On Friday evening we headed to London (an unusual event in itself) to the Natural History Museum for one of their special After Hours events. The museum stays open late into the evening for guests who have booked tickets to visit the special exhibitions while it’s quieter (although the main bulk of the museum closes as normal). We weren’t booked in for an exhibition – we ended up in the restaurant for a special tasting session of edible insects.
As I discussed when we booked the tickets, there has been some buzz in the media of late over whether or not eating more insects could solve some of the food shortage problems around the world, and provide a low-carbon source of protein. One of the speakers at the Edible Insects evening was Meredith Alexander from ActionAid, and it was her opinion that most food shortages are caused by food distribution issues rather than a lack of food per se, and one of the big problems with modern agriculture is that we look for global solutions, when we should be looking at local landscapes and tailoring our agricultural methods (and crops) to what the land is most suited to produce.
The main speaker was Stuart Hine, who is an entomologist at the NHM and who advises on insect contamination in food and identifies insects and things like that. Surprisingly, perhaps, he’s a big fan of insects and thinks we should all be eating more of them!
Ostensibly the evening was a serious discussion of these issues, but really it was just a chance for people to try eating insects – something we normally tend to avoid doing. An interesting crowd turned up, although it has to be said that some of them left at the intermission, and many didn’t seem to eat any of the insects at all. It’s not as though they didn’t know what they were signing up for when they bought the tickets!
When we sat down at our table, we were confronted with a bowl of muesli:
It turned out that this was an ice breaker – the idea being that we would all search through and find various insect parts. But by the time the event started properly, Pete and I (mostly Pete) had eaten all the bug bits from ours! I never did find out what species they were…. This was to highlight the fact that it’s impossible to produce food without insect contamination, and there was a factsheet on the table that showed some of permissible levels of contamination – click through to see a photo of the sheet (but don’t look if you’re squeamish, because you’re better off not knowing).
The ‘starter’ was a plate of mealworms and mole crickets (both apparently ‘flavoured’ in some way, although it was hard to tell). The mealworms I had no problem with – I’m used to handling them for the chickens, and they’re nice and rigid and crispy. They tasted a bit like BBQ or bacon crisps, or savoury popcorn. The mole crickets tasted like a less pleasant version of the powdered fish stuff you get on crispy seaweed in Chinese restaurants. They weren’t as easy to eat, being more obviously insecty.
The ‘main course’ was a sampler plate, and I didn’t manage to identify all of the species involved. The white one that looks like a larva was salty and fishy; the ants had no discernible flavour and were unpleasantly gritty; the beetle-ish thing was dry and savoury (and, again, the most difficult one for me to eat).
After the break the remaining diners were treated to silkworm pupae, which can be considered a by-product of the silk industry, so you’re effectively eating a waste product. THEY WERE NASTY. All of the insects we were served were dehydrated, apparently as Westerners find that easier to cope with than nice, juicy fresh insects – but according to Stuart Hine silkworm pupae can be nice if they are prepared well. One of the guests described these as being like a “cheesy wotsit that’s been down the back of the sofa for six months”. Enough said.
Dessert is often the highlight of a meal for many people. On this occasion it was white chocolate discs with weaver ants – they explained the rather powerful flavour, which was almost minty but not as nice. It’s the formic acid, you see.
By the end of the evening, I was pleased I could say I had tried one of everything, as beforehand I wasn’t sure I could overcome my initial distaste. I struggled at a couple of points, but I managed. Pete hoovered up any leftovers without a second glance. Whether I will ever eat insects again, though, is debatable – nothing on the menu left me wanting more!