap to feed, and easy to catch, he says.

``A certain number of people won't eat clams or shrimp,'' Brash says. ``Fifty-six million Frenchmen can't be wrong.''

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