BESANCON, France -- In a laboratory deep in moist caves, white-coated scientists bend over microscopes and cages crawling with 50,000 small, slimy animals.
The scientists are part of a concerted government effort to solve a culinary crisis in France -- a shortage of snails. The French are learning how to grow them in captivity.
Scientists at the University of Besancon have opened a snail research center at the university and in damp caves on a downtown side street to study the intriguing sex life and growth of the gastropodes.
'We now are watching the effect of music on growth and breeding,' enthused Prof. Lucien Gaumont, who heads the government-funded program.
The 'escargots' on French restaurant menus or in cans exported from France usually are not French any more. Of 4 million snails eaten yearly in France, about 3 million are imported from Yugoslavia, with some trucked in from Turkey, Hungary and Greece.
France also is short of another favorite delicacy. Some 200 million of the 250 million frog legs consumed annually in France are imported from India and Indochina.
One reason for the vanishing French snail and frog is industrialization that exploded in France in the late 1960s. It meant pesticides, intensive crop cultivation, more highways, less land for snails and fewer ponds for frogs.
Modernization also brought frozen foods, including snails and frogs, boosting consumption of the creatures to the highest in the world.
'Less than a million snails are found naturally in the French countryside now,' Gaumont said. 'The rest are imported.'
Frogs cannot be easily raised in captivity. In November a national save-the-frog meeting will be staged by a frog processors group.
But snails can be raised, says Gaumont, whose center opened in 1980 'to inform people who want to start snail businesses.'
For their 50,000 snails the Gaumont team of 18 researchers invented glass cages with computerized control of humidity, light and heat to record their eating and mating habits.
Snails are hermaphrodites, each bearing tiny male and female organs.
'Before coupling, they caress each other with their antennae for hours and stick each other with a little bone-like needle,' said scientist ReneLaurent, pointing to a needle emerging from one snail.
Snails couple for 10 to 20 minutes. After 18 to 21 days, each conveniently becomes pregnant and moves into another cage containing dirt to lay up to 100 eggs.
'Four years ago we knew nothing,' said Laurent. 'Now we know that 13 hours of red light daily is best for growth. Snails left in 18 hours of light reproduce better than under 24 hours of light.'
The snails live 100 to a cage, the best number for growth and reproduction. They are fed corn flour and other cereals, vitamins and minerals. The researchers found that small snails grow faster if big snails are removed from the cages.
Laurent said only some 500 people are growing snails in France because the initial investment makes them more expensive than snails gathered in rural Yugoslavia. But he predicted snail raising 'eventually will become profitable'.
Snail canneries still dot the lush landscape of the Bescancon region, once big snail country. At one shiny new plant high in the Jura mountains near the Swiss border, director Omer Romanzini said he imports both the 'petit gris' and 'bourgogne' variety of snails from Eastern Europe, where they bear the same French names as those in France.
The fact they are packed frozen by his blue-uniformed workers and sold around the world as a French product does not bother him.
'Only the French know how to make the sauce,' he said.
The sauce is the traditional mixture of butter, parsley and garlic that would make even an old piece of tire taste good. Some restaurants cheat by stuffing empty snail shells with bits of beef lung, concealed by that great garlic sauce, he added.
Snails were eaten in France even in prehistoric days. Heaps of empty shells have been found in Bronze Age caves. The later Gaul people ate fried snails mixed with fruit for dessert. Invading Romans brought in snails from Italy and cooked them in wine, herbs and wheat germ.
Most French today prefer the garlic-parsley-butter elixir. But in southern France snails are fried with olive oil, tomatoes and onions and in the Alsace region with oil and herbs.