“Waiter, waiter, there’s a fly in my soup,” I say, pointing a spoon at my starter. Strictly speaking, the spindly, orange-brown limbs poking out from my starter are grasshoppers. But I’m allowing myself some poetic licence.
Ellis, the waiter in question, humours me with polite laughter. Apparently, as one of the first diners here, I’m also the first to use the line on him. As he works at what has been dubbed Britain’s first insect restaurant, I suspect I won’t be the last.
Grub Kitchen, which opened in November 2015 near St David’s, Pembrokeshire, is the first in the UK to include insects in most items on its menu. Although an oddity to most Westerners, eating insects is commonplace in many countries. And as the world’s population rises rapidly and demand for meat and fish rises more rapidly still, the voices proclaiming that our current diets are unsustainable are getting louder.
Little wonder then that previously radical ideas are being taken more seriously. Danish chef René Redzepi has been extolling the virtues of eating insects at his Copenhagen restaurant Noma for several years, while London’s Archipelago also offers several insect-based dishes.
But are Grub Kitchen dishes like mealworm hummus, bug burritos and chilli cricket cocktail the solution? Are they novelties that should be left to reality TV contestants, or could they really help feed the world? And – the question that can’t be answered with research studies alone – what do they taste like?
I booked a table to find out.
My starter is a fire-roasted red pepper and tomato soup with a garlic grasshopper crumb. The eyes peering at me from beneath a basil leaf are a little disconcerting. However, the insects have a pleasant nutty taste, closest perhaps to hazelnut. And their crunch adds texture to the soup’s smoky peppers.
Grasshopper eyes peering out from beneath a basil leaf can be a little disconcerting (Credit: Nic Fleming)
“As a chef, insects provide a good opportunity to try some new things out with ingredients that others aren’t using,” says Andy Holcroft, Grub Kitchen founder and chef. “I want to demonstrate they can be tasty and nutritious and provide an alternative, more sustainable source of protein to the intensive rearing of livestock.”
Insects are high in protein, fats, minerals and vitamins
By 2050, the United Nations estimates there will be an extra 2.3 billion mouths to feed and demand for animal feed will grow by 70%. Prices of high-protein feeds based on soya and fish have soared, and the livestock industry already emits more greenhouses gases than aeroplanes, cars and the rest of the transport sector combined.
Insects could be the solution: they are high in protein, fats, minerals and vitamins. A study published in 2013 found crickets to be two, four and 12 times as efficient as chickens, pigs and cattle respectively in terms of how much feed is required to produce a given amount of meat. Insects can also be fed on out-of-date food or agricultural waste and they require a fraction of the water and generate much less greenhouse gas than traditional livestock.
The question is whether people can be convinced to eat them.
Worms in wine sauce
Next up: a puff pastry pie of seasonal vegetables, mealworms and crickets in red wine sauce. Despite considering myself an adventurous eater, I instinctively recoil at the sight of the mealworms – which look like maggots, only three times as long – floating on the gravy’s surface.
Mealworms in puff pastry might make some diners recoil, but researchers point out that tastes can change rapidly (Credit: Nic Fleming)
This ‘yuck factor’ divides Grub Kitchen’s other diners. Lisa Reeves, a teaching assistant in a local school, compares the grasshoppers to crispy bacon. Her daughters beg to differ. “I’m not eating that,” says Alana, aged eight. “They look disgusting.” Megan, 13, is even less keen, responding to questions by pulling her woolly hat further down over her eyes. “She’s not speaking to me because I put her off her lemonade by eating grasshoppers,” says her mother.
Not so long ago sushi was a weird, disgusting Japanese thing that no Englishman in his right mind would touch
But as researchers point out, tastes can change rapidly. “Not so long ago sushi was a weird, disgusting Japanese thing that no Englishman in his right mind would touch,” says entomologist Peter Smithers, an associate research fellow at the University of Plymouth with an interest in edible insects.
“If you explain to people in an entertaining and informative way that insects are eaten all over the world, most are willing to give them a try.”
In the interests of research, I taste a second main course. Grub Kitchen’s signature dish is a bug burger made with mealworms, crickets and grasshoppers in a focaccia roll, served with polenta chips and ant-topped garlic mayonnaise. It’s like a veggie burger with a more interesting range of tastes and textures. Like the surprising citrus tang and popping sensations that come from crunching through the ants.
Grub Kitchen’s signature dish: a bug burger (Credit: Nic Fleming)
Although I enjoyed the dish, it’s a sensation not all diners would enjoy – which is why some believe insects can play a valuable future role in human diets one step further down the food chain, as livestock feed. Companies in countries including the US, Canada, France, the Netherlands and South Africa are setting up ever larger insect farms to generate protein for feed for more traditional farm animals.
Elsewhere in the world, consumers have fewer qualms about eating insects more directly. Ants are served with sticky rice in southeast Asia, dipped in chocolate in Brazil and put in soups in China. Grasshoppers are deep-fried in Thailand, and toasted with chilli and lime in Mexico. Aboriginal Australians enjoy fat witchetty grubs.
In fact, more than 1,900 insect species have been reported as in use as food sources and insects still form the diets of at least two billion people worldwide, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.
But in Britain, the practice pretty much died out with the Saxons, who used to collect and eat the larvae of cockchafers (a type of beetle sometimes called the May bug). As farming methods improved, the time-consuming practice of hunting for insect grubs in the wild gradually made less and less sense, especially in non-tropical climates where they grow more slowly.
More than 1,900 insect species have been reported as in use as food sources
“One reason people eat insects more in the tropics is they grow more quickly in the tropics, whereas the colder temperatures in temperate regions mean there isn’t the abundance or mass of insect material that make them worth harvesting,” says Smithers.
A rocky road
This may be the case, but there’s definitely some insect material in the six-legged rocky road dessert which Ellis has just placed in front of me. But the subtle flavours of the grasshoppers and mealworms are overpowered by the chocolate-marshmallow sweetness.
Chocolate-marshmallow sweetness overpowers the subtle flavour of insects (Credit: Nic Fleming)
Currently Holcroft and others selling insect-based foods in Britain are restricted to offering dried creepy crawlies from countries like Holland and Canada, where there are small-scale insect farming operations.
It is currently legal to farm insects for human consumption in the UK although there are no known operations doing so, and opinions are divided among experts on whether existing legislation on traditional livestock apply to insects. Holcroft hopes one day to be able to farm his own.
“At the moment we have to get our insects freeze-dried or dehydrated from abroad,” Ahe says. “If we were able to use fresh insects, there might be different ways to use them – such as slow roasting – to get different flavours.”
Others doubt insects can be farmed economically in the UK because of the climate. Sceptics also point to the cost of insects as another major barrier: the cheapest are mealworms which currently go for around £45 per kilo wholesale – more than 10 times the cost of minced beef. Crickets cost around double the price of mealworms, and locusts around double the price of crickets.
Traditional meat prices are likely to rise in the future. It’s impossible, though, to calculate how much the cost of insect-based protein will fall as industrial-scale farming operations are set up.
In the meantime, Holcroft hopes he can attract enough adventurous diners to make Grub Kitchen into a commercial success. “The main challenge, not just my business but the edible insects industry, isn’t getting people to try insects,” he says. “It’s getting them to come back purely for the food.”
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