Illustration Graham Roumieu
“You cannot tell that there is a farm here,” says Krasimir Kostov, a top Bulgarian snail breeder, as he walks the length of his large free-range snail farm in the northern Bulgarian village of Pleven. “Snails do not moo.”
Like many of his countrymen, 45-year-old Kostov has no gastronomic interest in escargot—if you mention it he makes a face like he’s swallowed a lemon. But inquire about the economic prospects of his booming farm, and his expression instantly brightens. For him, and the rest of the snail breeders in this modest Balkan nation, the burgeoning escargot industry is all about maximum output. One nation’s critters are another’s gourmet treasure.
In 2009, Kostov exported upward of a half million of his Helix aspersa—one of three common edible species—to aficionados throughout Western Europe. Some 300 new farms are reportedly set to open in Bulgaria in 2010, which is good news for the country (Bulgaria is the poorest nation in the European Union), and also for French and Italian snail lovers, who’ve developed a taste for the Bulgarian imports.
Bulgaria’s success is also good news for the snail population, which has been declining steadily for the past decade as other industries (most notably pharmaceuticals and cosmetics) have found uses for the mollusk meat. Despite a predilection for more unpretentious cuisine—think cabbage, pork and tripe soup—Bulgarians such as Kostov are happy as clams with their new partners in slime.
“I love the snail,” says Kostov. “It makes me money, and it never complains.” —JORDAN HELLER