When Ann Parkes decided to swap the elegant shops of Bond Street for the earthy delights of a snail farm in France, her friends thought she was mad.
Ten years later, Mrs Parkes, a former general manager of the jewellers Mapin and Webb, is a fully-fledged heliculturist – and the only Briton in France to farm snails professionally.
“Never in a million years did I think I’d be doing this,” she said. “Everyone told me we were crazy to even think about it.
“I had no interest in snails whatsoever. I’d eaten them many times, but hadn’t envisaged rearing them.”
With her husband Mike, 64, who also worked in the jewellery business in London, Mrs Parkes farms up to 150,000 snails a year on the meadow behind their Provencal farmhouse, which they turned into a boutique hotel.
The couple manage the entire operation themselves: putting the three-day old snails in the park in May, feeding and watering them over the summer, and then picking them in September.
“Everything is done by hand, and it is very labour-intensive,” she said.
The hotel, nine miles from Avignon, is set in four acres of landscaped gardens and is on the market for €2.45 million (£2.1m).
The sales particulars for the property, Les Carmes, lists its seven suites, inner courtyard for al fresco dining and its swimming pool in glowing terms before adding – almost as an afterthought – “and a working snail farm.”
The new owner of the property does not have to take over the business, but Mrs Parkes said they would be very welcome to do so.
Yet the thought of an Englishwoman taking up such a quintessentially Gallic profession did, initially, leave a bitter taste among her French fellow farmers.
“It’s bizarre that an English person took up snail farming,” said Alphonse De Meis, a snail farmer in the nearby Provencal town of Saint-Rémy. “The British don’t have a natural affinity for snails.”
But eventually outrage turned to acceptance. “When they first found out that a Briton was farming snails, they were absolutely shocked,” said Mrs Parkes, 58. “Especially as it was a woman. They couldn’t believe it, and were horrified.
“At the markets, several people were very taken aback, and asked why on earth I’d done it. They couldn’t imagine a British person studying snail reproduction.”
Gérard Dupont, the president of French Culinary Academy, said that it had been “brave” of Mrs Parkes to enter the trade.
“England is not a country that automatically understands heliculture,” he said. “But what matters to French consumers is quality, and it is good she has made the effort.”
The Parkes farm “Gros Gris” snails – the same species as garden snails, but slightly larger. After being harvested the snails are taken to a nearby state-licensed laboratory to be kept for a few days without food, to cleanse them internally, and dried out before being killed and frozen, for use in the kitchen.
“We serve our snails with garlic butter, with an aperitif,” she said. “American guests love them, and so do the Belgians. The British often say they’ve never tried snails, but then always seem to come back for more.”
The Parkes’ son James, 29, runs the kitchen, and his signature dish is snail ravioli. “Keith Floyd came to do a programme and he said it was the best snail ravioli he had ever tasted,” said Mrs Parkes.
They sell their surplus snails in the markets of nearby towns such as L’Isle Sur La Sorgue, where trestle tables laden with olives, brightly-coloured vegetables and local cheeses display the finest in Provencal produce. Twelve of the Parkes’ finest snails will retail to French gastronomes and adventurous tourists for around €5 (£4.30) and make a popular starter served in a garlicky butter with crusty bread.
French consumers eat an estimated 35,000 ton of snails a year, according to the French snail producers’ union. But only around 1,500 tons of those are produced in France, with the rest imported from eastern Europe, where they are picked in the wild.
There are only 200 professional snail farmers in France and to qualify as one of them, Mrs Parkes spent three months studying snails’ reproductive cycles, the grains on which to feed them, and how to set up an electrically-fenced enclosure.
The couple had never imagined acquiring such intimate knowledge of a snail’s anatomy when they decided to move to France and renovate the crumbling Provencal farmhouse as a small hotel. But they discovered to their dismay that, in order to qualify for a business permit, they had to use the land to farm.
“A huge black cloud descended on our dream,” Mrs Parkes said. “We didn’t know what to do. But then I found out about snail farming. And so I signed up for the course.”
Christophe Simoncelli, who runs the snail producing school in the Alpine town of Chambéry where Mrs Parkes studied, said: “I was really surprised when she turned up to our classes. But maybe the British are finally losing their gastronomic inhibitions.”