My first encounter with insects at mealtimes was in Spain during the early Nineties. I'd taken a bite into a nectarine and as I sucked the juices from the soft, ripe flesh, I felt something tickle the underside of my lip. As I pulled the nectarine away to take a look, there was a livid brown earwig desperately trying to make an escape from the fruit he had quietly been consuming. My reaction was one of horror, and even to this day I meticulously check over any fruit before sinking my teeth into it.
In later years, as my travels allowed me to experience different cultures, bugs and insects often frequented the dinner table. In Mexico I relished the powder made from salt and ground worms that accompanied a shot of mescal and on a journey through China one of my favourite snacks was skewers of deep-fried silkworm cocoons. However, in the West, our insect-related food products don't venture beyond a jar of honey – but that may soon be about to change.
At Nordic Food Lab, an organisation in Copenhagen that explores underutilised raw ingredients, some of their most recent research has been into insects. I'd been invited over to learn more about insects as a food source. Not in a survivalist, Bear Grylls kind of way, but as a serious ingredient in modern gastronomy. "If you want to build respect for a certain ingredient, you need to go about it in the right way," explains Benedict Reade, head of culinary research and development at Nordic Food Lab. "We don't want to lower the gastronomic value of the ingredients we are experimenting with, what we are focused on is flavour. The first question we always ask ourselves is, is it delicious?"
The Nordic Food Lab is situated on a large houseboat that floats just a few hundred feet from Noma, the revered restaurant of René Redzepi. It was Redzepi who established the Nordic Food Lab back in 2008 with his business partner Claus Meyer, though the lab is a completely separate entity to the restaurant itself. Redzepi also recently made waves by serving a dish including live ants at a Noma pop-up restaurant in London. But the research going on here shows that this was more than just a gimmick.
The workspace aboard the houseboat is open plan and full of specialist kitchen equipment, laptops and a collection of jars, pots and bottles full of unidentifiable ingredients. "Insects provide one of the most promising ways forward in developing more sustainable and diverse modes of food production, but before they will be accepted as edible, we must first make them delicious to the Western palate," says Reade. "One of the main barriers with eating insects is the crunchy exoskeleton, so we have been looking at ways to overcome that."
The first ingredient I'm to be introduced to is bee larvae, small pale-yellow grub looking things. I'm instructed to pop one into my mouth and to let it melt on my tongue; my instinct to swallow in one denied. It has a buttery texture and carries a light honey flavour. "We can use bee larvae as a substitute for eggs in some well accepted recipes," explains Reade as he knocks up a simple mayonnaise from the bee larvae and some rapeseed oil. It looks and tastes just like mayonnaise should do, but with slightly earthier, more satisfying flavour.
Mark Emil Hermansen, anthropologist at Nordic Food Lab, has been looking into the environmental impact of insects being used as a major source of food. "Insects actually match the protein content of cattle and contain many of the fatty acids and vitamins necessary for human nutrition," Hermansen explains. "They also need much less feed and have a conversion ratio of almost 1:1, meaning insects can produce up to 10 times more food than all other forms of livestock. They also require significantly less water and emit virtually no greenhouse gases." Meatballs and burgers made from ground-up insects could become the norm. In a blind tasting at Wageningen University in Holland, participants actually preferred meatballs made from mealworms over those made from beef.
Next I'm shown a deep beaker that has a dark brown liquid at the bottom and a thick light brown paste towards the top. It's garum, a fermented sauce traditionally made from fish and used as a condiment in the cuisines of ancient Greece and Rome. "This is garum made from grasshoppers that have been ground and left to ferment," explains Reade.
Reade syphons off the liquid from the bottom of the beaker and gives me a few drops to taste on a teaspoon. It's very similar to the modern-day fish sauce used in Thai cooking. It has a natural saltiness and tastes quite meaty. I can imagine using it to add depth to a stir-fry at home.
Finally, we come to a pot of insects that are still very much alive. While Selfridges is currently selling a range of raw insects including giant toasted ants as well as toasted scorpions and worm salt by Edible, a food producer which supports sustainable farming, René Redzepi's pop-up restaurant at Claridge's served a dish crawling with live ants.
"Ants have a defence system in the form of a spray that they disperse towards predators," says Reade. "Flavours vary in different species of ant and actually have nothing to do with their diet." The flavour compounds found within the ants we were about to ingest were the same as those found in kaffir limes and I'm told are very popular stirred into crème fraiche and used as a dip. I coaxed one of the small black ants on to my finger and after a slight pause, threw the little fella into my mouth. A powerful citric flavour was emitted almost instantly, delivering an impressive amount of acidity for such a tiny little creature. I asked to try some more and, eight ants later, the pot had to be put away out of my reach.
With about 1,400 species edible to man, insects are unquestionably an underutilised food source. The flavours speak for themselves and by demonstrating how insects can be used to produce everyday foodstuffs perhaps the mental barriers of consuming insects can be broken. Whilst the world's most innovative chefs and food producers continue to explore the diversity of edible insects, I'll be creating some space in the kitchen cupboards.