Asselheim: Slip off to a snail farm on the German Wine Road
If Asselheim sounds unfamiliar, that is part of the appeal of this small municipality on the German Wine Road. You won’t run into many tourists: The town center touts three benches, an announcement board and a bronze statue of a woman stomping grapes.
Swallowed up over three decades ago by the larger city of Grünstadt (population 12,000), every second week of August the town’s 1,400 inhabitants welcome rowdy locals and tourists for its wine festival, where a dozen or so vintners open their garden terraces and serve regional dishes alongside their wines that snap with crisp, fruity flavors.
But visit Asselheim any other time of the year and you will find another oddity or delicacy, depending on your taste: the Weinberg Snail Farm.
Lying along the 50-mile Weinstrasse that begins in the small towns of Schweigen and Rechtenbach at the French border and heads north to Bockenheim nine miles west of Worms, Asselheim is much like the other sleepy towns encountered along the way — surrounded by farmland and strips of grapevines. It seems that on every street corner a vintner offers wine tasting. Local bakeries are always worth a stop, too. Germany prides itself on having the largest variety of breads worldwide, and is said to bake between 300 and 500 kinds, including Schwarzbrot, Mischbrot and Kummelweck. The smell of rising flour fills the nostrils no matter where the location.
The wine road also has a rich history. The locals will proudly tell you that the Romans first settled this region. The Palatinate’s heyday during the Middle Ages still enlivens the landscape with church spires everywhere lodged between gingerbread homes. Helmut Kohl, German chancellor from 1982 to 1998, was born in this region and during his political tenure entertained many dignitaries in hotels and restaurants here.
But for a curious traveler, the prize attraction is Asselheim’s snail farm. The farm is run by Stefan Charlier, owner of the four-star Pfalzhotel, which is up the cobblestone road from the town center and one block from the wine road. The pleasure lies in walking to the farm through twisting streets and onto the dirt path about a half-kilometer away from the hotel. Tours are available on Sundays and an information plaque (in German) is at the farm’s gate.
The farm itself lies in a valley framed by cultivated hills. Come in the summer or fall and vintners sit in their tractors pruning vines. The Weinberg Snail Farm might look like a mere patch among pretty vineyards, but the farmer actually buys up to 45,000 young snails from France and Germany per year to raise to adulthood. He fattens an additional 60,000 snails in the adjacent pen.
The snails eat lettuce, carrots and other vegetables, but their favorite meal is the inner veins of sunflowers. To accommodate their appetites, a sunflower patch glistens next to the pens. The farmer puts foil underneath the dirt, which alongside a foot-high wire fence, protects the snails from mice and other predators. The harvest season for snails is the same as for wine grapes, in the autumn.
The farm raises two kinds of snails. The helix aspersa, which originated in the Mediterranean region, is smaller, darker and likes the moderate temperatures of the Palatinate. When eaten, the helix aspersa has a mild nutty flavor. The other snail grown at the farm is the fatter and lighter-colored helix pomatia. Also known as the Roman snail or German Weinbergschnecke, it generally lives in wooded areas as well as vineyards. This snail tastes stronger and meatier.
After a visit to the farm, the Pfalzhotel provides a sampling at its restaurant. The menu has a variety of German cuisine, but its specialty is snails. Among other dishes, the restaurant offers Palatinate snail soup, snails Provencal (prepared the southern French way with tomatoes, onions, garlic and olives) and Asselheimer snail noodles (cream sauce noodles with snails, thinly sliced ham strips, fresh herbs from their garden and cheese, all grill-baked together).
To promote the hotel and its snail crop, the owner appointed the first Weinberg Snail Queen — Alma I. Alma is a 71-year-old, self-described "Grünstadt original" and longtime friend of the hotel owner’s family. She is also the tongue-in-cheek rival of the Palatinate Wine Queen, currently 24-year-old Patricia Frank. The local Rheinpfalz newspaper has written about Alma several times as she has joined floats at parades and shared the podium with the minister president of the Rheinland-Palatinate region, Kurt Beck, during a big wine festival in Neustadt an der Weinstrasse.
Spending the day in Asselheim also means knocking on vintner doors to buy wine, or enjoying a sauna and massage at the Pfalzhotel. The town’s church gongs on the hour, but you don’t have to worry too much about time passing here.
If the need for a frenetic city comes on, Heidelberg and Mannheim are an afternoon visit away. So is Bad Dürkheim, with its "grape cure" spas and what is said to be the world’s biggest wine barrel.
But if you want to slip off the German Wine Road, sip good wines and eat fresh escargot, Asselheim and its Weinberg Snail Farm are the place to go.
Barbara Zaragoza is a military family member living in Naples, Italy. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact her through her blog, http://
Know and go ...
• Getting there: Asselheim is about 65 miles southwest of Frankfurt, and about 25 from Kaiserslautern. From Kaiserslautern, take Autobahn 6 east to Exit 19 Grünstadt; Asselheim is just north of the city.
• Tours of the Weinberg Snail Farm start at the Pfalzhotel at 2:30 p.m. Sundays and cost 3.50 euros for adults and 2 euros for ages 7-14; children 6 and younger go for free. Appointments for groups are also available.
• If you want to enjoy one of the bevy of wine festivals held during the year in this region, see www.germanwineroute.com/wine-fest-calendar.html, or www.stripes.com/article.asp?section=103&article=62062.
— Barbara Zaragoza