Research: On the slow food trail: Success with snails required painstaking research

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SETTING up a snail farm seemed like a good way to make easy money back in 1988. At the time, there were around 500 commercial operations on this side of the Channel. 'But today you could count them on the fingers of one hand,' said Tony Vaughan, whose company, L'Escargot Anglais, is one of the survivors.

High interest rates during the recession took their toll, of course. But so did a fundamental lack of research. 'Too many people thought all you had to do was feed them and clean them and these things would crack on like nobody's business, while they sat back and raked in the profits.'

Mr Vaughan learned the hard way that snails need nurturing if they are to reach the tender plumpness required by the best restaurants. And some of the best, such as London's L'Escargot and La Gavroche, are among his customers.

Five years ago, he emerged from a business course at what is now Portsmouth University, clutching a diploma. His thesis was on snail farming, aptly entitled 'Slow Food'.

He was 40, his career in the army was over and he needed a new opening. 'I decided to turn the thesis into a business plan,' he said. 'Looking back, I realise how naive I was. But three of the four banks I approached said yes.'

He converted an old milking shed at Credenhill, near Hereford, and invested heavily in equipment that came with advice that seemed to have lost something in its translation from French. He was losing over 40 per cent of his snails, and the survivors were not growing quickly enough. After six months he was faced with a choice: to cut his losses by getting out, or to spend a lot more time on research and development. He decided on the latter.

'It took me 18 months to get it right,' he recalled. Today he has a thriving business with a turnover of nearly pounds 60,000.

Between May and October, he opens the premises to the paying public as the National Snail Farming Centre. And lucrative consultancy deals are beginning to come his way; he is already official adviser on snail farming to the Czech and Slovenian governments.

Mr Vaughan talks about snails with an enthusiasm that borders on obsession. He has been known to rise as early as three in the morning to study their feeding and mating habits. What he learned was that the snails need not only a lot of time but also more space than he had been allowing them.

'They simply can't be battery farmed,' he said. But with strict temperature controls they can be in production the year round.

L'Escargot Anglais concentrates on producing the Helix Aspersa Maxima, a sub-species of the much-prized and protected French 'Petit Gris'. The company turns out four tonnes a year - which sounds a lot until you consider that Britain imports 150 tonnes.

'Because of their gastronomic reputation, the French collar most of the export market,' he said. 'The demand is there. What we have to do is open up areas of this country that are still buying in and convince them that we can produce a snail as good, if not better, than the French.'