A creeping revolution has started in Pembrokeshire. This is a red-letter moment in British gastronomy.
The dung beetle that greets you is the farm’s mascot and is the favourite insect of Sarah Beynon, an Oxford PhD, entrepreneur and television entomologist who runs a side business called Dung Beetles Direct. Beynon has pooled all she owns with Holcroft to buy this farm, and he plans to run the restaurant while she builds her insect research centre and tropical bug house. She wants farmers to exploit insects instead of blasting them with pesticides.
Entomophagy — the term for human consumption of insects — is a booming business. Some 30 start-ups using bugs in everything from protein shakes to crisps have been launched in America in the past few years. Crobar, Britain’s first energy bars made from ground-up crickets (and rather tasty), went on sale a few days ago.
The realisation that within a few decades the world will have another 2 billion bellies to fill, that its farmland is dwindling, that conventional agriculture is wasteful, thirsty and toxic and that many insects are delicious — has diminished the western taboo against eating them.
Many of us, in fact, spend our lives digesting crushed beetle carcasses as red food colouring, spreading bee-vomit on organic toast (made from flour that contains even more insect parts than the cheaper bleached stuff) and wrapping our necks in garments woven from the excretions of baby moths. Every year people following a typical western diet are estimated to consume up to 2lb of insect pieces — thousands of whole organisms and their assorted wings, heads, thoraxes and mushy internal organs.
Culture, not nutrition, determines food. Horror at the notion of eating a mealworm is a learnt response from our society, as well as parents, the advertising industry and such popular reinforcements as I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out Of Here! and the gross-out ethnocentrism of Bear Grylls. In Cambodia and Venezuela children gather and deep-fry heavy arachnids: their legs allegedly taste of mashed potato (the spiders’, I mean). Most of the world eats insects with relish; in parts of Mexico people devour grasshoppers, but retch if you offer them a prawn.
“I was in rural Zambia with local people one evening,” says Beynon as we stand in her tropical bug house, “and watched them catch flying ants from the sky. They persuaded me to taste one: it was sweet and juicy and delicious and it made me see insects in a completely new way.”
I believe her, but writhing around us in that room are giant African millipedes, whip scorpions, hissing cockroaches, a rainbow stag beetle leaning stockily against his rotting log and squirming grubs as fat as Churchill’s cigars. My guts clench when I spot a vast and coiled tarantula sucking water from a plastic tub. Do you touch that, I squeak.
“Not often,” says Beynon. “Her fangs are 3cm long but her venom is pathetic — it hurts like a wasp sting. We try not to handle them too much, because if you drop one it can’t stand the impact and goes splat.” Useful if you ever meet a Goliath birdeater.
“Why not eat insects?” wondered the American pamphleteer Vincent Holt in 1885 in human insectivory’s founding modern text. Holt recognised the creatures’ nutritional value when the diet of the poor was bland and unhealthy (little has changed, of course). The photographer who joined me at Grub Kitchen, a 22-year-old from Cardiff, looked aphid-green as he watched Holcroft mix the hummus, but was soon pronouncing his “bug burger” — made from grasshopper, crickets, cricket flour and mealworms — “stunning”. I try black ants that taste like ferrous bitter lemon, with a palate-swamping tartness from their formic acid.
Our disgust at entomophagy is hard to explain. We associate insects with filth and death: carrion-feasting maggots, pestilential flies, even the worm food that we become. But Grub Kitchen’s larvae live on bran and potato, and you don’t want to know what your lobster and crab had for dinner. The rearing and slaughter of insects in a modern setting are more humane than the horrors of the British factory farm and abattoir. Mealworm larvae enjoy being packed together, and cold-blooded creatures shut down in a cold environment, so Beynon simply chills them to sleep. A bug’s life ends at Dignitas.
Thirty years ago in this country sushi was either a Mayfair delicacy or a niche product for the Japanese diaspora. Now you can buy it — or an ersatz version — in Boots. And if Grub Kitchen’s cricket-flour cookie was slightly oversweet and its home-made burger bun needed toasting — so what?