A FORMER jeweller was forced to become France’s only British snail farmer in order to earn a living after seeking the good life in Provence.
Ann Parkes had to do an intensive three-month snail farming course after she found out she could not run a chambre d’hôtes business from the beautiful Provençal mas she bought to do up unless she was officially a farmer as well. Today the scheme is a success, and her snails go into specialities for guests, including a ravioli that the late TV chef Keith Floyd said was the best snail dish he had ever tasted.
Ann and her husband, Mike, bought their home with the idea of running it as a chambre d’hôtes. A rambling property that used to be lived in by Carmelite monks, in the heart of Provence, it had plenty of potential.
However Mrs Parkes only discovered the fly in the ointment after they moved in: “It is in an agricultural zone and our notaire didn’t inform us that to do any kind of business there you have to be a farmer. We were mortified.
“I looked into what agricultural businesses I could start, but it wasn't easy as there are rules on how much land you have to have. Most activities require five hectares, but I discovered that snail farming does not.”
Mrs Parkes said she had never dreamed of going into such a job. “I had no interest in snails whatsoever. I’d eaten them many times, but hadn’t envisaged rearing them.”
The nearest course was three hours’ drive away, so Mrs Parkes had to live away from home on weekdays for three months, lodging in a school boarding house. “The course was complicated: you had to learn about the reproduction of a snail in French and the technical, biological vocabulary was difficult.”
Mrs Parkes said she believes she is the only British person registered with the Mutualité Sociale Agricole as a snail farmer: “That’s what says I am a proper farmer, not just playing at it.”
Setting up the business involved laying our a snail park, including electric fencing to stop the snails escaping. “You put up a kind of tarpaulin with electric wires woven into it around the top. Their antennae are sensitive to electricity, so if they start going up, they stop and come down again. They live under wooden pallets during the day and we have a watering system that goes on twice a night and they come out to eat a cereal flour.”
Mrs Parkes said their snails are gros-gris, a large edible snail similar to the prized “Burgundy” snail.
She said they offered them to guests with aperitifs. “We don't force them on people on the menu; people can choose to eat them or not.”
The couple established their business, which now attracts an international clientele, with help from a builder son, Simon, who oversaw renovations, and another, James, who is a gourmet chef who trained in Michelin-starred restaurants and now cooks for the guests. One of his specialities is snail ravioli with garlic and parsley sauce. Mrs Parkes said: “We had Keith Floyd here. He was touring France and the last place he visited was us. He went into the kitchen with James and it was fantastic because he said it was the best snail dish he had had in 40 years.”
The Parkes are retiring and selling their property, Les Carmes, via www.maisonvictoire.com