Snails Crawl Back into Viennese Cuisine

Baby snails feeding on leftovers from the garden at Gugumuck Farms

Baby snails feeding on leftovers from the garden at Gugumuck Farms

There are 8.7 million people in Austria and about 150,170 agriculture operations but there is only one licensed snail farmer. His name is Andreas Gugumuck and he runs Gugumuck farms in Vienna. The farm has been in the Gugumuck family since 1720 and they have been growing field vegetables and raising animals there for several generations. But even though Andreas grew up here, he did not originally intend to run the farm. Instead he studied computer science in university and spent ten years in the IT business. He first had the idea to cultivate snails when he stumbled across an escargot cookbook and he began snail farming on the side while still working in tech. But in 2009 he won the Young Farmers Innovation award for his escargot operation and he decided to quit his job and devote all his time to this project. Now he spends 100 hours a week at the farm but he says it doesn’t feel like work. He is driven by a mission—a mission to popularize snails as a “future food.” In a time when the global population is rapidly increasing and our resources decreasing, snails could provide a sustainable protein source, especially for urban areas. Snails have double the protein of beef and require far less land, water, and feed than chicken or beef (1.7kg of feed to produce 1kg of snail meat compared to 2kg of feed to produce 1kg of chicken and 5 to 20kg of feed to produce 1 kg of beef).

There are two types of snail raised on Gugumuck farms. The Roman snail lives for 8 years but is ready to be harvested after two years. The Mediterranean, on the other hand, is usually ready to be harvested after one season. Since the Roman snails are harvested later they are stronger in taste so they are cooked as escargot with butter and garlic while the Mediterranean snails are incorporated into other dishes. But Andreas refers to them all as Viennese snails because they were born and grown there.  

Gugumuck farms sells four snail products, Vienna escargot, snail caviar, snail liver, and sterile Vienna escargot shells. Most of the snails are raised outdoors except for the snails used for caviar which are raised indoors due to the difficulty of collecting the eggs. The snails are kept in a sand box with a salt border so they stay inside. Outside the snails are raised on sunflowers, their favorite grub, picked from the sunflower fields around the farm. Andreas sends his snails to restaurants in Vienna and around Austria. He doesn’t sterilize or preserve them to maintain the fresh taste and bite but this also means they have to be consumed within ten days. 

In addition to selling to other restaurants, Gugumuck farms also has a vegetarian (apart from the snails) bistro on site. Guests at the Bistro are treated to a set six course menu. Each dish features snails in some capacity, including the dessert dish which features escargot that has been cooked for hours in sugar. The traditional Viennese way to eat escargot is boiled, tossed in garlic butter, dipped in beer batter and fried in pork lard. But Gugumuck farms’ chef Dominik Hayduck definitely likes to experiment. Andreas described a soup they served at the bistro which he calls soil soup, which incorporated well, soil, as well as verjuice, a highly acific juice made by pressing unripe grapes which was widely used in the Middle Ages.

Besides promoting snails as a future food, Gugumuck Farms is also trying to reinstate escargot as a staple of Viennese cuisine. Today most people associate escargot with French cooking. But unbeknownst to most the Viennese have a long tradition of raising and consuming escargot dating back to the middle ages. In fact, until the 19th century Vienna had its own market dedicated to selling snails. Snail farming was common in and around Vienna and many castle and abbeys housed their own snail gardens. The practice of lent also increased demand for snails in the region because they were not considered meat. During the 17th and 18th centuries the demand for snails during lent grew to such an extent that snails from the Swabian alps were shipped down the Danube. But clamor for escargot in Vienna came to a halt 100 years ago with the end of the empire. Andreas says when he started selling snails there was no demand for them. But escargot might be on the verge of a major comeback in Vienna—at least if Andreas can do anything about it.  Starting in October, Gugumuck farms will start to hold seminars where participants will learn everything from construction of the beds to snail breeding strategy.

Although Gugumuck farms highlights its snail production it is still concerned with growing produce sustainably in urban areas. In front of the snail garden boxes there is another kind of snail garden where 90 different plants are grown in the spiral shape of a snail shell. School classes come to visit and kids who have no connection to agriculture have the opportunity to learn about where their food comes from. Andreas’s hope is that these edible parks will start popping up around the city.

Andreas has some serious expansion plans for Gugumuck farms. He wants to add a bar and tables so they can have events on site and so people can stop by casually to try some Viennese escargot. And snails are just the beginning. The snail license held by Gugumuck farms also permits them to raise frogs, and though he has never cooked them before Andreas definitely won’t rule out adding them to the menu.