You've probably heard of beluga caviar. The rich, black, salt-cured and obscenely expensive eggs harvested from the ancient sturgeons of the Caspian Sea. You might have heard of a salmon caviar too. Trout, lumpfish and flying fish caviar isn't uncommon either.
But, snail caviar? What the heck is that all about? Snails aren't even a fish, for Pete's sake (although neither are nightshades, but this eggplant caviar is terrific).
Snail caviar is is the pearl-like fresh or processed eggs of land snails and a little less common on the luxury egg market than its fishy cousins. However, while it's not being spooned onto Melba toasts everywhere just yet, there's a good chance it will be soon as local and European farmers attempt to put escargot eggs on the menu.
Often described as having a deliciously earthy taste with notes of mushroom and rosemary, it made brief headlines in the 1980s when French imports caught the attention of The LA Times, but for the most part has remained a rarity thanks to a harvesting cycle that's slow even by snail terms.
Say you're an existing snail farmer who wants to start selling eggs to high-end restaurants. It's important you have enough snails to harvest enough eggs without compromising the stock levels of fully-grown gastropods and the snail egg production cycle can take up to three years. And then, when the eggs are good to go, you usually have to get in there and harvest them by hand. Ever tried to harvest snail eggs? It requires a light touch and a lot of time to do properly.
Unsurprisingly, the stuff isn't cheap. A 30 gram jar (about two tablespoons) of snail caviar from Aylesbury Escargots in the UK will set you back £40 ($83). However, Sicilian start-up company La Lumaca Madonita was recently in the news for its efforts to make the caviar more readily available by feeding baby snails a "vet-approved diet of cereals, calcium and vitamins" instead of leaves. This cut the production cycle down to eight months.
The Australian snail farming industry has met with less success in putting eggs on the market. Cliff Wilson operates Glass House Gourmet Snails in Queensland and has been in the heliciculture (snail farming) game for the last eight years.
"For a while there I was harvesting caviar on the farm and in talks with my distributor about selling it," he says. "Unfortunately, a couple of years ago we had a very hot period which stressed the snails. This was followed by a very wet period which washed them away and about 100,000 snails drowned. We haven't caught up those numbers yet, so we haven't been able to commercially produce the caviar."
Wilson's snails are already in high demand by Australian chefs, and says it will take at least two years to reach the snail numbers required to make caviar harvesting a viable business option.
"Of course, if we stopped supplying our current market [with snail meat], we could immediately do it," he says.
Matt Friere is the owner of Hunter Valley Snails in NSW. He has also considered harvesting snail caviar, but lacks the escargot numbers required. "If you get the environment and humidity right, so mature snails are happy to lay consistently and regularly, you can harvest caviar," he says. "We just don't have enough adult snails to set aside a whole area for that purpose yet. I can't keep up with demand as it is."
If you're keen to see the escargot farming business first hand (including the translucent eggs) both Hunter Valley Snails and Glass House Gourmet Snails offer tours to the public. However, until heliciculture in Australia gets to a point where egg harvesting is a viable business option, anyone after a blini with fresh snail caviar will need to head to Europe as customs isn't keen on uncooked snail products entering the country, no matter how earthy and delicious they might be.