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Around the World in 18 Days

August 28, 2015

Highlights of an 18 day journey into parts of my brain and body that I didn’t know existed.

I left Toronto August 8th for Paris, where I met with the Deputy DG of the World Organization for Animal Health (Canada’s own Brian Evans), Antoine Hubert, the CEO of Ynsect (www.ynsect.com) and President of the European Association of Insect Producers, Remi Lantieri Jullien from Khepri (http://khepri.eu/), and Alex Carbrol, who runs Le Festin Nu (http://www.lefestinnu.com/en/). Antoine, Remi and BRian provided important insights for my book, but for blog purposes, I’ll tell you about my “naked lunch”.

My legs were aching and my head was still dazed from the trans-oceanic flight as I walked along Boulevard des Batignolles and then up the slopes of Rue Caulaincourt, a curved street on the hill near the Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur (and its attendant nightclub district) on Montmarte. I was looking for Rue Pierre Doc, and, after asking at several shops in my Canadian franglais, was directed further up the hill and then down two flights of stairs which took me over Rue Lamarck, past Rue Darwin, and on to the downward slope of the cobbled Rue de la Fontaine de But. If there was some significance to this passing the ghosts of two greats of 19th century evolutionary biology, I missed it. I was looking for, literally, grub; nuances escaped me. Le Festin Nu is a narrow building. Couple of chairs out on the sidewalk, a man and a woman drinking beer. A small L-shaped bar took up the far end of the small room. Beyond that another dark room, with about 6 rows of chairs and perhaps a dozen people drinking beer and watching Romancing the Stone with French subitles: how young Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner looked! (Danny Devito never changes).

Alex Cabrol at Festin Le Festin Insect MenuThe bartender, Alex Cabrol, reminded me of a young Arlo Guthrie. When I asked for insects, he asked which ones. I said, “All of them.” They didn’t have one of the six listed on the menu (the water bugs), so I said to bring the rest. He poured me a beer and, after about twenty minutes brought out five small plates, presented like tapas. Each insect was presented with figs, sun-dried tomatoes, raisins, and chopped dried tropical fruits: buffalo worms, crickets, large grasshoppers (all just crunchy and no strong flavour, maybe a little nutty), small black ants (sour bite), and fat grubs with a beak, which I later identified as palm weevil larvae, which tasted a bit like dried figs. Their source farm is the bit-too-cleverly named “Diminy Cricket” and is a few hours outside Paris.

I asked about the bar. He said he’d been there a couple of years. The place had been a bar 200 years ago and then used for other things. When they re-opened with new owners, they initially thought of calling it “Murder Mystery” but decided on naming after William Burrough’s hallucinogenic book. When they started, they hadn’t thought of serving insects, but having the name when they did start was a stroke of good luck.

Mindful both of my mission to embrace – at least temporarily – the world of insect-eating, and to try anything at least once, I finished most of what was on my plates. This may also have been a carry-over from a childhood of having been repeatedly reminded of the starving children in India. After deep-fried bamboo worms in Kunming (tasted like French Fries, but with little heads), and roasted and flavoured crickets at Next Millennium Farms in Ontario (which tasted like snack food), this was my broader introduction to the world of entomophagy. They were okay, I guess, a little greasy. I wouldn’t travel to Paris just for this. Or maybe I would. Well, actually, I did.

Later, strolling the packed alleys and streets among the tourists at Monmartre, I looked for a small Dali museum I knew about, perhaps wondering if I had now crossed the threshold into a culinary space in which Dali would have felt at home. It was closed. Heading back to my hotel, I was pleased not to suffer from any Burroughesque cockroach visions or Daliesque hallucinations, at least one of which, at least according to the Spanish film director Luis Buñuel, involved delusions of parasitosis that led to self-mutilation. While some might view my desire to try all manner of insect eating as a form of self-abasement, I really am not into that self-mutilation stuff.

From France I went to Lao PDR, where I visited farmers (mostly women) raising crickets for improved household nutrition, markets that sold insects foraged from the forests, food scientists developing new products (cricket chips and salsa) and some commercial cricket producers. Back at the house from the market, I improvised a curry with the hornets and their babies, and decided that if this was going to work for me 1) I needed a better recipe and 2) I needed to be working in my own kitchen.
After dinner one evening, Thomas and I went to a Karaoke Cafe/Pub, which was VERY LOUD. Several tables of people in their twenties singing off key. The LOUD MUSIC and television behind us was compensated for by Beer Lao and crickets. Fried up with some salt, garlic, and kaffir lime leaves, heaped over fresh-cut cucumber, they tasted fresh and crunchy. Did I mention the very loud music?

Asian Hornet with Larve Behind Roasted Crickets at Karaoke Cafe in Vientiane

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Japan, my life was wonderfully organized by the amazingly smart and talented Yukika Kurioka from the Japan Uni Agency, who had arranged the contract for the Japanese edition of The Origin of Feces (which came out last year).  My schedule included a book reading and talk on “Entomophagy and Feces in a Sustainable Society”, a book signing, hunting and cooking up insects by the Tama River with Uchiyama-san.

Uchiyama-san and friends Tama River2015-08-22 11.37.57

 

Next morning I slept extra and then worked on catching up on notes. At one, Kyoko and Ken met me in the lobby and we walked & trained to where Unchiyama has his office for an afternoon of Insect cuisine and tasting meeting. There were about a dozen people, including a grad student in ESL from Ohio & also Temple University, and an editor from Tsukiji Shokan. The space is small, and stacked with books. According to Ken, Uchiyama works for a publisher that specializes in Russian literature. But one of the few English books on the shelf was by Allan Ginsburg.

Menu included: hornet larvae, silkworm pupae, silkworms. The silkworm pupae were white and pink and yellow. Apparently they have bred different coloured strains. We snipped off the ends and the larvae dropped out. Zen roasted them in a small pan over a camp stove in the street to get the “chaff” off. The hornets were bought from a company that cleans hornet nests from people’s houses, so it is a double-good to eat them. We had tea made from the feces of worms that feed on cherry blossoms. The tea was cherry-blossom scented and if you didn’t know where it came from, light and tasty. Also green tea made from silkworm larvae poop. He owns a noodle maker and one of his assistants (there are two guys and one woman) mixed up buckwheat dough that includes “bee powder” and made noodles.

August 25th , I went on a “hornet-hunting” trip to a village in the hills above Nagoya. Daesuke-san and me climbed into his mini-double cab pickup and, followed by one of his sawmill workers in another small car, drove about half an hour along a narrow (paved) valley road between the proverbial verdant hills. Cedar and Japanese cypress. At cluster of houses that was something less than a village we met 76 year old Haru-O, otherwise called Haru-san, the expect hornet hunter. A short, weather-worn man in a baseball cap, jeans, boots with the toe separate – which (excepting me) seemed to be the uniform today – he has been doing this for 50 years. Also there was 71 year old community leader of (to me) unknown status. We drove in tandem up a muddy/ gravelly road between steep hills, and finally stopped near a large grader, where the road was going to be extended. Haru-san prepared sticks with a spit at one end, into each of which he pressed a strip of squid (some people use eel, which is what Deasuke called it at first but Shoko later corrected him); these sticks, each marked with a pink ribbon, were stuck into the roadside at various intervals. Then, we waited. In the meantime, Daesuke showed me a plastic box which held thin white threads that seemed to broaden at one end (a bit like flossing strips). When finally one of us saw a small black hornet chewing on the bait, Haru-san took a small bit of squid, worked it into spit-ball size, and attached the string to it. He then approached the hornet, and prodded it to take the squid-ball from his hand. Then it zipped away, trailing the white thread. We watched it disappear into the deep, green woods, and Daesuke clambered up through the steep wet partially decayed logs, ferns, scree, tree trash until he loses track of it. Then waited for another and did the same. This time he was able to follow it further. After about three baited hornets we were able to find a few dark holes set back into the earth in the shadow of a rotten log and a curtain of ferns. Then Daesuke went back down to help Haru while we waited. For a while, we watched hornets coming and going from the holes. The 71 year old guy whacked the earth a few times to watch the hornets come hurrying out to see who the intruder was. Finally, Haru and Daesuke climbed up, bringing a couple of 12″ cube wooden boxes. Haru pulled on a bee hat and top, and thick gloves, then dug into the earth below the holes. In about 5 minutes, he had unearthed a large grapefruit-sized hornet’s nest from the wet red humus and dirt. He plunked it into one of the boxes. The box was too small, but while Daesuke clambered back down to get a larger box from the truck, Haru kept digging and dropping handfuls of hornets and nest into the box. When Daesuke arrived with the bigger box , Haru transferred the nest to the new box and added more hornets, including the queen, who promptly crawled down into the nest. Tied the lid on the box and we all returned to the vehicles.

Back at his house Haru-san showed us the 20 nest boxes he owned. He feeds them chicken live (on a string hanging outside each front door) and rock sugar. He feeds the nests for a few months, until the Nov festival, at which time I understood they have a contest to see who has the biggest nest. Then they eat most of them and let some go. 2015-08-25 09.22.04

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During my time in the mountains, I stayed at the “Lumberjack” AirBnB in a village near Akechi. (https://www.airbnb.ca/rooms/3862017?locale=en). Here is a picture of the lovely host family (starting at the top left and moving down to the right): Sakura, Shoko, Soyoka, MinMiyake Familyori and Daesuke. Jo, the dog, is not shown.

 

 

 

 

 

Landed back in Toronto an hour before I left Tokyo and spent the next morning in a dentist’s chair, for general maintenance and repair.

 

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