Forgive the pun, but there’s been a bit of a buzz about insects recently.
For a while it seemed that not a day could go by without an article appearing describing the importance of an insect diet, or how frying crickets and sautéing scorpions could solve a global food crisis. There are a dozen different companies in the U.K. alone farming insects for food. In London, restaurants like Archipelago and the Edible Shop in the Food Hall at Selfridges serve bugs in various different guises.
There’s nothing new, or odd, about eating insects and their exoskeletal cousins. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates 1400 different insects, grubs and arachnids are eaten across the world, mostly in African nations, Asia and Latin America. In Thailand, crickets are served fried as a bar snack. In Ghana they eat termites. The Chinese eat scorpions soused in baiju; the Japanese like silkworms and wasp larvae. The Cambodians fry tarantulas and report they have the flavor of crab (naturally – they are from the same taxonomic phylum, as are scorpions).
Insects and arachnids are an excellent source of protein, farming them requires a fraction of the energy needed to raise cattle and other livestock, and they produce hardly any greenhouse gases. Cockroaches, according to the FAO, are the only insects that emit methane gases.
I’ve been eating snails and mollusks since I was in short trousers. I eat prawns, lobster and spider crabs with (or without) relish. I’ve eaten frogs’ legs and guinea pigs, calves’ brains and sea slugs. Why on earth should I baulk at a grasshopper?
It was with this in mind that I took myself along to the wine merchant Laithwaites in London’s Vinopolis to see what sort of wine matches we could find to go with a variety of bug cuisine.
© Laithwaites |
To say that I went blithely (fools rush in where angels fear to tread) would be an overstatement, but still I wasn’t quite prepared for the actual sight of the mealworm taco and the cricket pad thai. There is just something about a plate of worms. Due to their inherent worminess, which persists despite their being indubitably dead, they seem to wriggle. I don’t know if it’s my western sensibilities, but I’m conditioned to see insects – especially their larvae – as concomitant with decay, and therefore to be avoided as a foodstuff.
Nevertheless, food they are and, as such, the chance of seeing how they would work with wine was one not to be missed.
The raw material all came from crunchycritters.com, which supplies a variety of insect snacks, both raw and dried. The dishes were prepared by Darren Castleman of the Good Eating Company, who told me he was doubtful at first, but as soon as he seriously researched how these insects are used worldwide, and began to think about the best way of preparing them, he was hooked.
Laithwaites buyer Beth Willard had chosen a selection of wines – all white – to go with the dishes. Her instincts were absolutely right. The mealworms and the crickets had very delicate, nutty flavours that would have been overwhelmed by anything with too much tannin or acid. Those two dishes demanded light, fresh flavours and low alcohol. The only dish that would have taken a red wine was the weaver-ant frangipane. I wish we’d had an Aussie sparkling Shiraz to hand (and that’s the first time I’ve ever said that).
© Laithwaites |
Insect fare and the wines to wash them down:
Cricket pad thai
Fried crickets are eaten as street snacks in Thailand. The pad thai was made with rice noodles, bean sprouts, sautéed peanuts, spring onions and lime. There’s a nice combination of crunch with the soft, citrus texture of the noodles; the crickets themselves have a delicate flavor of hazelnuts, and an unusual chewy brittleness. The wings get caught between your teeth. The best match was the 2012Cabrito Albillo from DO Madrid – it has all the aromatics and defined fruit of Albariño but is more delicate and less overtly acidic.
Mealworms are a challenging dish; the slightest jolt and they appear to wriggle. The aroma is musty, or earthy, reminiscent of the smell of parsnips pulled fresh from the ground. The flavor is lightly salted parsnip crisps, with a walnut-juice dry sourness to the finish. A hollow, powdery crunch to the texture. The Comtesse de Bellefleur Grande Réserve Champagne’s creaminess and citrus worked well, taking away that disagreeable mustiness. The delicate earthy notes in the Prospector’s Riesling Viognierfrom Clare Valley also worked, but again the delicate, textured Cabrito is the best match.
Chapulines (Mexican grasshoppers) on toast
These little beasts had the strongest flavor so far, a savory umami, a bit like miso, with a mushroom earthiness. After the now-familiar skeletal crunch, the texture is meaty and chewy. A sauce of hoi sin, plum and sweet chilli was a nice foil for the concentrated saltiness. As expected, this dish’s strong flavors overwhelmed most of the wines. The Champagne just about worked although didn’t allow any length to develop, but it was the Fino that sang. As Beth said, it was almost like salted tapas in the south of Spain; the intense reduced nuttiness of the Gutierrez Colosia Fino perfectly complemented the grasshopper’s salty heft, both playing off each other for a long and satisfying finish.
Frangipane of pear, cinnamon and queen weaver ant
Another challenging dish. What looks like a mini pecan tart is in fact crushed ants – having bitten into it I can make out bits of head, thorax and abdomen. I haven’t seen an ant in such exploded detail since high school biology. The tart lacks sweetness – all I get is egg and cinnamon, and the ants, in the mid-palate, release goaty flavours of sweaty straw and a fine tang of faintly scented urine. This needs a robust wine. The Champagne works, its yeastiness and effervescence mitigating the stable aromas, but all the other whites, including the Fino, are defeated by this one.