I recently ate a maggot courtesy of the Edinburgh-born chef Ben Reade, head of research and development at the Nordic Food Lab near the top-rated restaurant Noma in Copenhagen.
It tasted creamy, cool and sweet, like a little shot of worm-shaped ice-cream. Actually it was frozen bee larvae; challenging preconceptions was the point of the exercise. I also tasted a fermented fish sauce made from grasshoppers and wood larvae. It was good.
Reade claimed the delineation between what's edible and what's inedible in insects is purely down to "deliciousness". I asked him if he saw any parallels with Scotland, which, like Denmark, has a population of about five million and a similar climate and ecology. He blamed our obsession with Mediterranean food for holding us back from looking at our own edible biogeography, saying we should be doing more to find new indigenous insect-based flavours to help cut down on food imports.
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Mr Reade has been bringing his philosophy to Britain courtesy of Pestival, an annual event that promotes insect-eating, most recently at the Wellcome Foundation in London. The purpose of Pestival, at which dishes such as ant cocktail and butter-roasted crickets are prepared and served, is to help overcome Westerners' instinctive revulsion for consuming insects.
Why bother? Well, the UN says eating insects – which are rich in protein, fats and minerals – could help fight world hunger. Fast-breeding wasps, beetles and other insects are currently under-utilised as food for people and livestock, it says. Insect farming is one of the many ways to address food and feed security.
More than two billion people worldwide already supplement their diet with insects. But not in Scotland.
Colin Clydesdale, patron of several Glasgow restaurants including the Hanoi Bike Shop (which specialises in Vietnamese street food), has sampled deep-fried crickets the size of locusts, and a soup of beetles "as large as mice", in the Far East. Neither were pleasant experiences. In fact, he quaintly describes them as "bogging", though he concedes that if he hadn't known what he was eating it might have been different. As it was, the beetles were clearly visible. In theory, he's all for introducing the concept to Scotland, but in reality reckons we're not ready for it. Other progressive chefs such as Mark Greenaway in Edinburgh agree that his customers would baulk at the very idea.
We happily eat snails (as previously reported, those from Barra are gaining in popularity), so what's the difference? It's a cultural thing; wild edible insects are not abundant in the UK. But if they have to be processed to disguise their true identity and imported, it means they're not fresh or local – which is counter to the current foodie zeitgeist.
Research is ongoing at the Hutton Institute in Aberdeen to discern the potential of various ecological habitats in nurturing a range of indigenous insect species. And there's the untapped potential for the Scottish midge to finally find a worthwhile purpose in life.
In the meantime, perhaps a spoonful of sugar might help the Mexican mealybug go down.