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Snails set pace as four chefs race to challenge tastes in mollusk plates.

Summary: The concept of slow food took on a new meaning Friday at the inaugural Beirut Snail Festival.

BEIRUT: The concept of slow food took on a new meaning Friday at the inaugural Beirut Snail Festival. Four chefs prepared eight internationally inspired dishes that used the slow-moving mollusk as a central ingredient, and the country's first-ever snail race took place. "Snails are a Lebanese delicacy," said Patrick Cochrane, a co-owner of Couqley, a French-style bistro in Beirut and one of the restaurants that participated in the festival.

He told The Daily Star that the festival was intended to showcase the snail's flexibility as an ingredient and encourage restaurants to consider using snails as an alternative to more traditional meat.

Aaliya's Books, another participating restaurant, presented a snail plate that incorporated anchovies and was topped with caramelized onion. The dish carried plenty of the characteristic, slightly metallic snail flavor without having the rubbery texture that discourages many people.

Lebanese diners have a keen appetite for snail, Cochrane said.

The restaurateur said he rarely saw a table at Couqley without at least one order of escargots a la bourguignonne, a classic French snail dish with garlic and butter.

While France is typically seen as the home of snail cuisine, other Mediterranean countries including Lebanon have been enjoying the delicacy for centuries. A recent report found that in 2016, Morocco was the biggest producer of snails globally.

Rami Salman, a Lebanese snail farmer, said snails' popularity was also increasing in North America and Southeast Asia, perhaps because the mollusk has high protein content and is touted by some doctors and nutritionists as a healthy alternative to traditional meat products.

Salman, who owns the Ammiq-based Helix snail farm in Western Bekaa, said it was difficult to gauge precise figures for the consumption of snails in Lebanon, as most people don't buy them from a farm but pick them from their property.

"Most Lebanese who eat snails usually pick [them] from their own garden," he said.

Home-cooked snails are traditionally enjoyed in the autumn and winter months, Salman added, as Lebanese normally wait for the first rain of October or November to start picking snails around their gardens. This is due to the fact that during the summer, snails don't come out in order to avoid the sunshine, as it can dry out their body within an hour if they are exposed.

Many people then enjoy the snails as part of a family feast.

If much less butter is used than in French escargot dishes, diners can consume a much larger quantity, Salman said - as many as 20 to 50 in a sitting.

Salman is also general manager of FBNC, the first company to precook, freeze and distribute snails around Lebanon. His business, he said, removes one of the biggest difficulties for restaurants considering using snails - the fact that cooking them is labor-intensive and can take five to seven hours.

Salman expressed belief that the ingredient could form a reliable corner of Lebanon's agriculture sector. "It has a future," he said. "It's a local product. We really don't import anything [and] our farm is sustainable."

This isn't to say that farming snails in Lebanon doesn't have its challenges, especially given the high number of sunny days throughout the year.

Salman expressed belief he had found the perfect spot to farm snails, perhaps because it benefits from the humidity of the Ammiq wetlands.

With the many varieties of snail dishes offered, Friday's Snail Festival had something for everyone, including Cochrane, who conceded to not being a fan of the texture of snail meat.

"I'll be tasting all the different offerings today," he said. "I look forward to changing my opinion."

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Jun 15, 2019
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