Edible Insects, Taste and Education in Oxford


Edible Insects, Taste and Education in Oxford

28 Aug 2015
Last month, we were lucky enough have a taste education workshop  ‘Love Bug’ in Oxford, serving up an unusual evening meal of edible insects! The surprisingly tasty critters were part of an aphrodisiacal foods taster evening, and are becoming increasingly popular across the world as a more sustainable source of protein. Missed all the buzz? Read more in this special blog from organiser Rebecca Roberts.  Entomophagy (i.e. eating edible insects) has been a longstanding gastronomic practice in Asia, Africa, Oceania and Central America, thanks to a diverse insect population and continued demand for seasonal, wild foods. From over 2000 species of edible insect, the favourites are beetles (31% of consumption), caterpillars (18%), wasps and ants (14%) and then other species such as grasshoppers, crickets and worms. 29114015.jpg-pwrt2

Despite this, in Western culinary culture, there is a tendency to group all insects into one homogenous blob: ‘pest’, ‘disgusting’, ‘primitive’. There are of course exceptions to the rule. In the US, flies and crickets have been farmed but, as it’s mainly for animal and fish feed rather than human food, attention has been limited. In continental Europe, milbenkase (mite cheese) is traditional to Germany and casu marzu is a delicacy in Sardinia. However, with stringent health and safety regulations and a stubborn prioritisation of large domesticates such as cows and pigs over protein-rich grubs, these examples have been few and far between.

This all seems to be changing. As we speak, the notion of edible insects as a food source in Western diets is breaking out of its cocoon and morphing into the glorious butterfly that is a ‘global solution to world food, health and climate crises’. With a projected 75% increase in demand for meat by 2050, and livestock production competing for scarce resources (land, water, fertiliser), edible insects are framed as an efficient, protein-rich alternative for both human consumption and animal feed. Statistics are further cementing insects as a solution to global crises: If everyone on earth switched to eating insects, 30% of the world’s land surface could be reclaimed from livestock; 18% of greenhouse gas emissions could be eliminated; 33% could be cut from average food prices in most countries. While statistics paint an outline, we also need stories to create value behind our food. Entomophagy is also a chance to explore the more intimate aspects of our food system; cultural heritage and diverse food cultures, individual tastes and experiences, and social values ranging from revulsion to reverence. Three young women – Rebecca, Charlotte and Annie - from Oxford, UK, have started to explore the role of taste education in the protection and appreciation of this diversity.    Taste education stems from Slow Food, an international movement campaigning for good, clean, fair food. With globalisation of Western diets and lifestyles, the diversity of traditional foods and the cultures and environments that underpin them are in jeopardy. As consumers, this undermining risks further detaching us from the enjoyment, tastes, textures, aromas and fascinating stories behind our foods.  “By understanding where our food comes from, how it was produced and by whom, adults and children can learn how to combine pleasure and responsibility in daily choices and appreciate the cultural and social importance of food” So, the question is: How effective is taste education in educating and inspiring people about the diverse socio-cultures and environments underpinning edible insects? First, taste education helps to harness curiosity surrounding entomophagy and uses this as a tool for further knowledge exploration on underlying themes such as food culture, climate change and sustainable diets. IMG_4240The trio’s first workshop was at Tandem Festival, an annual festival in Oxfordshire which celebrates arts, culture and environments from across Europe. Here, around 30 attendees were met with a table adorned with hornet nests and silk worm cocoons, caterpillars in test tubes, silk worm pupae, grasshoppers and wasp larvae. The panoply of insect cuisine was approached with both excitement and caution, shown by the range of comments made after an initial tasting:IMG_6403  “Grasshoppers are sweet, crunchy and leggy”, “Will they sting me?”, and, commenting on silk worm pupae, “The textures were a challenge but the taste was strong, full and meaty”. The adrenaline from experiencing new tastes and textures helped spark debate. Topics included insects and welfare in wild and farmed environments, the policy surrounding entomophagy and its role in ‘the future of food’, and the links between edible insects, psychology and taste. For example, perhaps it is the fact you eat the insect whole that makes it 'icky' ("You wouldn't shove a pig, trotters and all, into your mouth"); and what about the importance of machoism ("I'll eat that grub 'cos I'm macho") when it comes to eating unusual/potentially unsafe foods? Second, taste education can help one reach beyond their ‘culinary comfort zones’ and value the unknown. Consumer preference is incredibly important when determining whether or not insects will be accepted as a food choice in the West. With gastronomy being dynamic, based on culinary norms in a particular society, taste education is a chance to help challenge set tastes and values towards entomophagy and slowly transform the initial ‘ick factor’ into intrigue. This is particularly important amongst children and adolescents, a demographic that have not developed such strong habits and emotions towards specific food groups. For example, at Tandem Festival, around a third of the group was aged between 5 – 10 years old; the perfect participants for creating a nutritious ‘bug banquet’. Picnic benches offered an array of roasted vegetables, locally baked breads and wraps, cheeses and edible insects. Through experimentation, they found that silk worms go particularly well with blue cheese, and grasshoppers add crunch to creamy avocado on sourdough bread. At Love Bug, a taste education evening targeted at young adults, Rebecca and Annie cooked with traditional aphrodisiacs and edible insects (many of which, contrary to belief that oysters and champagne are the winning combination, are aphrodisiacs themselves). The meal included avocado and grasshopper sushi, fresh pasta with an umami-rich silk worm and mato sauce, and vegan ice cream with honeycomb and wasp larvae. The tablecloths were sheets of paper, inviting the guests to scribble and doodle thoughts and sensory experiences as they ate, interacted and learned about each course. This experience highlighted the important links between our sensory responses, our geography and tradition, and what makes a revered delicacy.

Overall, by letting people prepare or eat meal in a social IMG_0627 setting, they went from poking at insects in disgust to being involved emotionally, gastronomically and intellectually with entomophagy as a concept and practice. The individual focus and hands-on element of taste education gives people agency and a voice, which can then be grounded in global perspectives and debates on entomophagy and its link to society, environment and culture. This resonates with the powerful quote:

To eat is a necessity, to eat intelligently is an art” With an upcoming Bug Banquet workshop in mid-August at Green Man Festival, UK, the potential of taste education as a tool to explore and appreciate the rich world of entomophagy is motivating in itself. What makes it more so is that, this time, we will be combining an appreciation of provenance with an exploration of ‘The Future’, further catalysing a shift from seeing insects as a ‘pest’ to ‘potential’ in sustainable food and agricultural systems.   Rebecca Roberts is a food geographer from Oxford, particularly interested in the links between socio-politics, economics and sustainability in food systems.  She researches and tells the stories behind food through investigative journalism, international development consultancy and taste education events. She is currently based in Copenhagen, acting as research intern for the Nordic Food Lab; a not-for-profit institution exploring food, deliciousness and diversity. @Biz_AsUnusual https://businessasunusual.blogspot.co.uk

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