The Snail Prevails
An escargot farmer brings a old Austrian culinary tradition back to Vienna’s tables
Farmers hate snails. The plague of flower and fruit growers, invaders of kitchen gardens, for many, snails are a bad dream come true.
Not Andreas Gugumuck, who has turned his neighbours’ nightmare into a profitable business: His fields in the outer reaches of Vienna’s 10th District are populated with 200,000 Roman snails. And he is doing just fine.
Gugumuck (38) has made it his mission to polish the image of escargots. Rather than a nuisance, they are a delicacy, he says, a culinary indulgence, long a favourite on French tables. But somehow not in Austria, at least in recent years.
"Historically, Vienna was an escargots metropolis," Gugumuck stressed. Snails – not considered meat a hundred years ago – were, for example, a popular Lenten food in Catholic Vienna.
Skimming through old Austrian cookbooks proves his point: Under the K.u.K. monarchy, escargots were a popular meal, with more snail recipes than in France, where les escargots are usually drowned in garlic butter. Behind the Peterskirche there even was a snail market.
Bringing back the Schnecke
"The snail died twice," Gugumuck told The Vienna Review, vanishing first in the shortages after World War I. Then, after a temporary revival following WWII, snails became protected species: "After that, they were no longer chic."
Technically, Gugumuck’s farm is still part of Vienna, but by the time you get there, the city streets have long since given way to narrow farmhouses of red bricks and overgrown with ivy.
On these fields, the Roman snails roam around freely all year long, where they are fenced off, sprinkled with morning mist and fed with salad and vegetables. During the day, they hide under wooden boards, but they get active at night. Before they immure themselves over winter, it’s harvest time.
During our interview, Gugumuck excused himself occasionally to look after the 2,000 snails in the kitchen.
That morning, Gugumuck had blanched them before removing their shells and taking out their intestines, then boiled them for two hours in a mixture of white wine and herbs. Next, the snails would be deep-frozen to be vacuum-packed the following day.
Reinventing the field
As he talks passionately about his business, it is hard to believe he is discussing a startup.
But it was only in 2007 that Gugumuck, whose family has owned the Rothneusiedl farmhouse for 400 years, read an article on the revival of escargots in Austrian cuisine – and decided to start breeding them.
He acquired most of his know-how by internet research and trial-and-error. The mixture he uses to keep the snails from escaping their fenced-off field was his own invention.
In the five years since, his business has flourished, with a one-week Schneckenfestival (snail festival) in restaurants all over Austria in September, guided tours through his property, and customers – both restaurants and individuals – from Austria and Germany.
In Vienna, some 60 restaurants now have snails on their menus.
For gourmets, Gugumuck also sells snail livers and caviar. He described the caviar as "on the fruity side, with a soil aroma. Just imagine taking a bite of an herb meadow (Kräuterwiese)." We decided to give it a try – while trying to forget that we were eating snail eggs.
It’s not for the faint-hearted, but the white, see-through eggs were good, tasting of the salt and hint of lemon juice they were preserved in, but also, in fact, like the meadow. We politely declined the liver.
For beginners like us, Gugumuck recommended snail goulash. It looked good – the meat of snails is far from slimy, and rich in protein. It has no fat and is full of Omega-3 fatty acids, as well as important thyroid hormones.
For the environmentalist, snails are a food of the future, with a small carbon footprint: A kilo of beef requires 14 kilos of fodder; snails only 1:2.
Out on his field, Gugumuck picked up a snail, and began extolling the beauty benefits of their slime. We – again – politely declined, so he put some on his forehead. We eyed the spot, to see if there was any effect…
While his snails are advertised with the fitting slogan "slow food", the business is hectic for a one-man team. He laughed:
"But I’m starting yoga today."