Farming Finland's succulent new crop: snails

A restaurant in Finland's second-oldest town serves up escargot to world travelers

"Excuse me."I apologize for speaking English, but the Finn doesn't seem to mind.In Finland everyone speaks English.And Swedish.And Finnish, of course."Could you direct me to the snail farm?"

"You're not far. Go to the square.It's behind the old building."

As the man catches up to his companions, I laugh.Which old building?In the old-town section of Porvoo (the second-oldest town in Finland), every building is old. Ancient, in fact; some date back to 1346.

Ever since spotting Porvoo's ocher-red buildings in a photo, I've been intrigued with this tiny, seaside village.Since it's an easy day trip from Helsinki (an hour by bus), I decided to see it for myself. I wasn't disappointed.

Cobblestone streets twist past tiny cafes and Crayola-colored wooden houses in red, yellow, and pink.Church bells toll from a magnificent cathedral, filled with ornate gold.

Throughout history, numerous writers, poets, and painters made their homes here.But recently Porvoo has attracted a new audience:gourmets.

Again I ask directions to the snail farm, this time from a shopkeeper who gives them via colors."See the yellow house with the green mailbox?Go past that to the pink building.It's right behind the pink building."

I find it.Rovintola Restaurant (the yellow one).

A friend told me of Porvoo's snail secret: It all started four years ago when Ari Kovero stepped into a hardware store to buy screws.The shopkeeper said, "You have a big farm, many children.You can have my snails."

All 570 of them.

You'd think snails and Finland's bitter-cold winters wouldn't mix. But Ari and his wife, Margna Timmi, thought otherwise. They are the country's first professional snail farmers and restaurateurs, serving 1,200 snails daily at Rovintola during the summer months.

"Until Ari and Margna, it was not so common for Finns to eat snails. In fact, it was odd," says Sari Neuvonen, a waitress at Rovintola."But snails have become a Finnish fetish. People come here from all over the country to eat."

She gently strokes one of the slithery creatures, slipping it onto her finger."These are perfectly lazy guys," she says, smiling."They ... very much like carrots.We have only 200 snails in this shed [behind Rovintola]. But we have 200,000 at the main farm in Hokhas, about four miles away.These guys will be moved to the farm soon.It is temperature-controlled.They couldn't survive the winter here."

On my visit to Rovintola, Mr. Kovero and his wife are attending a snail farmers' convention. But Ms. Neuvonen explains the snail-farming process:"Snails multiply quickly.One snail produces 100 to 250 eggs, most of which hatch. And, of course, snails make eggs five times a year.Once they are hatched, it takes six months to a year to grow to the size you can eat them.

"At first, Magna was very subdued about the idea of a snail farm," Sari says."She and Ari had a very, very long discussion.They couldn't find books in Finland on how to operate a snail farm, so they used the Internet.Finally, Magna said, 'Yes, the snails can come home.'She likes them now, but they are a lot of work."

When the snails are large enough, they are brought into the kitchen to be cleaned, "soured" (not fed), and cleaned again.

They are then placed in hot water and cooked eight minutes.Over the next two days, they are cleaned once more and undergo a second boiling this time for two hours - in white wine, water, herbs, and garlic.At this point, the snails are finally ready to be eaten - or frozen.

"Our snails are for our restaurant, although one restaurant in Helsinki now has some of our snails," says Neuvonen. "Would you like to taste?"

She disappears into the kitchen, returning with a tray of fennel snails (garlic and baguette) and snails with garlic and Roquefort cheese. The menu also has pasta with snail sauce.

The samples are superb."Next year, we open a snail boutique," she says with a smile."With snail books, T-shirts, food. Snails are getting so popular in Finland."

If you're fond of snails, you could purchase ceramic escargot shells at most gourmet and kitchen stores. They are easy to clean and are sanitary when reused.

Escargot a la Bourguignonne

3/4 cup butter, softened to room temperature

2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 tablespoons minced shallots

1 tablespoon minced parsley

1/4 teaspoon salt

Pinch or two of ground pepper

Pinch or two of nutmeg (optional)

2 dozen canned snails (escargot), drained, rinsed, and patted dry

2 dozen snail shells

1/4 cup fresh, fine, white bread crumbs

For the snail butter, combine butter, garlic, shallots, parsley, salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

Put a small amount of snail butter in each shell. Push one snail in each shell, and top with another half teaspoon or so of snail butter until all the butter is used up.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Arrange snails on an oven-proof plate, or special escargot plate.

Bake, uncovered, 10 to 12 minutes or until butter begins to bubble.

Serve hot with French bread.

Serves 4 as an appetizer.

Roquefort Snails

One can of snails in liquid (24 pieces)

1/2 cup butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup Roquefort cheese, at room temperature

Combine butter and cheese with fork until soft and mixed. Pour some of the snail liquid into a small skillet - place snails in skillet. Cover with Roquefort and butter and place in a preheated 400-degree F. oven until sizzling. Serve about 4 to 6 snails per person either on a plate, stuffed into their own shells, or in ceramic shells. Accompany snails with crispy Italian bread and a green salad.

Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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