Tasty Treats & Mystery Meats: The World of Edible Timber & Bugs

Plate of Edible Insects

As any singing lion or baboon that you meet will tell you – IT’S THE CIRRCCLE OF LIIIIIIIIFE!!! AND IT MOOOOOOVEES US AAAAAALLL!!!

It’s a catchy lyric and no doubt Elton John and Tim Rice really nailed that one, but it’s also a statement of ecological fact. In any food chain, there are eaters and eaten and from an evolutionary perspective, it pays to be the former. For some life forms this is a real struggle, after all, if a tree is being preyed upon then it can’t very well run off. Some trees have come up with some great protective mechanisms against ending up on the lunch menu, but when you don’t have a brain your options for self-defence are pretty limited – karate, for example, is way out. So…

“How are there even any trees left?”

I hear your cry! Well, about 200,000 years ago a creature evolved that would be the tree’s staunchest defender against being nibbled on by pesky varmints: human beings.

We don’t, it should be noted, do this out of the goodness of our hearts. You see for much of human history, including sadly in the present day, the vast majority of people have been hungry – extraordinarily so. I’m not talking about the kind of Friday night, out-on-the-town hunger when a greasy bread pocket stuffed with dubious meat starts to sound like a winning proposition; rather proper, gnawing hunger where you would consider eating anything.

When you eat to survive, suddenly everything looks worth a shot, but many things which were originally eaten in desperation turned out to be rather delectable. To our coddled western sensibilities many of the world’s most famous delicacies seem repulsive; fermented Greenland shark, bull’s testicles, McNuggets… the list is endless. So here’s to that special class of these foods, dear to every timber nerd’s heart, were dauntless gastronauts put their stomachs on the line to defend the defenceless and save the trees by eating some crazy stuff.

The Teredo Navalis Shipworm

Ever been to the pier? Well beneath your feet there were probably thousands of these horrifying looking creatures industriously working away beneath your feet to destroy it – no doubt in the hope that you would fall in and could yourself be devoured.

The Teredo Navalis, or shipworm was such a problematic pest for the British Navy in the 18th century that they sheathed the hulls of their ships in copper and they nearly drowned the Dutch by eating the wooden parts of all their dykes until they were replaced in the 1750s.

Looking like the unlovable result of an ill-advised night of passion shared between an oyster and a used prophylactic, the shipworm is a type of Bivalve mollusk closely related to the mussel, but without the self-respect to cover its shameful nakedness with a shell.

These creatures hardly scream, “Eat me, eat me, I’m delicious!” but that doesn’t stop the people of Thailand. In the province of Trat, on Thailand’s eastern edge near the border with Cambodia, the local fisherman scour the mangrove for the shipworm to make the delicate gaeng liang priyang curry. If they can resist eating them raw straight from their tunnels, the teredo worms are chopped and braised with fish paste, chillies and tender banana shoots to create a murky stew, which is by all accounts both delicious and beneficial to pregnant women.

Creepy Crawlies & Edible Insects

The world as we know it is in serious trouble. With a growing population and dwindling natural resources, producing enough food to fill the bellies of everyone on the planet will keep getting harder and harder. The FAO, or food and agriculture association – a branch of the UN, published a report in 2013 entitled “Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security” which presented a bold new vision for making insects central to the dinner tables of the future.

One crucial fact that the report recognised was that outside of the West, insects have been a crucial component of peoples diet’s for centuries, with forest communities, in particular, making use of the inextricable link between insects and the trees that they inhabit and feed on.

Beetles, in particular, are a favourite across many cultures, both in their gooey larval stage and as crunchy adults. Many beetles live in fallen timber, making use of their natural ability to easily convert cellulose into digestible sugars and therefore accessing energy available in the food chain that would be inaccessible to humans.

Perhaps the most famous example is the witchitty grub, which is a vital food source to traditional desert dwelling aborigines of the Australian outback. The larval stage of a number of different species of moths, the grubs are harvested from the roots of bushes and trees which they feed on – supposedly they taste like almonds and are delicious either raw or lightly cooked in the embers of a fire so that their skins crisp up.

The practice of eating insects, known as entophagy, has long been out of favour in the west, although it almost certain that our ancient ancestors were much less squeamish! Gradually it is coming to be seen as an ethical and sustainable alternative to more land-intensive ways of producing protein-rich food, like traditional meat and poultry farming, so keep an eye out for beetles and grubs coming to a menu near you!

Bäverhojt

Have you ever been headed to a party and not known what to bring to drink? Wine is problematic as I never know what to spend; beer can be a minefield too as it invariably gets nicked. For a cheapskate like me, spirits seem like a great choice and own brand vodka, combining high ABV to cost ratio and pure classiness, is a total all-rounder; but don’t you wish it could somehow be made more disgusting?

Enter Bäverhojt, a traditional Swedish libation flavoured with, of all things, beaver anal glands. Traditionally drunk just before going out on beaver hunting expeditions, presumably this was one of those things that started as a joke to play on the new guy and has stuck around for some interminable reason. Beavers secrete strong smelling oil from their glands call castoreum.

With an apparently piny, musky flavour castoreum has found use in a number of things over the years, notably a medicine in the middle ages. Medieval pharmacists almost hunted the Eurasian beaver to extinction, but after discovering the new was chock full of ‘em the fashion came back in big time, finding its way into tobacco (for that delicious beaver gland flavour) and even as an ingredient in cheap vanilla flavourings!

Whilst beavers do eat some timber, chowing down on the sugary bark and leaves there most destructive habit is cut down trees to produce their dams and lodges.

This can be extremely damaging to timber stocks as in addition to the trees that they actively cut down they contribute to the formation of wetlands, drowning trees from the roots up.

In their natural range they make a net positive contribution to the health of the eco-system, even improving the health of fish stocks, but where they don’t belong they can cause a real problem, like on the island of Tierra del Fuego where they were introduced to hunt for their fur, but have subsequently caused an ecological emergency of massive proportions.

Complex Eco – Relationships

It’s clear from our long history of eating animals that have such a deep relationship with trees that the forest has been an invaluable resource for people for the whole of the human story. As we increasingly live in communities, which are removed from nature, it can be easy to forget that the complex webs of relationships between living things can be extremely fragile and tenuous. When properly managed, forests can provide all the resources that humans need to survive, but mismanagement can be the root of disaster.

It’s important therefore the choose sustainable sources for the timber that you buy and to properly educate yourself about what sustainability means and what you can do to ensure that you are using ethical material. Why not ask our friendly and knowledgeable staff about the environmentally friendly, sustainable timber products that we can offer and on the way home, maybe grab yourself a tasty beetle for lunch!

Blog | 11 months AGO