Shortly before his Super Bowl performance on Sunday, Justin Timberlake held a listening party for Man of the Woods, his new forest-themed album. As journalists listened to songs about flannel, they were served woodsy canapes, including grasshoppers and fried ants. The caterer was Noma founder René Redzepi, king of the weird and foraged, who had been hauled out of his kitchen – Noma 2 opens this month in Copenhagen – to frighten the music industry.
Does the return of Noma suggest that edible ants are back? Promoted as part of the sustainable-food drive, insects are often discussed, but rarely eaten. Ants suffer particularly short shrift, probably because they are small, bitter and viewed as a novelty for events such as expensive album launches. They contain protein, but in the meritocracy of sustainability they pale in comparison to the I’m a Celebrity classic, the witchetty grub, which is high in protein and vitamin C and tastes like almonds.
The main issue with eating insects has been marketing – a problem that is coupled with a misguided ethnocentric feeling of revulsion at eating something we usually associate with filth and decay. But the idea of eating these leaf-dwellers shouldn’t gross us out – 2 billion people around the world regularly eat insects. So, should I join them?
I ordered a bag of wild black ants from the internet, and got stuck in, first following a cheese biscuit recipe from the website Crunchy Critters, and then adding them to a gin and tonic, as suggested by the chefs at Noma. The bitter, vaguely acrid flavour of the ants took me back to the late 1980s and the construction of my first ant tower. It was a considerable feat of engineering, given that I was four, but one that quickly descended into genocide when I decided to eat the ants. Then, as now, my main takeaways were that ants are sharp and lemony, something that owes, perhaps, to the varying levels of ascorbic acid they contain.
For domestic consumption, you can simply hoover them up from your ruined picnic using a clean car hoover, freeze them, pick out unwanted twigs and dry them on a low heat in the oven. Dried ants are best served dipped in melted chocolate.
Redzepi did not invent the ant-as-snack, but through Noma they have enjoyed a robust if niche success as a garnish. Noma popups from London to Japan have seen ants sprinkled atop creme fraiche, placed on lettuce leaves and seasoning still-moving prawns.
At the listening party, they came doused with a blend of black garlic, rose oil and Timberlake lumbersexuality. Alas, this multisensory experience went largely undocumented, as everyone’s phone had been confiscated.
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