It may be known as the "oyster capital of Brittany," but Cancale, France, is teeming with sea snails. Despite efforts by local authorities to quash their numbers -- popular tactics include crushing and boiling -- Cancale's sea snail population continues to grow by 10 percent a year.
It's not just that they're ugly (although with ragged brown shells and slimy orange flesh, few would find them attractive); the real issue is that the snails feed by latching onto oysters and mussels, crippling their growth. This, in turn, hurts local fishermen and seafood producers whose livelihood depends on their oyster and mussel yield.
While everyone else saw a parasite, local entrepreneur Pierrick Clément chose to, as the Red Lobster campaign goes, "sea food differently."
“As a businessman, I see an opportunity here,” he told the New York Times.
Clément had never considered eating the ubiquitous sea snails until he stumbled upon a mechanism that could crack open their shells on a large scale without compromising the flesh, The New York Times reported. But in that discovery, he immediately recognized an opportunity. While the sea snails (also known as Atlantic slipper shells) aren't pretty to look at, their taste is somewhat comparable to mussels. Thought Clément, why not rebrand the sea snail as desirable culinary treat?
He now has a pilot factory, and is distributing packages of frozen sea snails to stores and restaurants. But the repurposing doesn't stop there: Clément wants to use the calcium-packed sea snail shells both as construction material and as an agent to counteract the acidic soil conditions on the French coast.
This isn't the first time Clément has refused to let a national culinary stereotypes cloud his ability to detect a business opportunity. According to the Times, he made a considerable amount of money "exporting halal foie gras and unwanted duck parts that are delicacies in China."
While he plans on selling the majority of his sea snails to American, Japanese and Chinese markets, where the prejudice against Atlantic slipper shells is less intense, he hopes that one day the French will be able to view the slippery sea snails with hunger, instead of disgust.
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It's not an unprecedented occurrence. Consider the lobster. Once viewed with disdain -- in parts of New England, serving lobster to prison inmates more than once a week was considered cruel and unusual punishment– the lobster was successfully rebranded as a luxury item in the 20th century.
Looks-wise, the two sea creatures are comparable. Lobsters look cockroach-y, sea snails look…well, sea snail-y. And Clément, in his quest to redefine the sea snail in the eyes of his fellow citizens, has some tricks up his sleeve, including the promotional help of Gaël Orieux, the owner of Auguste in Paris who regularly incorporates sea snails into his dishes.
“It tastes like seawater but is also a bit sweet,” Orieux told the Times.
After all, if the lobster could molt from a marker of poverty to a marker of wealth, is it that outrageous for Clément's sea snails to make the transformation from parasite to delicacy?