For my beloved Brother who introduced me to the art of cooking, who taught me how to taste and truly love food. Without him I'd never be able to be where I am today.

January 17, 2014

The Larva-man

A longer, more in depth version of this text was published on the Nordic Food Lab research blog February 4th 2014. Click here to read it.

When a fellow researcher at the Nordic Food Lab asks me whether I’d like to give him a hand doing field work, meaning feeding random Copenhageners bee larva soup, I say “Ja tak!” Could there possibly be a better way to spend an afternoon?

Meet Jonas, the Larva-man – a 27 year old, very tall and very charming Dane passionate about sensory experiences and gastronomy. Jonas is a wanted man these days, requested to address various more or less tendentious food related topics on Danish national TV and radio. Ever since November, I’ve been sitting across from him at the Lab watching him meticulously busting his brain for his master thesis on how people perceive and accept novel foods, bee larvae to be more precise.  When he’s not busy doing public appearances that is, Jonas is an almost graduated Master in Food Science and Technology at Copenhagen University and is keen on discovering how neophobic or neophilic Danes are in their foodways. The Lab – as for us all – is both his playground and safe-zone for experimentation. (He also makes delicious and beautiful artisanal bread that I can’t have, but that’s another story.)

“If we manage to feed soup to 70 people today, that would be great”, he says with his signature simper as we started prepping the vegetable and bee larva soup this morning. “Let’s make one with visible larvae, one with invisible larvae and one with no larvae at all”. By now, almost two months in on my internship at the Lab, I’ve learned to recognize the very distinctive smell and flavour of the fatty little creatures: nutty, buttery, much like liver, quite delicate after all. I’ve only had them deep frozen in Jonas’s soup, but Josh, the Project Manager/Researcher at the Lab, describes fresh and alive bee larvae as something close to fish roe in texture, very delicate and “fucking delicious” in flavour. Listening to Josh’s description I got the oddest urge to pop one of those alive babies in my mouth. Deranged? Totally, yet far from it. Who would’ve thought I’d one day find myself on a houseboat in Copenhagen, surrounded by the damn most intriguing and talented people in the field of Nordic gastronomic research, talking about how bee larvae burst against ones palate… I can but smile, stir the soup and see how the little tasty suckers float around in creamy stock together with carrots, celeriac, leek and onions. The whole place smells of sautéed bee larvae. Yup, very distinctively bee larvae indeed.

Of course I’m here, where else would I be!

The Larva-man has chosen to do his semi-guerrilla soup tasting at a suburban mall in Valby, a 15minute bike ride away from the centre of Copenhagen, “That’s where we’ll find normal people”, he explains. “Normal people” are a rare breed here at the Lab where the next person stepping on board this mad houseboat is probably somehow loonier than the previous one. We often forget about “those other types of people” who might not attack a container filled with what essentially is the mashed and rotten edibles with immense appetite and lust for umami. Jonas and I head to the mall with the car loaded with our three steaming soup pots right after lunchtime. I wonder how many Danes will choose a side of larva over a kanelsnurrer with their afternoon coffee? Remains to be seen. As my Danish is not quite there yet, I told Jonas I’d do the people hunting and lour them in for him to feed them larva soup. Game on.

How hard could it be?

“No thanks, I’ve got a chewing gum in my mouth”, “I just ate”, “I’m vegan”, “Why would I eat bugs”, “Are you crazy”, “ I have no time for such nonsense”, “No thanks, I’ve got a girlfriend” were some of the reactions I got approaching the potential targets. Women especially didn’t like the idea of doing a bee larva soup dégustation on this crisp winter afternoon in Valby. Rather interesting. I wonder why? When I as a woman challenged young and middle-aged men to have some of Jonas’s soup asking them if they’re man enough, they obviously couldn’t say no. It proved to be a good strategy. Nevertheless, my utmost respect goes out to a mother of two boys, I’m guessing 4 and 7 year olds, who didn’t hesitate having a fun and educational pit-stop at Jonas’s soup shack. What a cool mum! And the boys loved it too.

Close to forty people accepted the challenge, keen on the trying “the future source of protein”. Unfortunately, at least the same amount, if not more, declined.

Jonas decided to call it a day when he felt like people weren’t thinking of anything else except for getting home for dinner a.s.a.p. Not even the best of simpers made a difference. We stood there for a while, warming our hands on the hot pots of larva soup… “I’ll get the car, we did good”, Jonas uttered. Before packing the larva-mobile to head back to the Lab I served myself a bowl of soup. “I’m eating juvenile insects in Copenhagen”, I thought to myself. Completely normal.

Next time: next week – new location. Way to go Larva-man!

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