Should we be eating insects?
When Vincent Holt published his pamphlet ‘Why Not Eat Insects?’ in 1885 it was easy to dismiss him as a Victorian eccentric. Fast forward to the 21st century and it seem his views no longer seem ludicrous and are being given credence by academics and chefs alike.
Holt’s contention was that insects are as nutritious and tasty as other animal protein such as beef and lamb and considerably more hygienic than pigs or sea dwelling crustacea:
‘The lobster, a creature consumed in incredible quantities at all the highest tables in the land, is such a foul feeder that, for its sure capture, the experienced fisherman will bait his lobster pot with putrid flesh or fish which is too far gone even to attract a crab.’
Holt also saw eating insects as a form of crop protection. A divine retribution if you like for the damage caused by some insects – the devourer becoming the devoured. Despite his persuasive argument it’s hard not to wrinkle you nose in disgust when he talks about sole served with wood louse sauce or labourers eating small white slugs ‘as tid bits, just as he would have picked wild strawberries.’
The world’s population is increasing and it is estimated there will be 9 billion mouths to feed by 2050. Generally speaking people are wealthier than their forebears particularly in developing nations and as a consequence expect to eat meat more frequently. The problem Dicke says is that we already use 70% of our agricultural land to produce livestock (in terms of feed, accommodation etc). To meet the growing carnivorous demands of future generations we would need to find another earth. This realistically is not going to happen or certainly not in our lifetime.
To put this into an even starker perspective Dicke told us that every 10kg of animal weight equates to just 1kg of edible meat. The same weight of insects yields 7kg of edible protein. This protein is low in fat and high in minerals (although perhaps lacking in some vitamins). Furthermore, they are so far removed from humans they are unlikely to transmit disease through their consumption (unlike cows as shown with the BSE crisis some years ago). Factor in the environmental impact which is negligible when compared to cattle (they eat less, take up less room and generate less shit which means lower green house emissions) then seeing insects as food and not pests starts to make sense. As Dicke says, once the head, legs and wings are removed locusts are just delicious sky prawns.
The problem is that in the West we have been taught to avoid insects because they are dirty and disgusting. The key question is how do we help people escape this aversion?
This is where the Nordic Food Lab comes in. The purpose of Dicke’s presentation is an introduction to a meal prepared by the boffiny chefs behind NOMA. I’m sitting in a room with 80-100 or so people about to explore the deliciousness of insects. The clever chaps at the Nordic Food Lab realised that despite the fact we had all paid to attend this dinner most of us were feeling a little apprehensive. To quell these nerves we were presented with a drink made from a bespoke gin of wood ants, cones, roots and seeds. Apart from looking like a vermillion cough mixture it tasted just like any other gin and tonic (well perhaps a bit more interesting that your run of the mill G&T but there was nothing challenging about it in the least).
As Ben, on of the Nordic Food Lab’s ‘engineers’ explained the idea behind the G&T was to help fortify us for the food to come. Each dish, we were told, would be more challenging than the last. In case we were in any doubt as to what we were eating a board displaying each of the insects on the menu was placed each table.
First up were the Chimp Sticks (so called because this chimps use sticks to extract termites from mounds) – liquorice root covered with honey to which seeds, freeze dried raspberry, herbs and ants were adhered. Once you got over the initial shock of seeing the ants suspended in the honey they tasted pretty good and quite tart – a good contrast to the sweetness. I felt positively primal after licking the ants and seeds from the liquorice.
I’m not sure anyone was looking forward to the Moth Mousse but as mousselines go this was one of the loveliest I’ve tasted. In the true spirit of the meal the majority of the mousse was made from wax moth larvae (51%). It tasted like chicken (which was one of the ingredients in the mousse) and was served with a wonderfully earthy morel sauce with a rich umami flavour.
The kid gloves were off now. There was no disguising the next dish, Cricket Broth served with a side of Butter Roasted Locusts. The broth had fishy undertones no doubt due to the grasshopper garum used to make it. This, I didn’t like. The locusts, however, were a revelation. Crunchy, nutty and deliciously moreish. To wash them down we were served a Wormhole stout brewed by the Siren Craft Brewery from oatmeal worms. It was reminiscent of Guinness with coffee undertones and very quaffable.
As a palate cleanser (if you will) we were given a piece of honeycomb containing bee larvae. You had to pick the milky grubs out with a cocktail stick. Frankly, they tasted of very little and after the previous courses were a little disappointing.
For dessert we had The Whole Hive – bees wax ice cream, honey kombucha sauce, ‘bee bread’ (which is fermented pollen), propolis tincture (no idea!) and crisp honey. Like the bee drone larvae I found the ice cream on its own a bit bland but together the elements worked wonderfully. The honey flavour was intense but tempered by the luscious ice cream. If you’ve never had bee bread I can highly recommend it. It’s a bit like an ultra thin intensely honey flavoured waffle. A Lindisfarne Mead from St Aidens Winery was on had to complete the honey theme and rounded off the meal nicely.
So am I a convert? I certainly wouldn’t turn my nose up at a plate of roasted locusts in the future. However, I think the fact that so many people enjoyed the Moth Mousse was that you couldn’t visually identify the insect component (or really taste it). I do believe there will come a time when insect protein will be commonplace in our diets but I think it will need to be flavoured and reformed to resemble something we are familiar with like a chicken nugget. I can see insect protein being used as the food of the masses and who knows hundreds of years from now it may cross the divide from common grub to haute cuisine in much the same way as the oyster.
If you are feeling thoroughly grossed out now at the thought of eating insects I will leave you with this last thought. It is estimated the average person in the West unwittingly eats 500g of insects each year. They are found in all processed food from chocolate and bread to ketchup and yoghurt often in the form of food colouring (E120 is cochineal made from crushed up beetles) but also as part of the manufacturing process which cannot guarantee the removal of every little critter in a crop. So why not eat insects indeed?
Squashed Fly Biscuits
Makes 24 – 40 depending on how you cut them
- 225g self raising flour
- A pinch of salt
- 50g unsalted butter
- 50g golden caster sugar
- Zest of 1 small orange
- 1 egg, separated
- 1-3 tbps milk to bind
- 100g currants
- A little demerara sugar
- Preheat the oven to 180℃.
- Sift the flour and salt into a bowl. Rub in the butter and the orange zest. Stir in the sugar.
- Beat the egg yolk with 1 tbsp milk and add this to the dry ingredients. Mix until a firm but not sticky dough is formed adding more milk if necessary. Divide in half.
- Roll half the dough into a rectangle about 2-3mm thick. It doesn’t matter if it’s not a perfect rectangle as you will be trimming it shortly. Sprinkle half the currants down the centre third of the rectangle (lengthwise). Fold the top third over the currants and then the bottom third over the top of this. The currants will be encased in an envelope of dough.
- Roll this parcel out again until you have a strip of dough about 5mm thick with squashed currants just visible through parts of the thin dough. Trim the dough so that you have a more regular looking rectangle. I cut the currant parcel in half lengthwise and cut each half into 8 mini ‘soldiers’ (or however many you want). Repeat this with the other piece of dough.
- Brush with lightly beaten egg white and sprinkle with demerara sugar. Place on a greased or silicone lined baking sheet and bake for 12 – 15 minutes until golden.