In a small, brightly coloured Bristol café full of students eating sausage baps, I find myself contemplating a plate of hot, buttery locusts. Paul Cook, chef and owner of Zulu, has just served them to me, explaining that locusts work best in a stir-fry, just like prawns. “I often do cooking demonstrations with these, and once I’ve got one person to try, I have no trouble getting the rest to taste them too.” He also does a tossed salad with crickets. “They have a nice, woody flavour.”
Cook hovers over the table, urging me on. Locusts, like prawns, have very obvious eyes, but unlike prawns you can eat them whole – armour-covered head and all (the legs and wings are removed before cooking). The insects and I ogle each other for a while before I pick up the biggest one. Blanched then quickly sautéed in a little brown butter, it is delicately meaty in the mouth, slightly crunchy – and startlingly good.
Entomophagy, or eating insects, is a minority taste – some would say a gimmick – but that may soon change. With populations growing, demand for meat has also risen, with concomitant environmental pressures. Insect protein could be a desirable alternative. Highly nutritious and low in fat, it is efficient to produce (insects prefer high stocking densities and consume less water than animals) and it has a lower impact on the planet (insects can generate 6kg-9kg of meat per 10kg of feed, compared with 1kg for beef).
But even though insects and arachnids have been a part of the human diet for thousands of years (the Romans were at it and the Old Testament refers to eating grasshoppers), westerners are generally repulsed by the idea. Marcel Dicke, professor of entomology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and fervent consumer of bugs, gave a TED lecture on the subject last year. He estimates that most people obliviously eat about 500g of insects every year. This figure is based on the amount of harmless insect fragments, from creatures such as weevils, grubs and aphids, that inevitably get into food during harvest or processing. There are also several common insect-derived food ingredients, such as cochineal or carmine red colouring made from beetle shells, and shellac, made from a secretion of the lac bug.
“I can imagine a time when there will be insect meat in things like pizza sauce or meatballs,” says Dicke. “People won’t even notice – although it’s not my message that people should eat without knowing. Eating insects is wonderful. If you enjoy a good dish of shrimp, you are going to enjoy a good dish of dragonfly larvae, locusts or caterpillars. I am convinced this is going to happen.”
Cook, who started eating and selling insects after he discovered the new market for unusual meats while rearing ostriches, is less certain. “I think we may well use bugs for protein in future, but I suspect it won’t be in bug form. We see bugs as a pest. It’s hard enough to get children to eat cabbage or fruit.” He gets his insects from all over the world – anywhere from South Africa to South America – from farms where they are carefully reared for human consumption (and often as pet food, too).
Fourteen years ago, when Dicke and his colleagues started to promote insect eating, the reaction was similarly hesitant. “To begin with people were really negative. But then, five or six years ago, they started to become more informed about the lack of animal proteins for the future.” Now the Dutch ministry of agriculture supports a €1m research programme at Wageningen and “there’s research going on into whether insects could be reared on food waste.” Of the six million species of insects that exist on earth, between 1,000 and 1,600 are edible and most are eaten somewhere. (Don’t be tempted to nibble on an ant or earwig from your garden though – like anything wild, not all insects are safe to eat and can be toxic depending on what or where they’ve eaten in their lives.)
Insects deserve promotion from their current minority status as expensive novelty foods. Both Dicke and Cook find that whenever people try insects, 90-95 per cent enjoy them, but the market in Britain is tiny. While Selfridges and Fortnum & Mason now sell insect snacks, Heston Blumenthal cooked them Victorian-style for his Heston’s Feasts television series, and Archipelago restaurant in London has taken insect eating to gourmet levels, Cook finds most of his support coming from an unlikely quarter. “When I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here comes on, our sales go through the roof,” he grins.