By Hilmar Schmundt
"Mister Ambassador, could you please pass the salted worms?" asks Sir David King, a distinguished British gentleman and renowned scientist.
"Please, try these delicious ants as well!" replies His Excellency Mauricio Rodríguez Múnera, Colombia's ambassador to the United Kingdom. The two men toast, raising glasses filled with golden mezcal con gusano, a Mexican agave liquor with one exquisite additional ingredient -- a butterfly larva of the Megathymus genus.
As the meal is served, 10 fearless gourmet diners turn their attention to the creations of celebrity English chef Thomasina "Tommi" Miers. It's a sunny Sunday in spring at a long table on the front lawn of the Museum of Natural History at the venerable University of Oxford.
Artist Angela Palmer sent out the invitations to this "Grand Banquet of Rainforest Insects" to garner support for rainforest protection by offering a meal with courses made up of insect dishes. Yes, eating ants, dragonflies and locusts is apparently good for the environment.
By 2030, the global population is expected to balloon to 8 billion people, and meat consumption is increasing drastically. What's more, using valuable agricultural resources to feed cattle and hogs contaminates drinking water, generates greenhouse gases and accelerates rainforest deforestation.
"Insect protein is not only nutritious," Palmer says, "it's also particularly environmental." Raising insects doesn't require grazing land, concentrated feed or septic tanks, she adds, yet they taste just as good as pork or beef. But, of course, that might take some convincing.
Boys Eating Bugs
About 150 interested onlookers crowd around the tables, their expressions a mixture of curiosity and disgust. "I feel like I'm on the show 'I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!'" says Martha Kearney, a broadcaster at the BBC chosen to attend the meal. "It's awful to imagine the insects might still be crawling around when you swallow them."
As Kearney sees it, the more processed the insects are, the better they taste. She helps herself to an appetizer of dried, salted mealworms that look like miniature pretzel sticks -- and taste about the same. "Very good," she says.
Film producer Peter Bennett-Jones, whose hits have included the "Mr. Bean" movies, is not quite as thrilled. "I think the most important spice here is the mescal," he says while pouring himself another shot, making sure not to let the plump larva at the bottom of the bottle slip into his glass.
"But you must admit, the leafcutter ants taste terrific!" says the Colombian ambassador standing next to him, as he takes another helping from the bowl full of little dark-brown balls that are actually the plump abdomens of Atta laevigata ants. "We call them 'hormigas culonas,'" the ambassador adds, meaning "fat-bottomed ants."
And then the ambassador really gets going. "When we were children, there was always a big celebration when the queen ants started their nuptial flight," he says. "We caught them with our hands, bags and hats." The ants were then coated in salt, grilled and eaten like peanuts. "Whenever I eat fat-bottomed ants, I feel like a little boy again," the ambassador says.
The ants also happen to be the undisputed favorite at the table -- crisp when bitten into, with a smoky flavor and a nutty finish.
The Eco Alternative
Sir David is famous for shaping the discipline of surface science at Cambridge University together with Germany's Gerhard Ertl, a Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry. But now the slender gentleman is also reminiscing while munching on insects. As a schoolboy in South Africa, he says he used to eat live termites to impress the girls in his class. Now he praises insects as a delicacy that, unlike cattle, release very little greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
"What's the difference between a prawn and a locust?" asks Miers, the chef. "Only the fact that one lives in water and the other on land." Miers runs four Mexican restaurants in London called "Wahaca." She has also written several cookbooks and hosted a number of cooking shows.
Christopher Gray, food critic for The Oxford Times, fearlessly bites off the head of a sautéed cricket. "I don't know," he says. "It tastes too earthy to me, almost a little barnyardy."
'Try Them, Ye Epicures!'
Oxford has a history of hosting odd meals featuring exotic dishes. Around 150 years ago, the well-known zoologist Francis Trevelyan Buckland caused a stir with his culinary flights of fancy. For example, he determined that earwigs taste "horribly bitter" and nearly as bad as moles and bluebottle flies.
This was an era that saw a great deal of fear over the so-called "population trap" outlined by Thomas Robert Malthus. The British economist predicted that agriculture would not be able to keep pace with population growth, leading to famine and human suffering. In 1860, Buckland founded the Acclimatization Society, which aimed to introduce organisms like silkworms, beavers and parrots into the British diet.
Though few followed Buckland's example, the idea survived. "Wood louse sauce is equal, if not superior, to shrimp," British entomologist Vincent Holt wrote in his 1885 book "Why Not Eat Insects?" He also wrote of the joy of "a fat month nicely baked," urging his readers: "Try them, ye epicures! What possible argument can there be against eating a creature beautiful without and sweet within; a creature nourished on nectar, the fabled food of the gods?"
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