In 2015 entomologist Dr Sarah Beynon (SB) and chef Andrew Holcroft (AH) opened the doors to Grub Kitchen, the UK’s first insect restaurant dedicated to serving up a delicious menu of edible creepy crawlies. They have now documented their experience in a short documentary, The Bug Grub Couple, for BBC One as part of their Our Livesseries. We spoke to them at their farm in Wales when the restaurant was open for business about what it is like starting such an original eatery, serving up grubs and the ethics behind eating insects.
In the UK we don’t tend to eat insects, so are your recipes inspired by those from around the world?
AH: Not really, the fact the insects are eaten around the world is very reassuring. We’re trying to adapt it to foods people are used to eating. We’re sticking with modern British cuisine with a bit of a twist and using protein from another alternative source, which happens to be insects.
SB: It is bizarre that in the West we’re conventionally adverse to eating insects, whereas we’re quite happy to eat sushi and shellfish, when crustaceans are very closely related to insects and it’s making that jump to something we see as new, but the rest of the world are harvesting already. I think that’s what we see as the important way forwards.
So in other countries, I assume they’re gathering it from the wild. Do you guys have a lab that grows it for you, or are there farms where you can grow the bugs?
SB: You’ve got to be really careful with wild harvesting anything because we only know about how sustainable that is when it’s often too late. We are very much promoting farming of insects, specifically for human food consumption. At the moment there is no way of doing that in the UK. The UK government are in the process of debating what their stance is on farming insects for human food but also for animal feed. As soon as the government’s decision is made – and we’re hopefully putting information towards that – then that will allow us to see what the UK can do in feeding humans and livestock. It’s a really exciting new sector, I feel it’s something that should be involved in primary agriculture, because it’s a way that farmers can be leaders in a new market. At the moment you’re sourcing all the insects from abroad where there are already stances in place for human food consumption, but in the future the plan is to breed them here and on the farm as well as part of our primary agricultural business.
It’s perhaps a bit gory to think of, but once you’ve bred the insects, how do you kill them for consumption?
AH: First of all you have to purge the insect for 24-48 hours, to get everything out of the digestive tract. Then you stick it in the freezer, which puts the insect into a thing called diapause, which is a bit like hibernation. Once it’s been almost dispatched that way – because that’s as good as killing it – we blanch it in boiling water for two to three minutes. That cooks it on a very basic level, then you refresh it in cold water, then you’re ready to do whatever you want with it, whether that’s slow roasting, grilling, sautéing, frying – whatever dishes you want to do with it. That’s the basic way.
SB: It’s a really ethical way of doing it as well, because basically the insect is going through a normal process that it would in response to changes in temperatures. Insects can shut down their bodies very easily to wait out a cold period. And that’s what they’re doing, and essentially not waking up at the end of it. As an ethical slaughter method, this is right up there with minimal stress to the animal.
Because you can do it with lobsters can’t you, when you put them in a freezer before dispatching them so you don’t get the stress.
SB: Absolutely. There’s absolutely no need to boil something alive. If you can shut its body down then that’s the way to do it.
AH: If you put crabs or lobsters in boiling water they actually eject their arms and legs as a stress response. A lot of chefs say “Oh, why not just put them in boiling water”. But there’s no need to do that, you’ve got freezers; freeze it for 20 minutes or half an hour and then it’s fine.
SB: That’s what we’re trying to promote here, the larger picture of the future of food, ethical and sustainable food. It’s looking at reducing our reliance on conventionally farmed meat, which in its current practice is not sustainable. To feed a growing population by 2050 we’re going to need 70 per cent more food, 120 per cent more water and already our livestock are grazing 30 per cent of our land area, which means that we’re at capacity unless we can really increase the efficiency of agriculture. We are increasing efficiency of production of food, but we just can’t do it quick enough, and look after wildlife, and look after animal welfare at the same time. We’re going to have to make changes and that’s what we believe here. For example, we’ve got our Welsh black cattle grazing the marshy grass and our flower meadows for conservation. That’s benefiting wildlife on land we couldn’t use to efficiently grow crops. We get an animal that’s slaughtered for beef every now and then. And at that point, we feel we have conservation grade meat that should be given a higher value and we should be using more of that animal and making the most of it. We should be treating it as a real delicacy, going back to how we used to eat, maybe having meat on a Sunday and you would make the most of it by getting the family around the table. If we can do that, and use our productive land for growing crops and vegetables efficiently, while looking after wildlife at the same time, then if we throw insects into the mix with that, then we’re still left with land for nature alongside agricultural land. We’re not saying that insects are ‘the’ solution, but we’ve got to look at it as a much larger strategy of how we produce our food but also how we consume as well.
AH: I think meat is undervalued. You see three sirloin steaks for £10. That’s ridiculous! People aren’t taking it for what it really should be, which is something very special. That meat should be respected, thinking more about what has gone into producing that meat. It’s links with the dairy industry as well. Veal should be brought back in almost. Because there are so many boy calves just being slaughtered at birth and thrown away. It’s the same with goats too. This is moving away from insects slightly, but it’s all about food security and making the most of what we’ve got with our limited resources.
So how does the footprint of the insects compare with, say, cows? If you could have enough insects to feed the population, then how would that compare with enough meat to feed the population?
AH: To produce 10kg of beef takes 9kg of feed, but to produce 10kg of insect meat you need 1kg of feed. It’s also water consumption. To get 150g of beef, about the same as two little burgers, that takes 3,250 litres of water. But the same amount of insect protein takes about a pint. It’s hugely more economical and sustainable to use insects. They also produce far less methane than standard livestock. A third of landmass is used for livestock and a further third is used to produce the crops to feed the livestock. But you can grow insects in small labs.
SB: And a lot of the insects that people are farming will actively move together and cluster because they have fewer stress responses when they’re physically touching another one of their species. So it goes totally against our view of ethical farming – when farming insects, the welfare is actually higher if you put them in smaller spaces. We’re being very careful here, it’s not about rubbishing the meat industry, and the way we’re farming at the moment. But we have to look at this with a different hat on.
So how filling are the insects to eat? Obviously, if you have a burger you know you’ve eaten it. But with the insects do you get that same effect?
AH: Our bug burgers are very meaty, they are high in protein, 60-70 per cent protein. This is compared to a standard burger, which could be 50 per cent protein. It’s not just size, it’s density as well.
SB: I find that the texture of the burgers is slightly falafel-like. Slightly nutty and crunchy. It’s a very new flavour and it’s slightly difficult because everyone who has eaten it says something different. And there are some grasshoppers that taste like tea! We’re moving away from novelty snacks. It is a meal and a protein source. They’re also full of polyunsaturated fatty acids, and good micronutrients that we can actually utilize. They’re extremely healthy as well.
On that note, are there any insects that you wouldn’t eat?
AH: Here in the West, it’s crickets, mealworms and grasshoppers that are mostly being eaten. I’d like to use barley worms and wichetty grubs, but it’s just not really viable to use them.
SB: We need to be really careful with insects that take a long time to grow. A lot of the beetles that produce really big grubs – it can take them a year or two to get to that point. Because they’re feeding on a low quality food source such as decaying wood or dead leaves. If it takes two years for an insect to reach adult stage, and the adults don’t lay many eggs, then I don’t think that’s a sustainable way to go. If you’re breeding in captivity and you’ve got it down to a fine art then fair enough. But we have to be careful with wild-caught invertebrates that take a long time to reach adult stage.
That’s where things like scorpions and tarantulas come in. These guys live for 20 or 30 years and have just a handful of offspring. That’s what worries me, if we eat something that could impact the natural populations. We’re not anywhere near the stage where we can talk about foraging for insects in the UK. In some countries though there might be an abundance, like with some flying ants in Africa they taste like butter, they’re delicious! And in an ideal world being able to make the most of an abundant protein source is ideal. Same as locusts plagues – but we don’t know what chemicals and pesticides these wild invertebrates might have been exposed to and how much they bioaccumulates. So we’ve got to be super, super careful and not jump ahead as consumers before the research has gone there first.
When do you think we can start seeing things like this in supermarkets? Is it a bit down the road yet?
AH: Off the top of my head, I’d optimistically say five to 10 years. That’s in my personal opinion. But with the right branding, right product design and the right marketing then we could definitely see them on supermarket shelves. Then there’s the fitness industry for protein content, and the health food industry. I think definitely we’ll see products soon.
SB: With these people working with ethical insects, whether farming them or selling products, we need to pull them all together, with the government, and work under an umbrella to make sure we push this industry forwards. Because in other industries where there are lots of different strands it can really damage things. If we can all work together and look at the industry as a whole then we might be able to do Andy’s guess of five years!
In the meantime, if someone wanted to have a go at home, would they have to go online to get the insects.
AH: There are a couple of good suppliers out there, but you need them to have the certificate saying that they’re human-grade. Anyone can go online and order the insects, then they can have a play.
SB: You can buy human food-grade live mealworms. You can’t buy them in the UK but you can import them and then create you own mealworm farm. We’ve been doing that with some kids. They’ve created a mealworm farm, then cooked up the mealworms at the end. There’s a learning curve there. Mealworms are the larval stage of a beetle, so you’re teaching them about metamorphosis. A lot of people are finding that is a really interesting way to teach children about wildlife, biology, and we here food comes from. Euthanising a mealworm is a lot easier for a child to deal with and is a good way to teach them that yes, your food is alive and you have to kill it. That will be really nice in the future to see home kits where families can learn about food through the media of insect.
So how much of your diet comes from insects now?
AH: A lot more now! I like to eat insects once or twice a week as main meals, then I snack on them because I taste every dish, being a chef. I’ll be having a bug burger later. So I’d say a quarter of my diet, maybe more.
SB: We’re not trying to eat them every day; again, that wouldn’t be sustainable. Personally I would much rather have a largely vegetable and cereal based diet, have meat once every two weeks or so, and an insect dish once or twice a week and a local fish dish once every two or three weeks. And that’s where they fit into the diet – taking away the reliance on traditional meat and supplementing with insect-based dishes.
AH: That’s what we’re trying to put across to customers. On the menu there’s only one meat out of all the dishes – that’s meat of the week. This week I’ve yet decided – and we’re opening tomorrow! I’ll be calling up producers later!
Was there a tipping point where you suddenly thought that people needed to be eating more insects, or was it a gradual process?
SB: It bubbled for a while, when researching sustainable agriculture and food production, and looking at beneficial insects in food production. We thought, hang on, why aren’t we making the most of this protein source, but it took a while to establish if people were ready for it. What Grub Kitchen has shown me is that the general public are ready for eating insects. 90 per cent of people coming to Bug Farm as a day out will come into Grub Kitchen and are prepared to pay money for a main insect course, even though they’ve got a choice of lots of different foods. I think that’s amazing.
AH: I was hugely pessimistic at the beginning, thinking people would just want to try nibbles or a side dish. But all of a sudden they keep being ordered. My experiments with bug pie – that was really popular – curry, and a toasted cumin mealworm hummus. That went down really well and people wanted pots of that to take home. Our barmen created a mealworm cappuccino. He infused the mealworms into the coffee to give it flavour. That was on the specials board on the first day and straight away he served four. That was really good.
As a chef, did you do your research beforehand or was it mainly experimentation?
AH: It’s a bit of both. I had a chat to scientists and academics, such as Sarah. We’ve got the full backing of the Royal Entomological Society and they are strong advocates. There are entomophagists out there who I can phone up if I want to try something. And the rest of it is chef instinct, experimentation and trial and error.
SB: It’s really bizarre, we’ll be sitting down at night watching television and Andy gets this glazed look and he’ll suddenly say “Oh my god, I ‘ve got to try this flavour” It happens most nights at home. That must be exciting for a chef, it’s a whole new flavour larder.
AH: It’s really exciting because no other chefs are doing it in the UK. Other chefs have experimented and there have been pop-ups, but there’s nothing like this. And I think “Why not?!” I feel so lucky to have taken that leap of faith and dived into it. I think there will be lots more popping up and doing this, but it’s a great to have kickstarted this with the backing of the industry. It’s not just me out there like some sort of maverick.
SB: And we’ve got the backing of Global Food Security, we’ve been running workshops with them, which is really interesting, and all the information is feeding into research to actually develop the UK as a research centre for edible insects. And I think the research councils will jump on the back of the recommendations from Global Food Security. We need the research backing because there are still huge gaps in our knowledge about edible insects, which we need to fill before this can take off.
I know it might all be top secret, but is there any chance you could share a recipe with us?
AH: I think people should just experiment. Make a Bolognese! Here’s some mealworms, some tomato sauce, some passata, onions, garlic, white wine. Chuck it in. And Bolognese.
SB: When you fry the insects with different herbs and spices as a little snack, you get these little exploding crispy delicacies.
AH: I just wanted to add that working with the Bug Farm is great. It gets people in the educational frame of mind where they’re ready to learn. They’re excited about insects. I mean how cool for someone to come here and see amazing invertebrates, then come to a unique restaurant and eat them as well. It’s very exciting and great working with Sarah, as we’re partners as well.
It’s good that you’re in such a beautiful tourist spot, so it will be gorgeous when summer comes round
AH: It’s great that we’re open this time of year, so we can get teething problems out of the way.
SB: We’re lucky because we’re farmers ourselves. We’ve got a 100-acre farm here which we use to put research into practice. First and foremost we’re a research centre. And my key passion is getting research to farmers and policy makers to make the changes happen. Rather than waiting for research to be published in academic journals and then 10 years later it gets picked up by a policy maker. So we’re doing lots of workshops, working with farmers to make sure that they’re aware of upcoming research. Students coming here to do their research have to deliver at least one outreach event to farmers or the community. Pembrokeshire farming could be based on sound academic research and I hope that’s exciting for people in the area. The tourist attraction is to hit consumers, getting the public here, not realizing that they’re coming on an educational experience. Through the backdoor we can talk about how your food decisions as a consumer impacts the way we farm our land. We want to say that if you slightly change the way you eat and think about it you’ll be benefitting not only the great invertebrates you’ve seen here, but also wildlife as a whole.
AH: Sarah’s dad is a traditional farmer and well respected among other farmers. They might not agree with every idea but Sarah gets her point across and suddenly other farmers, who you’d never think would change, suddenly say “Ooh I think I’ll try that”.
SB: It’s providing farmers with simple steps that will really save them money and benefit the environment. When it happens, it’s great. When we get schoolchildren say: “ Before I came here I would have happily stamped on a spider, but now I’m going to tell my friends off when they want to”
AH: The thing is people don’t really we’re already eating 150-300 insects a year through our food anyway, through cereals, chocolates. We’re already doing it anyway!
You can watch The Bug Grub Couple on BBC iPlayer here.