Once a source of protein for the poor, nowadays snails are an expensive delicacy for the residents of the south Georgian uplands. 

It’s not difficult to collect snails in the Meskheti hills as long as you know where they live. Giorgi and Amiran go looking for snails in sunny, open, bushy areas after school. They know that this Meskhetian luxury food fetches a good price.

It takes time and patience to hunt out snails from underneath the bushes (milk-vetch, they call them), and they sometimes stop to eat a snail on the spot.

“There are times when we get hungry while searching and we just light a fire using milk-vetch branches and fry the snails,” the boys say.

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Locals know that this edible breed of snails lives under plants on rocky slopes. The best time to look for them is from September to March. During the colder season, the snails withdraw into their shells, which they say gives them the best flavor.

Once collected, the snails are washed in running water and then boiled in their shells. After boiling for 20-25 minutes, they are ready to eat. The meat is extracted from the shells with the use of thin sticks or needles.

As the boys know, there are other ways of cooking snails. They can be fried or cooked inside khinkali, Georgian dumplings.

If you find yourself in Meskheti, a mountainous area in southwestern Georgia, you can buy snails on the main highway between Aspindza and Akhaltsikhe, the capital of the Samtskhe-Javakheti region that encompasses the historical Meskheti. Young people sell the fruits of their labor by the kilogram. Snails are also served in Meskhetian restaurants.

People in the towns of Adigeni, Aspindza, and Akhaltsikhe will tell you the local environment affects the taste of snails. For example, when the snails eat green grass, they have a different taste than in late autumn when their stomachs are empty.

Meskhetians also say that snails collected in this region have a distinct flavor compared to those harvested in Imereti or other regions. It all depends on the types of plants the mollusks consume.

One local family, the Okromelidzes from the village of Muskhi near Akhaltsikhe, established a snail farm to meet the high demand. They raise up to 1,000 mollusks. Lali Tsukhishvili looks after the snails – no simple task, she says: “They require food, water. They need the proper conditions – during hot weather they go underground; at night when it’s damp and cool they eat and procreate.”

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The snails lay eggs twice a year, 30 to 50 eggs at a time, Tsukhishvili says. The young snails hatch out two weeks later, and they are ready for consumption in seven to eight months: “Snails that are ready for marketing are fed with grain and water for several days in order to clean their digestive tracts. After that they grow a membrane, and they are ready to be marketed. People in Samtskhe-Javakheti really like snails, and the demand is high.”

There are several explanations as to why the snails are popular only in Meskheti. Some believe that French Catholic missionaries taught the locals to consume snails as food several centuries ago.

French Catholic clerics themselves share this version of events.

“It’s quite possible Catholic missionaries taught Meskhetians to use snails as food,” says Catholic priest Pierre Dumoulin, who serves as a missionary in Georgia.

“When they came here in the 16th century, snails were a very popular dish in our country. Meskheti was occupied by the Ottoman Empire at the time, so it’s possible that the Ottomans didn’t allow locals to hunt. They could take anything from the poor: cows, chickens, and so on, but they couldn’t take snails that the locals would eat instead of meat. If I were a French missionary at the time I would certainly have advised locals to eat snails,” the priest says.

“In France it was a poor man’s dish, because the poor couldn’t buy meat as it was very expensive. They couldn’t go hunting either, because it was allowed only for the nobles. What they could find were snails, so people started to cook them and make dishes from them,” Father Dumoulin says. “We make snail soups, sauces, dishes containing olives, quinces, and snails, and more. Snails are especially popular during holidays, at Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Many families cook snails then. Chocolates shaped like snails are a holiday symbol.”

This article originally appeared on SKnews.ge (Samkhretis Karibche), an EU Prize for Journalism-winning news outlet and radio station serving the Samtskhe-Javakheti region. Transitions has done some editing for length and style.

Translated by Giorgi Maghularia.