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While sourcing from afar is not rare, gourmet escargots keep French flair.

While Sourcing From Afar is Not Rare, Gourmet Escargots Keep French Flair

Whether the raw snails come from Alsace or Bulgaria, finished products are apt to increasingly go to export markets if specialty packers in France are to remain competitive.

As France prepares for the promised coming of the single European market after 1992, the question of foreign trade looms large. When it comes to frozen foods, the nation has been experiencing a rising outflow of capital. Syndigel reports that since 1968 exports have declined an average of 10% a year, while imports have increased.

The frozen snail business illustrates both the problem and the potential for change. Domestic producers of the traditional delicacy are forced to look beyond their borders for resources as France no longer grows enough snails to feed its domestic appetite. But while imports are unavoidable, packers are nonetheless keen on boosting exports of value-added escargots products.

According to recent statistics, the nation produces only about 200 tons of raw snails per year, while importing 5,873 tons. Into the early 20th Century, wild snails were freely gathered in the northeast of France. Over-harvesting and the use of pesticides are thought to have decimated the population.

The family firm Romanzini, which sells frozen and canned snails, is caught up in the changing supply situation. It used to supplement home-grown tonnage with raw materials brought in from Switzerland and Germany. Now the firm purchases all its requirements from Eastern Europe.

An exception to the general rule that French packers of prepared snails get their raw materials from abroad is found in the Alsatian firm Toque d'Alsace. The company, whose reliance on imports is just 25%, is supplied by a snail farm in Alsace as well as from producers in Greece, Bulgaria and Hungary.

Cultivation of snails in France is still in its infancy. A 150-member growers' association, ARAH-Production, has done extensive research on raising snails in captivity and is now teaching farmers how to produce them in an environmentally benign manner. However, spokesman Henri Chevallier complains that the government wasted money on an abortive attempt to raise snails in factory farms and has failed to support ARAH's own potentially more profitable efforts. Solving the sourcing problem will take time.

Meanwhile, a second problem regarding large scale imports of Achatinas has been successfully resolved -- at least in the short term. The snails traditionally eaten in France belong to the genus Helix. Achatinas are an Asian mollusk from another genus. Unlike the French variety, they have black, rubbery, granular flesh and are worth only 17-25% of the Helix genus. Some packers therefore could not resist enriching themselves by purchasing Achatinas and selling them in Helix shells for premium prices, reported the French periodical Grand Froid.

Scam Hurts Market

The practice assumed serious dimensions as France imported 1,500 tons of Achatinas several years ago. Customers who bought the Asian variety in the belief that they were purchasing Helix were dissappointed in the quality of the product, which prompted some to stop buying snails altogether. Consumption in households declined, although sales to restaurant owners -- who were less likely to be deceived -- stayed steady. Overall, the substitution scam was blamed for a 50% slide in frozen snail sales in hypermarkets, supermarkets and variety stores.

To combat the flooding of the market with low quality offerings, a dozen snail producers formed the Association of Master Snail Producers of France. They launched a three-pronged counterattack consisting of a public relations blitz targeting distributors, a lobbying effort pushing for national truth in labeling regulations, and a law suit filed against the company Dehais for allegedly selling Achantinas labeled as escargots.

The campaign went well as the association won its court case and the government issued regulations applying to the sale of Achatinas and Helix. The former can no longer be merchandised under the name escargots or in Helix shells. "This solves the Achatinas problem," said Bernard Buffat, director of marketing for Romanzini, which belongs to the association.

With snails "all depends on the quality offered to consumers," Buffat told Quick Frozen Foods International. "When quality declines, consumption decreases. When quality improves, consumption grows. There is now an increasing interest in this type of product as a festive item (80% of volume is moved during the last two months of the year)."

French companies export some 35% of their frozen snail output (2,391 tons in 1987). They would gladly increase sales abroad, although not at the expense of domestic business. Romanzini takes a cautious position in regard to exports, which is typical of long-established French firms. The younger and smaller Toque d'Alsace represents a newer breed for which exports are a basic part of doing business.

Romanzini has made its way in France by establishing a reputation for top quality products prepared according to traditional recipes. Its share of the market reportedly rose from 11.8% to 23.7% in 1988. Sales are still increasing, as a growth rate of 10-15% is expected in 1990.

Exports are not a major part of Romanzini's business, although it has seen sales abroad increase. Six years ago the company earned about a million francs on an 81-million franc turnover from exports to the United States and West Germany. Today some 6% of its volume comes from shipments to countries in Western Europe and the U.S., the latter of which buys only a small quantity of canned snails.

Unlike Romanzini, Toque d'Alsace realizes almost 50% of its receipts (a total of 25-million francs in 1988) from exports. And according to Christian Schmurr, this makes it "probably the largest French exporter of frozen snails."

Asked what the average national frozen food company needs to do to boost exports, he advised that they individualize their products: "All try to do the same thing or to copy competitors in other countries. They should have more imagination." He added that French firms wishing to sell abroad should put more money and energy into publicity and promotion.

Innovation comes naturally to Schmurr, a chef by training who was graduated from the Ecole Hoteliere de Strasbourg. He is also an ardent solid advocate of frozen foods.

Schmurr's first position outside restaurants was with Les Plats Cuisines d'Alsace. The company's "plats cuisines" were chilled dishes. He persuaded management to instead freeze the product line and deliver it to homes in the area. Thus the now defunct firm was, in 1972, one of the first in the country to market frozen prepared dishes with sauce. Nowadays the "plats prepares" is the most dynamic sector of the French frozen food market.

"I thought that frozen products would have a big future. I think I wasn't wrong," he told QFFI. The entire offering of Toque d'Alsace, which Schmurr founded in 1983, is frozen.

Frozen snails were the first item that Toque d'Alsace sold. While they still account for 80% of turnover, the firm is branching out. A year ago it began selling Coquilles Saint Jacques -- a popular French treat made of shells filled with a mixture of scallops, mushrooms and prawns in a Normandy sauce with a little grated cheese. And within the last few months came the introduction of plain and stuffed mussels along with mini pastry shells filled with prawns.

The company has replaced its old factory with a modern installation containing 1,800 square meters of production space and 3,500 square meters of storage facilities. As a result, it will be able to develop new seafood products while packing more than 30 million snails a year.

Toque d'Alsace differentiates its snails from other products by their quality, as does Romanzini. A number of exporters sell snails that are what the French call "congeles," rather than "surgeles" -- that is, they are not frozen to and held at - 18 [degrees] C. Toque d'Alsace uses an ultra-rapid process that freezes snails at - 20 [degrees] C within 10 minutes after processing, thus preserving the full flavor of their herbs and spices in the bargain.

The firm also employs new forms of presentation to make its products stand out. In 1989 it offered restaurants prepared snails without shells for the first time. The product was designed to be turned out into compartmentalized earthen dishes that can go from a microwave oven straight to the diner's table.

Toque d'Alsace invests a great deal of money in promoting its products and prospecting for new business. Last fall, for example, it sent representatives to several major American retail outlets in Washington and New York to demonstrate and give product samples to customers. Schmurr himself travels widely, visiting prospective customers and representing the firm at food exhibitions such as the Milan and Copenhagen Salons.

The Molsheim-headquartered company sells its range in 25 countries, including China and Japan. It works with an importer or an exclusive agent in every market except the U.S., where its White Toque subsidiary distributes from Christian Salvesen warehouses in New Jersey and California. The organization is set up to take care of any questions that the FDA or Customs officials might pose. None have arisen thus far.

Still, selling across the Atlantic is not easy. Schmurr explained that in good years his firm exports an average of 3-million-francs' worth of snails to the U.S. and Canada. Sales sunk when the value of the dollar fell, but are gradually recovering despite higher American prices. In 1990 the company hopes to do up to 5-million-francs' worth of business in North America.

For French frozen food companies the export/import problem is likely to be more acute after 1992 than it is at present. As for snails in particular, Grand Froid notes that the question of Achatinas may be reopened. In fact, a German company has already complained to the European Commission that France is restraining the importation of same from Germany. There are now some 30 French producers of prepared snails. All will not have sufficient capital to maintain their identify in a unified Europe. The ability to export may well be the decisive factor in the struggle for survival.

PHOTO : Workers at the Toque d'Alsace factory are busy stuffing snails with butter made green by flavoring herbs.

PHOTO : A big believer in frozen foods, M. Christian Schmurr was very active in pioneering the "plats prepares" business before moving to the escargots trade.
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Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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