Edible insects are touted as the ‘future’ of food, and we’re by no means the first to consider how they might pair well with wine as part of Western cuisine.
But: If 2 billion people enjoy insects as part of their daily diet, what ‘wine’ do they drink with them? (Since not all cultures make alcoholic drinks from grapes – the definition of wine, at least in the EU – we are taking an expansive view here, and considering any alcoholic beverage.
Much like edible insects, a diverse range of fermented drinks are commonly consumed worldwide. Here are the first five of our top ten* traditional insect and wine pairings from around the world:
(*Normally top tens are in order of taste. But we can’t decide on our favourite, let alone rank all 10! What do you think? Do you have a favourite?)
1. Mezcal and chapulines (Mexico)
Chapulines (grasshoppers) are usually cooked with salt, chilli and lemon. They’ve got a really unique taste, and go well with smoky mezcal, which is fermented from agave plants. (click here to read about how mezcal is made, and here to read about a couple of other Mexican insects enjoyed with mezcal)
2. Goto-mushi and warm shochu (Japan)
Goto-mushi are the larvae of the long-horned beetle. They’re found in winter, and are delicious roasted over an open fire and accompanied with a warm shot of shochu, a spirit distilled from fermented grain or potatoes, but usually with a much lower ABV (alcohol by volume) than vodka.
3. Palm grubs and palm wine (West and Central Africa)
Palm grubs are found inside the rotting trunks of fallen palms; palm wine is tapped from living palms. The wine is sweetest when it’s freshly tapped, and compliments the grubs, which can be roasted, smoked or stewed with spices. (Click here to read more about palm wine, and here to read about some other insects that are traditionally enjoyed with it in the Democratic Republic of Congo)
4. Fried crickets and smoked rice wine (Northeast India)
We’ve never tried this, but we’ve read about Northern Indian fried crickets and smoked rice wine here and here, and we think that this pairing sounds delicious!
5. Shea caterpillars and sugar cane spirit (West and Central Africa)
Sugar plantations and shea-maize agroforestry fields are common in western Africa. Cane sugar is fermented and distilled to make a potent spirit, while the caterpillars that feed on the shea trees are collected and cooked with chilli and soumbala. The savoury caterpillars are a perfect match for the sweet spirit. The flavours are strong, and this is not a pairing for the fainthearted… (Click here to read about how these caterpillars are collected, and here for a recipe.)
Part 2 is on its way (and see our acknowledgments below for some clues to its content). But in the meantime – What about you? Have you come across a great insect and wine pairing that’s not mentioned here? Tell us about it!
With thanks to: Gabe Mott from Aspire FG for guiding me to pairing number 1, Gobar and Kushihara Agroforestry for introducing me to pairing number 2, @Bug_tasting_bot for the beautiful photo of pairing number 2, Ndopo for taking me through Congolese villages where pairing number 3 could be found, Antoinette and Bertine for preparing pairing number 5 countless times, (spoiler alert for pairings 6-10…) Kenichi Nonaka for introducing me to pairing number 7, Tetsuo Nakagaki for introducing me to the joys of pairing number 8, Roberto Flore for telling me about pairing number 9, Glen Courtright for letting me taste the insect part of pairing number 10, and Catherine and Lori from Simbi for pairings 4 and 6, as well as everyone else who’s given me delicious insects and wine over the past few years!
In this post, I want to follow up from my previous one, on the general principles I use to match wine and fine. I‘m going to go through a few examples of pairings to illustrate how I approach them. Do keep in mind, that although I – and I think most others – would argue there are good and bad pairings, there’s a very wide range of what works. How that is defined is also subject to disagreement.
I’m going to focus mostly on non-insect examples here, since they will doubtless be more familiar to most people. Charlotte has kindly made it more insect-relevant with some additional comments for each pairing. They are also easier to experiment with, and the only way to really understand wine and food pairing is precisely that: experiment. You will also notice that I have a tendency to think in terms of what are called ‘Old World’ (ie, European) wines. That’s not to rule others out, by any means. You could find similar matches with wines from the US, but here in the UK, they are rather expensive.
Mashed potatoes. Yes, it’s an odd thing to pair wine with. I don’t think I ever actually have. But it is a good thought experiment. For me, the main thing here is the creaminess, with body being secondary. I think a wide range of wines could work with mash. Some white wines, and many reds, would probably go ok. But I’d lean towards medium to light-bodied reds. I’m somewhat considering the ‘body’ of the potatoes, but also the taste, or relative lack of it.
I think a full-bodied red (think big Australian shiraz) would be sort of pointless. The potatoes would stand up to it on mouthfeel, but not on flavour. A lighter red could handle it, if you want to match lightness of body and tannins with the relative blandness of the potato. Something like a village level Beaujolais, perhaps. With slightly more body, perhaps a Grenache-based wine – something from Southern Rhone, or even a something a bit heavier, like an Argentinian Malbec. For me, the potatoes would act as something of a blank slate, and it would really come down to what you wanted to drink.
Charlotte adds: Based on the description Chris uses here – creamy, a relative lack of taste – my initial thought was that many larger-bodied larvae could fit, such as palm weevil larvae or giant hornet larvae. But, their flavours are a lot more delicate than your average mash, and some of the heavier wines suggested here would probably overpower them. In fact, larvae might fit better with one of the next two examples…
Burrata. This is a pairing I was asked about recently. If you aren’t familiar with burrata, it is basically mozzarella wrapped around cream. Soft, creamy, and very yummy. Here again I went for a lighter red. Valpolicella, from northeastern Italy, to be precise. Why? In this case, I wanted to accent the creaminess, not cut through it with a zesty white. In many reds, I was afraid that the tannins would overpower the cheese. So, something soft and subtle to go with a soft and subtle cheese. The main flavour I associate with Valpolicella is sour cherries, perhaps with some plum, which I thought would be a nice accent for the cheese. I think this worked very well.
Charlotte adds: This might be a better fit for the larvae described above! Hornet larvae in particular are very creamy, particularly when eaten raw, straight from the nest. Sort of like little feral miniature burratas. They certainly go well with a soft red.
Gnocchi in blue cheese sauce. This (specifically, baked gnocchi in blue cheese sauce) has become something of a go-to comfort food for me of late. Here it is really the blue cheese that needs to be taken into consideration. The gnocchi are basically just a carrier for the sauce. What I like to drink with this is clear: a zesty white, either a German Riesling, or the classic Austrian Grüner Veltliner. I’d personally give the Austrian a slight nod. Nothing fancy in either case. Both are noted for having high acidity that is well integrated. The zestiness cuts through the fat and creaminess of the sauce, and the green apple and citrus flavours just give the whole thing a refreshing lift. Pretty much any red in this case would be overkill for me. This is a case where heavy on top of heavy would just be too much. If you are going to insist on a red, go for something lighter.
Charlotte writes: I think that the combination of the strong taste of the blue cheese with the creaminess of the gnocchi can be best likened to the taste of the contents of a freshly collected wasp nest, sautéed with a tiny bit of oil and seasoned with salt – the creamy larvae and pupae are joined by the stronger-tasting adults. A zesty white works well with these, too.
Venison. Or wild boar. Here – especially with the wild boar – bigger is pretty much better. Venison steak with a red currant or lingonberry sauce, home-made chips and something green to pretend to be healthy. Northern Rhone is where I’d like – fairly big, but elegant Syrah (Shiraz outside of Europe) wines. Crozes-Hermitage would go well here. Slightly rustic, and a good deal more affordable than many of the other northern Rhône wines. (Although if you can afford them, go for something like a Côte Rôtie here.) For venison, I also like to go with a souther Rhône, and in particular, Vacqueryras, a favourite of mine. This is Grenache based (regulations require at least 50%), rather than Syrah, although that is present too.
Charlotte comments: Wild meat? Fresh caterpillars spring to mind! Boiled, and then steamed, or lightly fried, many species of wild-caught caterpillar are enjoyed throughout Africa, and like many wild meats they are high in protein and iron, and relatively low in fat. The taste varies between species, but all are fairly meaty and I’m sure they’d pair very well with a rustic red – we’ll have to try this sometime soon.
Silkworms. I put this one in the list for two reasons. First, this is a site about wine and insects, so why not at least one insect? And second, it illustrates the fact that people can disagree about pairings. Charlotte is convinced the only wine to pair with silkworms is Malbec. I’m not so sure. I can see her point. Silkworms are quite savoury, and require something with body and strength. For this, Malbec is a very good choice. However, for me, it comes down to the quantity. If you had enough silkworms and wanted to make sort of hamburger patties with them, or meatballs, or basically anything where you’d be having more than two or three silkworms, then I’d agree. But for me, as we were tasting the silkworms – in relatively modest quantities – Malbec was overpowering. I wanted (once again) a relatively light red, with fruitiness, but some seriousness to it. I opted for a Fleurie, a fairly ‘high-level’ Beaujolais. The red fruit and berry flavours come through, but lighter body and softer tannins keep it from overpowering the silkworms. Charlotte continues to disagree. That’s fine. At the end of the day, it largely comes down to personal preferences. As I said earlier, I (and most wine and food people) would say there are better and worse matches. But in between those boundaries, there’s a whole world to explore. Ultimately, that’s the best way to learn about food and wine pairing: experience. Eat and drink, with friends if you have them, and decide what works and doesn’t. In time, you’ll have to think it through when someone asks for an explanation, but the pairing itself becomes almost second nature.
Charlotte says: I just love Malbec. But I think we’ll have to do a few more tastings, with a few other discerning tasters as well, to resolve this one!
Updated 26 Feb, 2017, to include comments by Charlotte making the post more insect-relevant.
You’ve gotten yourself some edible insects. Now, how do you decide what wine will go best with them? There’s good and bad news. The bad news is: there are very few, if any, hard and fast rules. The good news is: that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to keep in mind. They may seem at first to be a lot to juggle mentally, and more complicated than ‘white wine with fish.’ With practice, they’ll become second nature, and you won’t really have to think much about them. It becomes a semi-automatic process.
Ultimately, wine and food pairing is about balancing aspects of both. You might want to look for things that complement each other, or that contrast. I’ll give examples of what I mean, to illustrate how it all comes together.
The things to keep in mind related to the characteristics of wine (and food). Let me briefly outline these in relation to wine, and food and wine pairing. I’m going to cover five different aspects of wine. Ultimately, they all work together, but it is easier to approach them at first at separate elements. I think of them as sort of a grammar of wine and food pairing. And, like grammar, it’s good to know the rules not only to construct pairings that work, but also to know when and how to break the rules.