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Snack on that! Are insects the future of food?

Gavin Haines

18th November, 2011

With seven billion people to feed, agriculture is feeling the strain. So are creepie crawlies the solution? The Ecologist takes a closer look

It might not be the shrewdest observation made by a journalist, but snail poo stinks. Of course you can’t smell it when one of them goes to the toilet in your pansy beds but in large quantities, the stuff reeks. My visit to Dorset Escargot, a commercial snail farm near Wimborne, was certainly an aromatic experience. Owned by Tony Walker, he has the unenviable job of hosing out the excrement created by the tens of thousands of snails he breeds on the farm - a chore he was finishing when I arrived.

Tony started the business in 2006. Celebrity chef, Anthony Worrall Thompson, was his first customer and since then Dorset Escargot has been doing a roaring trade. ‘They’re becoming so popular we can’t keep up with demand,’ beams Tony, who supplies some of London’s top restaurants, including Claridges. ‘We’re hoping to farm 10,000 snails per week by the end of the year.’ Britain’s steadily growing taste for snails has been a long time coming. They might be de rigeur on dinner plates across the Channel but we have been slow, even by a snail’s standards, to embrace these Marmite molluscs (you either love them or hate them).  But chefs and diners across the country are finally discovering the delights of snail meat and some of Tony’s clients, which have also included Gary Rhodes, are producing all manner of exciting escargot dishes; The Waldorf Hilton in London serves them with black pudding, wild garlic and boar bacon, The Bridge House Hotel in Beaminster, Dorset offers them as part of an all day breakfast, while Club Gascon in London has taken it one step further, having just introduced snail caviar to their Michelin star menu.

‘I‘ve been experimenting with snails for two or three years, I’m coming up with new dishes all the time,’ says Steve Pielesz, head chef at Dorset’s Bridge House Hotel. ‘On the dinner menu at the moment we’ve got a mini snail pasty with chips, baked bean puree and homemade ketchup.’ Dishes like these might sound like a gimmick and, to a certain extent, they probably are. But there are many nutritional benefits to be had from eating these gastropods; snail meat is packed with protein and is fat free. I’m also told they are a great vehicle for flavour. ‘They work really well in Asian dishes,’ claims Tony, who eats snail several times a week.

But why stop at snails? Not only are most insects good for you, they’re also good for the planet because farming them requires a fraction of the energy needed to produce other meat. What’s more, according to the UN, insects, which are eaten in many countries around the world, are an better source of protein than the usual cows, pigs and sheep. On top of that, there’s no need to chop down rainforests for grazing because leafy forests and woodland provides precisely the sort of conditions in which insects thrive. ‘The environmental footprint of insects as food is far smaller than other meat-producing animals,’ says Patrick Durst, who works for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). ‘Insects are approximately six times more efficient than cattle and more than twice as efficient as pigs or poultry in converting the feed they eat into insect tissue suitable for human consumption. They also emit fewer greenhouse gases in growing (and in processing) than other livestock.’

Historically, a considerable portion of the world’s population has dined out on insects and it’s only in western culture where the practice has died out. ‘The FAO has documented insect consumption by humans in nearly 100 countries around the world,’ says Patrick. ‘Most commonly in Africa, Asia and Oceania, but also some in Latin America.’ More than 1,600 species of insects are eaten by humans - the most common being beetles, ants, grasshoppers, crickets, wasps and silk worms. To many, the idea of guzzling such creepy crawlies is disgusting and indeed it can be: the scorpion I ate to research this article was comfortably the most unpleasant ‘food’ I have ever tasted, although the deep-fried crickets were delicious – slightly nutty and perfect with lager. But with the global population booming and many already going hungry; could eating bugs help to ease the world's food shortages?

‘A huge amount of human food can be efficiently produced on insect farms in a small area of land, using a small amount of input relative to the food produced,’ explains Patrick. ‘This is a huge advantage in a world struggling to feed the expanding human population.’ In parts of Asia, insect farming is already a lucrative industry and it’s getting bigger. ‘In recent years insect consumption in some Asian countries, notably Thailand, has increased dramatically,’ says Patrick. ‘A survey six years ago revealed more than 15,000 Thai farmers engaged in insect farming.’ The FAO estimates that farmers can earn in excess of US$1,000 per month from the industry, which is a large income in rural Thailand.

In theory then, the idea of incorporating insects and molluscs into our diets is great; they are cheap to produce, nutritious and much more environmentally friendly than other meat. Farming them provides some of the world’s poorest communities with a valuable source of income and may even help us meet the ever-increasing demand for food.
But here in the west, where snails are only just shuffling onto British dinner plates (in large numbers at least), are we realistically going to be eating insects in the near future?

‘We should not discount the long term prospects of changing food consumption habits,’ says Patrick. ‘After all, it was not long ago that many people in Europe and North America considered consumption of raw fish to be repugnant but it is now readily consumed as sushi.’ Until then, there is still potential to capitalise on insects, whether we do so by farming them for poultry or fish food or by incorporating them into our diets in a more palatable form. ‘The FAO recognises that direct consumption of insects is not readily accepted in many countries,’ says Patrick. ‘But there are prospects for including insects in altered form, such as flours, pastes, or sauces.’

Back in Dorset, Tony Walker is feeding his snails. Their diet is a closely guarded secret, which he claims is what makes his molluscs ‘taste so good.’ Once the snails have hatched it takes about 14 to16 weeks for them to be ready for harvest, during which they require regular feeding, cleaning and their temperature must be closely monitored. ‘It’s a highly technical process,’ he admits. In a controversial practice that is bound to attract criticism from animal welfare campaigners, a week before harvest, Tony starves the snails to flush out their system. Unless they co-ordinate an unlikely escape, the gastropods will then be cooled in a fridge to force them into hibernation, during which they will be blanched in water with salt and vinegar. Finally the meat will be plucked out of the shell, chilled and delivered to Dorset Escargot’s clients. ‘They are so versatile,’ explains Tony. ‘I don’t know one restaurant that is cooking them the same.’ I ask what prompted Tony to become a snail farmer. ‘Before this I was breeding worms for tackle shops,’ he says. ‘Then one night I watched the F-Word and Gordon Ramsay was visiting a snail farm in Devon.’

Inspired by the show, Tony made a pilgrimage to the farm himself. ‘It turned out the guy was moving to New Zealand,’ he says. ‘Before he left he gave me enough information to get started, but it took a lot of trial and error to get things right.’ His persistence paid off and today, Tony’s snails are eaten by diners in some of Britain’s best pubs and restaurants – not bad considering he only established the business in 2006. Before that the farm had been used to breed chickens. Could this change in usage be confirmation of our changing tastes? That’s debatable. However, embracing alternative foods, for some people at least, might soon be a necessity rather than a choice.

All Day Snail Breakfast
Has all the talk of food whetted your appetite? Steve Pielesz’s take on the classic egg on toast is an easy way to get stuck into snails.

Ingredients

Six fresh snails
Garlic, parsley butter and baby celery leaves
One slice of black pudding
One rasher of smoked streaky bacon
One vine tomato
One large mushroom
One slice of homemade fried bread
One free-range quail egg
 
Method

• Add parsley butter to a hot pan and fry garlic and baby celery leaves.
• Add 500ml of vegetable stock and the snails.
• Allow the snails to poach in the stock for 1.5 hours, but don’t boil.
• When the snails are ready, put black pudding, bacon, mushroom and tomato under the grill to cook.
• Poach the quail egg and fry the bread.
• Arrange on a plate and enjoy.

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