• Giorgio Pintzas Monzani

Edible Insects: A New Frontier for Western Cuisine With Ancient Roots

The EU recently legalized the sale of foods made from insects. But will a prevailing aversion to insect-based foods prevent these foods from taking hold in the culinary culture of Europe?



Photo: Wikimedia


With the green light for the production and introduction of the first edible insects into the market, conflicting opinions were not slow in being formed.

In May 2021, the European Union made an important leap forward, allowing the introduction of insects (as long as they are bred) in the food market of the old continent, in the form of snacks, dried insects or derived flours.

This brings us closer to the forecast, circulating for years, that sees the world population introducing food directly derived from insects into their diet, with an estimated food requirement of 70% by 2050.

An increasingly widespread and increasingly discussed topic, an integration, above all cultural, that is difficult for European consumers to accept.

But not everyone knows that the most ancient civilizations, born in European territory, the Greeks, and Romans, had in their daily diet different types of insects, coming to create even niche products and real delicacies.

Many could think that entomophagy (or the consumption of insects) in ancient times derived only from the precariousness of gastronomy and the lack of richness of products. But we know for sure that the study of food was one of the fundamentals of the societies of that time and the importance in the refinement of food was practically comparable to today.


What examples do we have of entomophagy in early cultures in Europe?


Initially we look at the Greek world, and how even philosophers of the caliber of Aristotle and Herodotus praised entomophagy and spoke of delicacies made from various types of insects.

Aristotle, in his work named Historia Animalium tells what the best methods are to taste various types of insects.

He talks about grasshoppers and how they were considered nutritious and delicious snacks. He then offers a complete explanation about the phases of the life of insects and how they actually influence the final tasting result.

According to Aristotle, in fact, female adults after copulation are preferred as they are full of eggs and therefore more appreciable by the diner.

Moreover, he explains that larvae of cicadas reach the best taste in the last stage of development, what we know today as nymph, or the stage preceding the adult age.

Herodotus instead, thanks to his travels, introduced in the Greek world the use of spices and powders derived from insects.

In a study about Libyan cultures, he talks about a drying process of locusts which leads to a fine powder to be used for flavoring milk, leading to a sort of animal spice.

Nowadays we know many cultures that also use these powders as surrogates of vegetable flours, despite this we do not have direct evidence of a similar use in ancient Greek culture.

As for the Roman civilization, subsequent to the Greek one and widely influenced by it, the practice of entomophagy remains rooted in popular culture.

Pliny the Elder, philosopher and first writer of Roman natural history, in his famous work Naturalis Historia tells about a larva called Cossus that would have been a real gluttony of the imperial tables.

According to what Pliny reported, cooks cooked them by first fattening them in wine and flour, whereas some of them fed them with real meals in order to make them more substantial.

Despite the perfect description of its use in cooking, at the beginning there was some confusion in identifying Cossus with its current scientific name: but according to the British naturalist Charles Cowan it would be the larva of the flying deer (a beetle living in European oak trees).


How could such a deep-rooted custom be lost over the centuries?

It seems absurd that a popular custom so widespread could have reached the point of being repudiated in our days.

The change already began with the arrival of the A.D. centuries.

In the third century A.D., in fact, we can already find evidence of dissatisfaction towards foods derived from insects.


The causes?

According to many the main reason for this change of course, quite sudden, was the evolution of various branches of medicine and animal studies: especially in this historical period some insects began to be revealed as indirect or direct cause of some transmissible diseases of the time.

Although the smallest part of insects was defined as dangerous, public opinion attributed the same fame to the whole category, leading to a rapid disappearance of entomophagy.

A second cause, much more cultural than scientific, would be that which links the disappearance of insects to the new expanded horizons of the then known world.

The greater ease of movement has meant that new populations were discovered in the first centuries after Christ: populations where entomophagy covered a greater space in the daily diet.

So how could the discovery of new peoples have prompted the removal of insects from the Western diet?

In many travel documents of the time, the new peoples discovered, who fed on insects, were always described as smaller in stature, thinner and weaker.

Even according to Diodorus, a 2nd century AD Greek historian, the newly discovered African peoples who were accustomed to acridophagy (or the eating of orthopteran insects, such as grasshoppers) would have the previous characteristics as a direct result of their diet.

These increasingly widespread claims led in their own way to an unconscious distancing of people from insect foods.


Today

The largest organizations, responsible for the study of food today, are certain that “edible insects” is the new superfood capable of solving many problems related to pollution and intensive farming.

Surely once we have overcome the ideological barriers and the various food stereotypes of the Western world, we could at least try to open our tables to new foods and detach from our customs.

Perhaps though this change is impossible and the Western World would not even make such an effort, because, as we have analyzed today, this apprehension is part of our collective DNA anyway.


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