Snail's egg caviar anyone? It may sound like a challenge to the taste buds, but the salty, pink-white delicacy could be gracing hundreds of French tables this Christmas.
Caviar and champagne are a byword for the festive season in France, while a dozen "escargots" -- or snails -- cooked in garlic and parsley butter and served in or out of their grey-brown spiralled shells, are a much-loved staple.
But a couple of snail farmers from Soissons, in the Picardie region northeast of Paris, found a way to roll two delicacies into one: their snail caviar, called "De Jaeger", hit the shelves in October.
Dominique and Sylvie Pierru ditched their old jobs in 2004 -- he as a construction worker, she running a fine food market stall -- to set up their snail farm, and start work on a recipe for caviar.
The next three years were spent perfecting a way to harvest the eggs of their 50,000 gasteropods, reared on an open-air diet of herbs and cereals, and to tenderize them without altering the taste.
The result: small, cream-coloured pearls that burst on the palate to reveal what the producers describe as "subtle autumn flavours with woody notes."
The Pierrus recommend serving the caviar on a sliver of toast, at room temperature, lightly peppered with a touch of sour cream -- and naturally a glass of chilled champagne.
"It's completely different from sturgeon caviar, both in terms of appearance and taste," said Dominique Pierru, fresh back from a French food salon where he said the feedback was "95 percent positive".
"Chefs are very interested by the colour, the texture and the subtle flavour. It's a real creative challenge for them."
Joel Schaeffer, a top chef from Luxembourg, describes the taste as woody, salty, with a hint of rosemary, well suited to nutty ingredients such as truffle.
"We're interested because it's something totally new," he said. "A lot of diners don't like ordinary caviar, but this they find amazing."
Schaeffer suggests serving the caviar warm in a celeriac soup, or with a thin sliver of truffle, in a cocktail glass layered with creamy celeriac puree and a milk and courgette mousse -- garnished with coriander and toasted rosemary brioche.
As Christmas draws near, the Pierrus say they have sold 400 jars of the finished product, which retails for 80 euros (115 dollars) per 50 grams, roughly the same as farmed sturgeon's egg caviar, and are talking to top chefs and fine food specialists Hediard and Fauchon about channels to market.
Many snail farmers occasionally produce a batch of caviar, but the eggs in their raw state have a brittle, slippery shell, while pasteurisation -- used to preserve them -- is thought to spoil their flavour, Dominique Pierru says.
After tenderising the eggs -- the exact process is a trade secret -- the Pierrus plunge them in brine with a dash of rosemary essence to each jar, which allows the caviar to keep unpasteurised for three months.
"We are the only people worldwide making snail caviar this way," Dominique Pierru claims. "But we had to invent everything from scratch."
Gathering the tiny pearls, three or four millimetres in diameter, is also a tricky task -- requiring custom-made "egg-traps" to harvest the precious white globes.
"Once gathered, the eggs are cleaned and sorted. Everything is done by hand -- which explains the high price," said Sylvie, in the farm's laboratory near their family home.
Snails are hermaphrodites -- they have both male and female sex organs -- and all can lay eggs, but the couple still had to ramp up the snails' "output" to be able to have stocks all year round.
To coax them to lay more eggs, the snails -- a plump grey breed originally from north Africa -- nestle in a climate-controlled environment with a constant temperature of 20 degrees C (68 degrees F), 80 percent humidity and 18 hours of sunlight.
"It was the way to break the seasonal cycle," said Dominique Pierru, who hopes eventually to produce up to a tonne a year.