ETAPLES, France. If Guy Bachelard has a look of relief on his face this morning, it is because his three-week nightmare is finally over. “Normand de Puis was released from the hospital last night,” he says as he lights up a Gauloise cigarette and inhales deeply. “Finally I can breathe freely through the nicotine.”
Bachelard is referring to an accident that occurred just before Christmas in the first annual “Running of the Escargots” in this town of 11,000 at the northern tip of France. “Normand, he slip on the slime of the snails,” Bachelard says, before inviting this reporter to “Try saying that five times fast!” Had the man’s injuries been more serious, it could have wiped out Bachelard’s slim profits and set back his efforts to replicate in the realm of heliculture–snail farming–the model of Pamplona, Spain, whose annual “Running of the Bulls” is generally regarded as the world’s most successful commercialization of innate male stupidity.
“Faster–they’re gaining on us!”
Humans have been eating snails for 30,000 years according to the Escargot Gazette, the “Bible” of the heliculture industry. “I know you Americans find them disgusting,” says Jacques-Alain Fournier. “You just push them around on your plates for a millennium or two, then hide them under broccoli and ask ‘What’s for desert?’”
Belmondo in “Breathless.”
Entrants in the event tended to be young males eager to impress les femmes with their courage. “If I must die young, let it be as Jean-Paul Belmondo did in A Bout de Souffle (“Breathless”), an iconic film of France’s “New Wave” (nouvelle vague) cinema. “Of course, I would prefer to live and love again, and so it is better that I run from something that moves very slowly than a herd of snarling four-legged hamburger.”
France has more than 200 snail farms and the French consume over 424 million escargot a year, 425 million in a leap year. The last two weeks of the year are the peak for snail sales because of a tradition of holiday over-indulgence, as nearly two-thirds of the total annual volume is devoured between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. “It is tough on the little guys,” says Francois Borchard, a snail farmer in Calais. “They hang around through November, then all of a sudden it’s go-go-go until the end of the year. Les escargots, they don’t like to be rushed.”
France is of two minds on the subject of snails; on the one hand, they resent the stereotype that associates snails with their country around the world, on the other hand they nervously eye inroads by other nations on one of the few remaining industries in which they are world leaders. “Aplec del Caragol (The Snail Meeting) in Lleida Spain is suddenly the ‘hot’ snail festival,” says Bachelard with a sniff of disdain. “What do the Spanish know, they who dress up in toreador pants to kill bulls when you can buy a nice cut of beef at the supermarket.”