Ants and a Chimp Stick

Added on by Josh Evans.

posted by Josh Pollen

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To consume an ant is an almost absurd study of scale. There may be no smaller legged creature eaten as a principal ingredient, yet the ant’s size belies the intensity of its taste.

A wide variety of the  12,500 recognised species of  the  Formicidae family are eaten in cultures around the world, from the Colombian cinema snack of fried hormigas culones (large-bottomed ants, or  Atta laevigata) to honey ant species such as the black honey ant (Camponotus inflatus), eaten as a sweet delicacy by Australian Aborigines.

The nutritional efficiency of ant protein is not high compared to other insects, but that is not the point. They are eaten more as flavourful supplements and sometimes given as symbolic gifts. Simply, different ants exhibit different flavours [1]. Numerous chemical compounds contained in the ant’s exocrine glands are considered responsible for this diversity – in particular formic acid, a naturally-occurring organic acid first isolated in ants, constitutes an element of its defensive allomonic arsenal and is responsible for the sour taste. We have eaten ants which taste  uncannily of lemongrass and kaffir lime, and have been told of ants tasting of mint and orange blossom. The variety of flavours could be attributed to the semiochemicals used for communication within the ant nest and their employment by different strata of the hierarchical ant colony. Their diet and habitat could also have parts to play, and it surprised us that the flavours of the Danish ants are oddly tropical!

At Nordic Food Lab we have used  two species of ant  found in Denmark, the wood ant (Formica rufa)  and the smelling carpenter ant  (Lasius fuliginosus). For the first, we visited Tage Rønne, a woodsman who harvests birch sap and other traditional ingredients in the woods north of Copenhagen. Tage remarked that the ants had emerged from their winter hibernation that very morning to greet the first sunshine of the year. He led us to a spot between the birch trees where a frantic carpet of ants seethed from the entrance of a nest to search for newly-thawed forage. We scooped up a number of ants (thousands? tens of thousands?) in a container, leaving a sprinkling of birch sap for the ants in exchange – a nutritious energy booster as a head start for the new season.

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Back at the lab, we blast-chilled the ants. It was not without a tinge of solemnity, for although we had strong culinary interest in their demise it was still odd to think about how many individuals we had removed, and whether the structure of the colony would be affected. Would the complex hierarchy be thrown into disarray, even temporarily? Would workers have to be re-assigned tasks? We had and continue to have many questions about the impact of harvesting insects, many of which remain only partially and unsatisfactorily answered.

We were sent the smelling carpenter ants by Thomas Laursen, a biologist and teacher from Jutland, the man responsible for the foraging of several hundred thousand live ants for the Noma pop-up at Claridge’s. There is a colony of Kaffir lime-flavoured ants in his garden.

The course we devised to open the Pestival menu was inspired by ant and termite ‘fishing’ tools used by chimpanzees. Eating insects like these is part of our evolutionary heritage – so it's not surprising how easily it comes back when in the right company (for example, in this video where chimpanzees enculturate a documentary filmmaker to eat termites). On a whittled liquorice root we brushed honey infused with juniper wood and studded it with the frozen ants, freeze-dried fruits, seeds, toasted crushed grains, small aromatic leaves and flowers. This ‘chimp stick’, as it came to be known, was served on a charred piece of juniper wood (also gathered by Tage) and guests were able to choose whether to suck all the edible parts off the stick, mixing the sweet, sour, aromatic, bitter and toasted notes or to pick at it and taste the flavours individually. Our hope was to evoke the mess of flavours and textures that would surround the ants in their field or forest habitat, and to use the sour taste to brighten the palate for the ensuing menu. 

photo: Chris Tonnesen

photo: Chris Tonnesen

Chimp Stick

Liquorice roots, whittled
A clear, light honey infused with toasted juniper wood
Some local ants, frozen within an hour of harvesting
Buckwheat, soaked overnight, toasted and cracked
Linseeds
Freeze-dried raspberry pieces
Small leaves of purple shiso and coriander cress
Small cherry blossoms

Infuse the juniper wood into the honey overnight. Strain and filter.

Whittle liquorice roots, removing all rough skin an thinning slightly to a more slender shape, leaving a section at one end unwhittled as a 'handle'.

Brush the liquorice root on all whittled surfaces with a light coating of honey - just enough to make things stick. Place liquorice root handle-side down into a bowl of rice to hold the stick upright for plating. Begin adhering the buckwheat and linseeds, then the ants, then the raspberries, herbs, and flowers. It is best to begin with the more sturdy ingredients and move on to the more delicate ones. Coat the stick until a desirable density is reached.

 

photo: Chris Tonnesen

photo: Chris Tonnesen

photo: Chris Tonnesen

photo: Chris Tonnesen

photo: Chris Tonnesen

photo: Chris Tonnesen

References

[1] Morgan, David E. "Chemical Sorcery for Sociality: Exocrine secretions of ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)". Myrmecological News . 11: 79-90. Vienna, August 2008.

Nordic Cheeses

Added on by Justine de Valicourt.

posted Justine de Valicourt

Poul Larsen, a Danish cheesemonger from HKI Ost, paid us a few visits recently to share some cheeses and tell us more about the cheese industry in Scandinavia. Most were organic, and some were biodynamic. We had the pleasure to taste some very good ones. To understand more about these cheeses, we needed to look deeper into Scandinavian geography and its long history of dairy culture.

Northern Europe has the highest rate of milk consumption in the world[1], but the culture of milk and dairy differs a lot from one country to another. For example, Sweden has historically a huge consumption of hard cheese compared to Denmark, which favours soured milk, yogurt, and fresh cheese.

This variability is largely attributable to geographic factors. Sweden is a large country with a history of seasonal transhumance for pasturing. Shepherds used to be isolated for a couple of months in the summer when moving with their cattle to higher pastures. They would then milk the cows and make cheese as a way to conserve the milk for the winter season, and the best way to store a lot of milk for a long period is to concentrate it by making harder cheese.

On the other hand, Denmark is a small country with a very concentrated population. The pastures are relatively near towns and cities and the shepherds never needed to store the milk for long periods of time. They could sell the dairy a few days after collecting the milk, creating a culture of soured milk, yogurt, fresh cheese and fresh milk, consumable all year round.

Modernity, however, with industrialisation and globalisation, has complicated this otherwise simple model, bringing an interest in hard cheese to Denmark as well as an easier shepherding life in Sweden. The last few decades have seen the development of a multitude of cheese factories in Denmark, most of them influenced by the cheese cultures of other European countries like the Netherlands and Switzerland. The five Danish and three Swedish cheeses Poul brought us on his first visit were mainly of this relatively new industry.

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We tried a cheese very similar to a gouda, named Høost Lagret – sweet and moist at 18 months old. Among the Swedish ones, Almnäs Tegel at 26 months was close to a gruyere, and Anno 1225, to a Tomme style. Yet the ones that held our attention were a couple cheeses from Jutland: Thybo , with large crunchy crystals, great buttery flavour, and high umami taste – the kind of cheese most people like; and Hodde Kristian Øko, of semi-pasterised milk, biodynamic from only hay-fed cows – even at 15 months old, it could have waited a couple more months before consumption for more of those nutty flavours to develop.

One characteristic we noticed is that all these cheeses did not taste quite as old as we would have expected from their age, as if the aging process were slower here in the North. Could it be because of the high relative humidity in Denmark? Or the cooler climate? Or because the cheeses are more pressed? The Almnäs Tegel, for example, was quite pressed, producing an interesting sandy texture.

All these cheeses made us curious about those few very traditional hard cheeses that still exist in Sweden. It is a country that used to boast thousands of different cheese producers and a great diversity of product, though now most of these producers have either been bought up or shut down. Yet there are still a few who have a continuous practice.

One visit was barely enough for us to satisfy our questions, so Poul came back a week later so we could learn more. This time he brought some very traditional Swedish cheeses – Get-Mese, Gullbrăcka, and Oviken Dura to name a few.

The Get-Mese needs to be described a little more. There is also a Norwegian version of this brown cheese, which is made from whey and boiled for a couple of hours, as the milk proteins and natural sugars go through a Maillard reaction that develops the typical nutty, caramelised flavours, a certain sweetness, and a wood-brown colour. This one also had quite a prominent a liquorice flavour.

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The Gullbrăcka interested us as well. It is a semi-hard, rectangular cheese from the Ystad region, traditionally made by monks. The cheese was only 3 and half months old, but the taste was already good, developed but not overly strong, with a hard sandy crust.

Still from Sweden, we tasted two cheeses that were delicious and less traditional. The Granbarkost is a cheese made in a cast of pine tree, similar to the Mont d'Or in France and Switzerland that is made in a spruce cast. The rim gives a distinct terpinous flavour to all the cheese, and holds it intact as the insides go gloriously runny.

The other Swedish cheese that we definitely need to relate is the Sörmlands Ädel, an exceptional blue, creamy and nutty. Similar to a Roquefort, though sweeter and from cow milk, and more mushroomy than a Gorgonzola.

Then, among the enormous selection of Danish cheeses that Poul brought, the Gedemælk Rygeost certainly needs a word. It is a quite famous cheese from Funen, a smoked fresh cheese from goat milk (Gedemælk). This process makes a cheese that is very fresh, creamy and slightly acidic, but with a potent smoky flavour coming from a fast blast near an oak-hay fire.

Finally, the most popular cheese in Denmark: Danbo. It is a commercial semi-soft cheese, quite sweet and easy-going. Yet we hadn't met its older siblings until now – one at 20 months and another at 26. These two versions are much stronger, lightly ammoniated, but nutty and full on the palate.

Every cheese we tasted kept us grappling with how to understand the interplay between old small producers, the proud heritage in Scandinavia of dairy culture and dairy science, the various kinds of industrial production, and this burgeoning ‘neo-traditional’ style. What constitutes ‘traditional’ cheese now? When and how do some of these cheeses toy with our expectations, and perhaps lead us astray? We may be entering a sort of post-industrial food market when it comes to taste and story – but it is still uncertain to what extent this will demand changes in the actual systems of production.

It is complicated and we are not the first to struggle with these questions. But one thing is for sure: there are definitely Nordic cheeses worth eating.

 

[1]   FAOSTAT. Online <faostat.fao.org>

 

Bushifying away the boar taint pt. 2

Added on by Anne Overmark.

posted by Anne Overmark

continued from Bushifying away the boar taint
excerpted from Anne’s MSc thesis entitled 'Pork bushi – a gastronomic approach to tasty usage of boar-tainted pork'

After 50 days the pork filets were removed from the climate chamber. During the stay in the climate chamber the filets had lost a lot of weight and they ended up with an approximate average final moisture content of 19%, which is very similar to what is found in katsuobushi (18-20%). Fresh lean muscle (m. Longissimus dorsi) contains around 74% moisture and due to the dry nature of the pork bushi, the character of the meat had completely changed. When struck it now sounded like a resonant piece of wood and it took a lot of effort to slice it. The smell was pleasant with notes of smoke and dried meat, almost comparable to a Parma ham. 

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As the filets were going to be served not only to myself but also to a sensory panel and consumers, they were analyzed for potential pathogens. Both the Listeria monocytogenes and Stapphylococcus aureus tests showed negative results and when the water activity (aw) was measured in four out of nine filets, the average aw turned out to be 0.895. This aw is similar to what is found in dry-cured ham, and it will inhibit the growth of most pathogenic microorganisms (Andrés et al., 2007). Since there were no sign of pathogens present, which potentially could have contaminated the meat during the processing, and as the water activity was so low, the pork bushis were considered safe for consumption.

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As mentioned the pork bushi is extremely hard and therefore inedible in larger pieces. Traditionally katsuobushi is used as a central ingredient in the katsuobushi-dashi, which can serve as a base for miso soup. Another way of eating it is as filling in onigiri, however in either way it is used in very thinly shaved flakes. I had access to a slicer used for bacon and other meats, and used the thinnest setting of 1.5mm for slicing the bushi. It would have been optimal, however, to use a plane like the one used in Japan, as it would have provided finer and more delicate flakes.

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Inspired by work previously conducted at Nordic Food Lab (Mouritsen & Styrbæk, 2011; Mouritsen et al. 2012) and the traditional way of eating katsuobushi, it was decided to present the pork bushi to the sensory panel and consumers in a pork bushi/potato dashi.

Pork bushi potato dashi

½ kg old potatoes
40g leek
1L tap water
70g pork bushi flakes

The potatoes were peeled and the leeks were cut into smaller pieces. The potatoes were boiled at as low heat as possible until soft and the leeks were added halfway through. When the potatoes had finished, the dashi was sieved through a tea towel, and the pork bushi was added once the temperature had reached about 75⁰C. More bushi could be added, which would potentially increase the odour, flavour and taste; however 70g was chosen due to the limited amount available.

Three different dashis were prepared:
1: “control” – non-boar-tainted meat;
2: “low” – boar-tainted meat with skatole concentrations in the range (0.34-0.37ppm); and
3: ”high” – boar-tainted meat with skatole concentrations in the range (0.50-0.58ppm).

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The sensory panel consisted of nine trained and professional judges, who are used to assessing boar-tainted meat and who are sensitive to skatole and androstenone.  The panel expressed difficulties in finding any differences between the soups, and during the generation of the profile used in the sensory analysis, only one judge out of nine used ‘boar odour’ and ‘boar flavour’ as words to characterize the dashis. The final sensory analysis showed that only the boar odour of dashi 3, which contained the pork bushi with the highest skatole concentration, was perceived slightly, but significantly (p<0.05) different from the two others. The boar odour in the third dashi was perceived as being more intense.  When experience of the sensory analysis was discussed with the panel members they all expressed surprise when told they had evaluated boar-tainted meat, and they emphasized that it was not nearly as repulsive as meat they had evaluated on other occasions.

Sensory defects as detected by trained panelists can still be tolerable for naïve consumers (Lawless & Claassen, 1993) and when the three dashis were presented to consumers (63) in the canteen at Gefion (Sorø), there were no significant differences between the liking of the odour or the flavour. However in general they were not too crazy about dashis.

The results from the sensory analysis and the consumer test indicate that boar-tainted m. Longissimus dorsi, processed in a similar way as the traditional Japanese product katsuobushi, has the same eating quality as non-tainted m. Longissimus dorsi. This is great news and what I hoped to see when I started this experiment. However it is not possible from this experiment alone to determine whether it is the bushi process or the actual skatole and androstenone concentrations in the fresh lean meat that does the trick.  This processing technique can generate volatiles with the potential to mask the compounds which cause boar taint, thereby lowering its perceived intensity. The volatile composition of the bushi was not analyzed, and the skatole concentration was not determined in the finished products, thus it cannot be seen if the processing facilitates a generation of potent masking volatiles or a decrease in the concentration. Analyses of the fresh pork used for the processing of the bushis showed that the skatole and androstenone concentrations were much lower than the concentrations in the neck fat. The concentrations in the lean meat were lower than the threshold values too, and it may just be the low start concentrations, which influence the perception of boar taint in the filets used.

Even though I am not yet certain of why the boar odour and flavour is similar in meat from boar-tainted boars compared to meat from non-tainted pigs, at the end of the day pork bushi from m. Longissimus dorsi seem to be edible and nevertheless delicious.

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 Bibliography

Andrés. A., Barat. J. M., Grau. R., & Fito. (2007). Principles of Drying and Smoking. Chap.5. in Handbook of Fermented Meat and Poultry. Edt. Toldra. Blackwell Publishing.

Lawless. H. T., & Claassen. M. R. (1993). Validity of descriptive and defect-oriented terminology systems for sensory analysis of fluid milk. Jornal of Food Science. Vol. 58(1). pp. 108-

Mouritsen, O.G., & Styrbæk, K. (2011) Umami – Gourmetaben & den femte smag. Nyt Nordisk Forlag Arnold Busck A/S.

Mouritsen. O. G.,Williams. L., Bjerregaard. R., & Duelund. L. (2012). Seaweeds for umami flavour in the New Nordic Cuisine. Flavour. Vol.1(4). pp. 1-12.