Text by Astrid Olsson
I am not sure I’ve ever tasted anything quite like a “chimp stick”. The “dish” – inspired by chimpanzees using sticks to eat termites out of their nests – is basically a stick of liquorice root covered in honey, flaxseed, buckwheat, freeze-dried raspberries, shiso leaves and two types of ant. You lick it like a lollipop and then the flavours hit you: against a base woody taste comes this sharp citrus tang that’s somewhere between a turbo-charged lime and a kid’s sweet exploding in your mouth. The sharp flavour, almost unbelievably, comes from a red ant, or Formica rufa. When I later read up online about red ants, nowhere does it say they taste good.
The chimp stick was created by Copenhagen’s Nordic Food Lab, a Willy Wonka-esque experiment on a house boat set up in 2008 by Noma co-founders Rene Redzepi and Claus Meyer, the latter an eccentric TV chef and entrepreneur whose interests run from vinegar breweries to a new restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia.
On the boat, a young team that includes researchers, anthropologists, flavour chemists and botanists work with petri dishes of decaying cultures, and little packets of ageing seaweeds, foraged plants and tree specimens. They’ve experimented with everything from boar-tainted meat (the unpleasant flavour found in uncastrated males) to “noble rot” (the benevolent fungus that grows on Northern European grapes) and kombucha, a fermented tea made when you add certain yeasts and bacteria to lemon verbena.
But recently their main preoccupation has been with insects – and not just the Formica rufas they source from a Copenhagen biology professor who knows about these things. Bugs are high in protein, low in fat, cheap, environmentally-friendly and defiantly abundant. There are an estimated 10 quintillion of them on the planet, which equates to 40 tonnes of insects for every human. Yet people in the West aren’t that fond of eating them, something the Nordic Food Lab wants to change.
I meet a handful of the lab’s chefs at a test kitchen in west London, where they are preparing for an appearance at Pestival, a celebration of insects that includes maggot art, ant ballet and cockroach tours. The festival’s most in-demand event is the Nordic Food Lab’s sold-out talk that night, “Exploring the Deliciousness of Insects”, where attendees will be served a host of canapés, from moth mousse to cricket broth and roasted locust, all washed down with anty gin and tonic, and beer made with worms.
I get to try some of the little dishes before the big event in the company of the fast-talking Ben Reade, the Head of Culinary Research and Development at the Nordic Food Lab. Clearly an unconventional wunderkind, the 28-year-old Scotsman started at the Food Lab after talking his way onto a course at Piedmont’s University of Gastronomic Sciences, set up by Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini. He describes meeting Rene Redzepi and Claus Meyer as “like tumbling down a rabbit hole”.
He explains the aim of the fancy insect dishes: “We know the arguments about sustainability and why we should eat insects, but the most important argument for us is that we can make them taste delicious. There are about 1,900 species of edible insects to choose » from and an infinite variety of preparations. We need to prove that they can taste damn good.”
Aside from the mind-bending chimp stick, I sample the legless desert locusts, which are roasted with a green wild garlic and ant emulsion; the flavour is slightly nutty and salty, and you can just about believe Reade when he claims we’ll be eating these as bar snacks in the future. More haute cuisine is the wax moth larvae mousseline (it’s 51 per cent moth) with an earthy fermented morel sauce – here the morels provide the dominant flavour and I couldn’t really say what wax moth larvae taste like.
“For a lot of history, the majority of cultures have eaten insects,” says Nordic Food Lab director Michael Bom Frøst, a “sensory scientist” and senior professor at the University of Copenhagen. “Chocolate-covered ants were even a popular snack in Victorian England. The problem is that Western Europe stopped eating them, and the world looks at what’s happening in Europe and goes the » same way. An environmentally sound culinary tradition is slowly being abandoned.”
The sustainability argument is impossible to ignore – a study by FoodServiceWarehouse.com suggested that swapping pork and beef for crickets and locusts could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 95 per cent. However Frøst, like Reade, is keen that the project is not about presenting insects as some sort of unpalatable but unavoidable save-the-planet solution. “This can’t be a gimmick and we want to go further than just seeing this as something environmentally sound or a nutrition thing where we substitute insects for the protein in dishes. We want to create something that can win over the palates of the world.”
The Pestival event and the Nordic Food Lab’s work are manifestations of a movement that seems to be gathering pace. In 2012, Noma served ants at a pop-up restaurant in London’s luxury Claridge’s hotel and, since 2011, the UN has been funding projects promoting the farming and eating of insects in South East Asia and Africa, where an estimated two billion people already eat insects and caterpillar larvae as part of their regular diets.
If the Nordic Food Lab has its way, we’ll all soon be joining them. As Reade puts it: “In 2023 we’ll look back and we won’t be able to believe that we weren’t eating more insects in 2013.”
Reasons to eat bugs
It’s 20 times more efficient to raise protein in insects than in beef, and it takes up to 1,000 times less water. That’s because cattle, like most livestock, waste energy on things like their fur, their bones and their body temperature.
Take the humble caterpillar, an unsung superfood that packs a walloping 28g of protein per 100g (more than most fish), and is loaded with iron and vitamins B1 and B3. And as with all insects, they’re basically fat free.
According to Noma’s Rene Redzepi, certain ants taste like seared lemon rind, and a purée of fermented grasshoppers and moth larvae tastes like a strong fish sauce. Apparently, bee larvae make a good sweet mayonnaise, while leafcutter ants taste like a cross between bacon and pistachio.