VERESNYA (Ukraine): The Ukrainian farmer was living a quiet life with the quietest of creatures: snails that she raises for export. Then, the skies on the horizon turned flaming red. Russia had launched its invasion and nearby towns were burning.
Olena Avramenko's village of Veresnya, northwest of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, was quickly occupied by Russian forces. But her snails were too precious to leave.
So she stayed, sheltering in her basement and cooking meals of snails — snail ravioli, fried snails, snails with garlic butter — for herself and the eight other people she took in.
The war’s disruption to exports of grain and other crops from Ukraine that feed the world has captured global attention and sent bread prices soaring across the world. But the production of other, more niche foodstuffs has also been impacted.
Before the war threw Ukrainian life and its economy into a tailspin, farmers and artisans in the country were successfully trying their hands not just with snails but also with oysters, edible frogs, vegetable-based milk, and craft beers, cheeses, and other products for European markets.
Avramenko and her son, Anton, turned to snail farming five years ago. He sold everything to invest in the business, which at the time was seen as a risky, exotic business in Ukraine. For them, it was an adventure, something new to learn. They exported the snails to Spanish restaurants and Avramenko realized she had found her calling.
“I stayed to protect our farm and home,” she said. “If I hadn’t done it, nothing would have been left.”
In France, where snails are eaten piping hot with oozing garlic butter or mixed into pates, importers had noticed Ukrainian snails making inroads into the market. Exports to the European Union of raw Ukrainian snails more than doubled between 2017 and 2021, from 347 tons to 844 tons.
“But this number could be underestimated,” said Pierre Commere of the French agro-industry group Adepale. “For several years now there has been a long-running crisis in the snail industry. It has become more and more difficult to find snails and prices are rising.”
During the Russian occupation of her village, Avramenko found another calling: taking her mind off the war by dreaming up new recipes for snails when peace returned.
Her son, luckily, was not in Veresnya when the Russian invasion started on Feb. 24 and he couldn't immediately get back. But Russian soldiers didn't seem interested in their snails. They did come searching for fuel, smashing a window, and asking Avramenko for her keys.
She gently scolded them for breaking and entering. One of them asked her to forgive him.
Russian forces pulled out of Veresnya at the end of March, part of a general withdrawal from the north and around Kyiv to head out for a massive Russian offensive on Ukraine's east and south, where the fighting still rages. Many villages in the Kyiv area were littered with bodies and international experts are working there to document suspected war crimes.
Her son called the day after the Russian pullout and said they'd get straight back to work. He said because the war delayed the start of the snail-rearing season, their business will at best only break even this year. But he didn't want their seasonal workers to have any income. And a return to the slow pace of snail farming, he felt, will do everyone some good.
“I was somewhere between fear and collapse when he said that," Avramenko said. “But it was the right thing to do. You need to do something to overcome the state of shock. If not, you can easily lose your mind.”