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Novel food: the food you don't expect

Planet Earth, 2050 A.D. Nine billion people need food, but the earth is dry and stingy. The world, seen from above, is a yellow spot, dotted here and there with residues of green, white and blue. Getting food, as our ancestors taught us, is a distant memory handed down to posterity in the history books, preserved in the cases of the State newspaper library and in the digital archives of satellite television. Once upon a time there were Gambero Rosso and the Michelin Guide to the best restaurants in Italy, food bloggers, starred chefs, McDonald’s and multinationals of junk food. Today there are hungry mouths that find comfort in novel foods, the food we didn't expect to eat: forage, wild herbs, insects, algae and plankton. A catastrophic writer of the future would probably describe the imminence of the near future destiny of the human species in this way. However, with an extra vein of optimism, one could imagine a picture with less gloomy colours.

An ending yet to be written

Anno Domini 2018: We are officially at the trigger point, the moment of narration when things start to change so quickly that they irreparably alter the course of history.

"In 2050 there will be 9 billion people. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) says that it will be necessary to increase food production by 70% to meet the demand for food and proteins per capita. Therefore, In the future, it will be necessary to "produce" more edible organisms with high nutritional values and low environmental impact. These arguments seem to be in open contrast with the thesis of the World Food Program that instead claims that the world has - and will still have - enough food to feed 12 billion people. The problem could therefore be linked not so much to the supply as to the accessibility of resources, to the methods of production and distribution of food; a question of the market, in short".

White text on a black background; a lapidary sentence that describes a disturbing open end to the story, and raises important questions. This is how Bugs closes, a documentary film from 2016 directed by Danish director Andreas Johnsen (and available on Netflix), which follows the journey around the world of the members of the Danish NGO Copenhagen Nordic Food Lab, an initiative that brings together chefs and researchers to study the use of insects in the kitchen, from the cataloguing of edible species, to the proposal of new culinary creations.

From Sardinia to Copenaghen Nordic Food Lab

The history of this future food laboratory is intertwined with the fate of the Italian Roberto Flore, who left Seneghe, a town in the province of Oristano with less than two thousand souls, to go to Copenhagen in 2014. In Sardinian dialect, "sèneghe" means old, ancient and, according to the description given in a handwritten monograph of the last century, "well suited to this land the name of fertile vein, fertile for wheat, olives, vineyards, chestnut trees, pastures, with mountains rich in cork tree forests, irrigated by abundant sources of fine water. 35% of the active population of the Sardinian village works in the pastoral field: cattle and sheep farms occupy 81% of the municipal area, while the rest of the territory is affected by permanent cultivation of olive trees, vines and fodder. The economy is mainly agricultural and pastoral, emblematic of the casu marzu, the caciocavallo cheese with worms, so dear to the Sardinian tradition. Roberto's great culinary passion is rooted in the spun paste of the family-produced dairy product, which seems to be a bridge between the Italian gastronomic past and the global entomophagy of the future.
For several years, the Sardinian chef has lived in the Great North and worked at the Copenhagen Nordic Food Lab as Head of Research & Development. Here he develops new recipes based on improbable flavours and unusual ingredients, used by "exotic" cultures and in inhospitable places on the planet. His adventure in a foreign land happened by chance, when he met in 2013 with chef Ben Raede and researcher Josh Evans of the Nordic Food Lab, during their journey - documented in Bugs - to discover the international culinary traditions of entomology matrix. Just like the casu marzu.

At the Nordic Food Lab, Roberto Flore and his staff of research chefs work with products collected in the wild, insects bred or delivered still alive, which are then treated according to the common rules of food handling hygiene. Traceability, supply chain control, quality and health standards also apply to the food of the future, in short. Although, of course, everything is more complicated because of the absolute novelty and the intrinsic characteristics of the raw materials subject to unusual culinary experimentations.

Many species are protected, therefore untouchable. For the rest, however, the cooking methods remain the same as ever, mindful of their universal character. "Every insect, like every other ingredient, has its ideal preparations; it can be fried, blanched, put into infusion or added in small doses as a flavor enhancer. At Lab we invent new foods; for example we ferment insects for 6 months with salt and koji, in order to obtain a liquid with a strong taste of umami, intermediate between soy and garum. But we are also inspired by existing culinary traditions. What for us is avant-garde catering, in other cultures - such as Mexican, Australian Aboriginal, Asian, South American and much of the African continent - is the rule. Termites, in Kenya, are toasted over high heat, while in Indonesia they are mixed with eggs and scrambled; just like in Mexico with escamoles. Here insects have always been considered a real delicacy and the potential of this food is enormous, since they represent a database of unknown tastes and a reservoir of democratic proteins" - says the chef in one of the many interviews published on the thematic portals of food-cultures.

Novel foods enter the market

Eating insects, in short, will be the turning point of the Planet. From January 1, 2018, the EU Regulation of 2015, which regulates the production and trade of novel foods in Europe, became effective. In this way, a whole series of foods that have never been systematically consumed by the population can enter the European market. The list includes, according to the legal nomenclature: foods with a new or intentionally modified molecular structure; foods consisting of, isolated from or produced by microorganisms, fungi or algae, materials of mineral origin, plants or parts thereof, cell cultures or tissues derived from animals, plants, microorganisms, fungi or algae; foods resulting from a new production process or consisting of engineered nanomaterials.
Currently, however, the absolute protagonists in the kitchen of the future are insects, of which more than 1900 species are edible. According to FAO, insects are already an integral part of the diet of 90 countries around the world. Global favourites are beetles (31%), followed by caterpillars (18%), bees, wasps and ants (14%), grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (13%). CrickèFood, 21Bites, ItalBugs and Protix are among the main European producers of flours and products derived from their processing, such as pasta, protein bars and sweets. To get the raw material instead, you can refer to the importer RedBug, which markets larvae, worms, termites, ants, locusts, cockroaches, crickets, grasshoppers, bumblebees, of controlled and protected origin.

To get an idea of what you can do with this new ingredient, you can check the entomophilous cooking manual "On eating insects: essays, stories and recipes" published by Phaidon, of which Roberto Flore is co-author along with Joshua Evans and Michael Bom Frøst, director of the Nordic Food Lab. In this book, you can see recipes for butter with larvae fat, pesto of basil and locusts or for a crumble of worms and vegetables, and imitate exclusive and healthy dishes such as "Did You Wash The Salad?" a smoked juniper salad with wild herbs, honey and ants.

Other open source incubators of creativity and insectivorous culinary researches are beginning to populate the web. Master Bug, from his YouTube channel tells us about the extraordinary nutritional power of edible insects - especially rich in proteins, amino acids, minerals and B vitamins and teaches us to love them, cook and dish them to delight the palate. According to the testimonies of those who have tried them, they do not differ so much from tastes and textures already known.

The mother ant from Kenya, for example, looks like a small white sausage; if grilled and served on a bed of mango cream, it recalls the bittersweet taste of boiled pork. Mexican escamoles have a hint of lime and almonds and are excellent if served in a tortilla on a bed of julienne onion. Termites are a delicious sensory short circuit of sweet and salty notes and, squeezing a hive of red ants, you get a drink of ambrosia. After all, if you think about it, what is honey, if not bee vomiting? To ask ourselves why we should eat insects, then, would be like asking ourselves why we eat plants and mammals. Changing the experience of taste and the way we perceive and live food is a process that will certainly take a few years, and a substantial participation effort. Those who are satisfied will enjoy it; feeding on what lives in our garden will be the philosophy necessary to inspire a more enlightened future for the entire animal species.

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