Ireland has long been famous for its whiskey, its Guinness and its beef but Polish entrepreneur Eva Milka is now working on creating a reputation and a market for farm-reared, free-range Irish snails.
Her Co Carlow-based start-up company, Gaelic Escargot has now produced one million snails and is hoping to develop a snail-breeding industry in Ireland.
Set up two years ago, the company plans to train other would-be snail farmers in Ireland in 2015. To capitalise on the Irishness of the snails and on Ireland’s reputation for producing high-quality food, Ms Milka says larger volumes than she can produce are needed.
“Our objective is to build a centralised marketing centre and to have 10 snail breeders, each producing 10 tonnes a year. With this we could go directly to the French market with free-range Irish escargot,’’ says Ms Milka.
Creating a new branch of farming in Ireland, Ms Milka is not trying to tempt Irish palates but has her sights set on the export market. “There is an international shortage of escargot. The wholesale market for escargot in France is worth €115m and the figure for Italy is €194m. France imports a staggering 74% of total consumption and Italy is not far behind at 57.7%,” she says.
Last month Gaelic Escargot won the Bank of Ireland start-up award in the Food and Drink category and the Carlow Local Enterprise Office Best Young Entrepreneur award for best established business with an add-on.
Over the past two years the company has had grant aid from Carlow enterprise office and funding from the Arthur Guinness Fund for entrepreneurs. It took part in Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers Programme in 2013 and more recently in the DCU Ryan Academy Female Propeller Programme.
Snail breeding started on a very small scale in 2011 for Ms Milka who worked in the restaurant business after moving to Ireland in 2006. During a visit to France she and her partner Lucas Kurowski developed a liking for snails, so they imported some and bred them for their own consumption By the time the numbers had swelled to 1,000 they decided to develop a business and rented a half-acre site in Carlow and imported 20,000 breeding snails from Poland. What followed was a steep learning curve, since they found that Polish, Italian and French methods of snail breeding didn’t work well here because of the humidity and the weather.
“We have now developed a unique breeding technique for the Irish climate. This is our biggest intellectual property at the moment,’’ says Ms Milka who has since doubled the size of the farm.
Two years after setting up, Gaelic Escargot is now ready for its first harvest at the end of the month. Of 10 tonnes of snails, she expects to send about five or six tonnes to a Polish distributor who will sell them in France. The plan for 2015 is to breed a further 10 tonnes of snails and also to work on encouraging others to get into the business.
Although developing a snail breeding industry from scratch is a major challenge, Ms Milka can see some definite advantages. Ireland has the climate, the soil and the clean water to produce high- quality, free-range escargot, she says explaining that free- range snails, which roam freely and forage for food are superior to those confined in rooms and fed with dry food.
Gaelic Escargot has a way to go to achieve Ms Milka’s goals, but she says they have got off to a good start and will use its €20,000 prize money from its Best Young Entrepreneur award to develop the business in 2015.
Garryhill, Co Carlow.
Eva Milka and Lucas Kurowski.
: Snail farm.