Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Rentokil Pestaurant

Or, a tale of how I ended up eating a scorpion in the Science Museum.

One of the things you tend to hear about the future is that due to the world getting busier, hotter and generally less poor, we're going to struggle to produce enough meat to satisfy everyone's demand.

Feeding meat-eaters is a costly affair compared to vegetarians, as meat takes considerably more resources to produce than most other foods. Think about it like this, in order to feed me bread, you have to grow, say, an acre of wheat, whereas in order to feed me steak, you have to grow enough grass to keep one cow alive for at least two years. Not only are you using more land, water and farming resource to produce the steak, but there's also other knock-on consequences, like an increased carbon footprint. Sadly for those of us who are meat-eaters, on this the vegetarians really do hold their annoying moral high ground.

In the West, we eat a lot of meat and therefore a lot of worldwide food resources go to feeding those animals rather than people. As developing countries get richer and lift their people out of poverty, in general their demand for meat will also increase and so we're looking at a world where there's more people, wanting more meat that we have already. Coupled with the fact that climate change will potentially have big impacts on our ability to produce all the crops we need, it looks like needing all this meat will become a problem.

There are lots of potential solutions to this though, from producing more climate-resistant crops to actually doing something about climate change (just throwing that one out there), but there's two other interesting alternatives:

The first is that we start producing meat without using animals to do it. The idea of lab grown, or in vitro meat has long been the stuff of science fiction but recently hit the headlines after the first in vitro beefburger was cooked and eaten at a news conference in London. Unfortunately for me, as the burger cost around $250,000 to produce, it's a little out of my price range to sample and so we come to the second alternative: insects.

Insects, bugs and other such creatures are a common protein source for all kind of people around the world. While the idea of chowing down on a daddy longlegs is somewhat off-putting for us in the West, people in other cultures enjoy a whole range of edible treats we are potentially missing out on. Some people think that if Westerners could be persuaded that eating at least some insect-based foods is ok, then we may not need to produce quite so much conventional meat in future.

For these reasons, and the fact that I'll generally eat anything, I've been wanting to eat some insects for a while. Feeding the world though has to be cheap, and looking online at where I could buy edible bugs produced what I would consider unreasonably expensive results. This is where the Science Museum comes in.

At this month's The Science of Food and Drink-themed Science Museum Lates event, one of the exhibitors was the Rentokil Pestaurant, Rentokil's very own world's first pop-up insect restaurant, inviting you to come and try the future of food. After a tip-off from a friend, I needed no further persuasion.

Now, before anyone gets too horrified, it's worth pointing out that Rentokil were not serving up insects that they had caught / killed themselves but instead served a range of more exotic imported bugs, farmed and fit for human consumption (well, so they said). But just because you can eat them, doesn't mean you'd want to - so how were they? Let's find out.

First on the list, while queuing up for the main courses, we tried some barbecue-flavour Bamboo Worms, deep-fried and covered completely in barbecue powder. While they were quite passable, they had very little texture and mainly just tasted of the barbecue flavouring, so it was difficult to start judging. If you're squeamish, you might want to skip to the end now, as it doesn't get much better from here.

Next up, a mixed bowl of assorted salt-and-pepper grubs (as you can see in the second picture above). I ate two of these but only because I didn't believe myself first time round. You know when you get that bit in a bag of crisps that's like a small bit of the potato has somehow avoided the whole crisp-making process but still made it into the bag, a kind of dark brown, lumpy, mud-flavoured blob? Well, that's what these tasted like, at best. (Or you can refer to my friend's slightly less measured opinion).

The next few samples, like the roasted, salted Queen Weaver Ants, were all somewhere in a middle ground between the first two tasters, but that soon changed when presented with the grasshoppers.

Going into this, I'd been fairly optimistic that being someone who's historically not squeamish in the slightest about eating any kind of food - and I've eaten some reasonably unusual things - that eating insects just wouldn't phase me. Turns out, I was wrong.

Each of the larger grasshoppers on the plate was about the size of my little finger. Picking one up and inspecting it, it looked exactly like a grasshopper. It wasn't coated in barbecue crumbs or an unintelligible shape, it was a two and a half inches long and definitely a grasshopper. Getting my brain to accept that I was going to eat this just did not want to happen. You never get anywhere without taking a few risks though, so after holding it stupidly for fifteen seconds or so, I took the plunge.

It would seem that for what grasshoppers lack in flavour, they more than make up for in texture. The grasshopper has virtually no flavour at all, but was like eating, well I don't know really, maybe very thin glass. The sensation of its crispy exoskeleton shattering as I chewed is not something I particularly want to repeat. Overall, I would rank the experience as horrid but worse was yet to come.

Being a sucker for punishment, and the vague notion that I "had" to do this "for science", or something equally silly, meant that I continued through the bug buffet and put the grasshopper to the back of my mind with a few chocolate-covered somethings. I can't remember what they were, but they weren't grasshoppers, which was good. However, upon reaching the end of the table something else caught my eye and it was with a grim realisation that I decided I was about to eat a scorpion.

There weren't many Chinese Armour Tail Scorpions from which to choose and, from the picture above, I picked the middle one. Holding it tentatively between my fingers, I looked at my friend, who had given up even before the grasshopper. He shook his head slightly in almost resigned understanding of what was about to happen. I looked at the girl next to me who was staring at me like I was out of my mind. It was decided, and in it went.

I say "in it went", but a scorpion is quite big, so I actually had to chew half of it off and eat that, which is easier said than done. It was a bit like eating a crabshell, but without the crab. Once I'd separated a mouthful, chewing it was near impossible and probably not advisable to anyone who doesn't drink enough milk. It crunched. It stabbed my gums. It tasted like bark, or mud, or something else distinctly inedible. It was awful. Why am I doing this to myself?, I thought. But I still ate it. It took a while before it was even possible to swallow and when I could, it was only as a way to get rid of it. I returned the uneaten half to the table and stepped away from this dreaded feast.

And so this brings us to the end of the tale of how I ended up eating a scorpion at the Science Museum. The scorpion was immediately followed by an emergency pint of cider and packet of crisps but the memory of it, and the grasshopper, still lingers.

So what did I learn? Is eating insects going to be our future? Well, based on my experience, I would say there's a lot of work to be done before that's likely to happen. I went into this about as open-minded as it's possible to be and have come out of it about as put-off as possible. Perhaps I shouldn't dismiss insects as food based only on my Pestaurant experience - it's not like Rentokil are generally known for their gourmet cuisine and maybe it's a bit like refusing to eat steak because you ate a bad hot dog once. Plenty of other people seemed much happier with their dinner than I did, so perhaps it's just me. Maybe I should wait until I'm somewhere that serves insects as part of their day-to-day life and see what the difference is.

In the meantime, I think I'll start saving for that in vitro burger.

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