“I’m obsessed with the culinary taxonomy of untapped species,” says Lars Williams quite matter-of-factly as he picks a large brown ant off his arm and pops it into his mouth.
This is not an outlandish act for the tattooed chef and leader of the Nordic Food Lab, the innovative research facility set up by Noma founders René Redzepi and Claus Meyer to scientifically explore New Nordic Cuisine and other forward-looking foods. The Lab is based on a houseboat moored behind Noma, but we’re standing in the depths of a pine scented forest in Roskilde, half an hour outside Copenhagen, and Williams is crawling with the ants we’ve disturbed from the pulsating comfort of their mound. I pinch one, squirming, from the palm of the Lab’s 26-year-old anthropologist (of course it has its own anthropologist) Mark Emil Hemerson, and blink at its intense acidity and deep bitter undertones, caused by its high levels of formic acid.
So what's with the insects? Have the wild herbs synonymous with the Nordic Kitchen become so ubiquitous that these leading developers of Scandinavian food culture are turning to the critters that make their homes among them for inspiration? Not quite – we found the ants while foraging for late season woodruff – but the Lab team have just returned from a trip to Holland to meet leading entomologist Dr Arnold Van Huis at Wageningen University, and he’s opened their minds to the potential of insects as ingredients. Van Huis is one of Europe's most outspoken exponents of insect eating, believing that these creatures, which are so widely consumed in non-Western parts of the world like Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia, could be the solution to the forthcoming food crisis resulting from rapid population growth (the global population is set to hit 2.5 billion by 2050); climate change and resource shortages.
With his Government-funded research, Van Huis cites the protein content of the crickets and mealworms he breeds; their high levels of fatty and amino acids; rapid reproduction capacity and comparatively small greenhouse gas emissions. This, matched with their yield levels or feed-to-protein ratios (2kg of feed to 1kg meat: 12 times better than beef) and the fact they can be fed on food industry waste, rather than the land-monopolising soya required for cattle, make them a more sustainable option than conventional livestock.
The Nordic Food Lab's fascination with them is less nutritional. It may be bound up in the ecological consequences, but first and foremost is the fascination for creating something delicious from new foods, and opening up people's eyes to the possibilities of ingredients that are underestimated, under-appreciated, and undiscovered. After all, this has always been at the heart of Noma – which took the seemingly obscure Scandinavian larder and translated it – through a prism of Redzepi’s artful technique, imaginative brilliance and sheer daring – into some of the world’s best cuisine. Redzepi himself has been a big driver behind the Lab's involvement in and pursuit of entomology – and Williams is running with this.
“One of the core missions of the Lab is to add to the culinary vernacular,” says Williams. “We’re always searching for new things and insects are a completely new world we’ve been discovering. Coming up with creative ideas is about dissolving barriers. Everyone baulks at the idea, but it’s good to overcome perception barriers because of the creative possibilities insects entail – they have huge potential for the future of food. We consider chefs to be ‘lead users’ who can see problems and solutions in cuisine before the market does.”
Back at the Lab, we taste a rich, umami-laden broth made from grasshoppers. It's a garum – an intense fermented liquid based on the Roman condiment that was originally made with various fermented fish innards, and it’s a follow-on from a fish garum Williams has created from fermenting mackerel stomachs – his hope being that he can pass the method on to other chefs and fishmongers in the city to turn fishing waste into something delicious. Neither of the garums have made it onto the menu at Noma yet, but the ants have. They're served live, on a mound of crème fraiche, which balances their powerful acidity and binds their feet, keeping them captive for the mouths of diners.
As well as insects, fermentations and various fruit vinegars, algae is something else being developed here. "We have 260 varieties of seaweed in Denmark – on a similar level to Japan, but it's as alien to the Scandinavian palate as sulphur," explains Williams. Outside, Hemerson shows me an ice box bike he's made to take around the city, peddling the most delicious ice cream made from milk infused with red dulse seaweed – a natural thickener. “We’re a region filled with seaweed, but it’s not eaten here – so to captivate people we had to put it somewhere unexpected. It’s all about this delineation between what’s edible and what's inedible.”
© Claes Bech-Poulsen