Cecile’s latest batch of students watched attentively as she launched into the last step of the dish: swirling grasshoppers around in a frying pan before setting them on the couscous.
In their bid to find an environmentally-friendly alternative to meat, Richard, 41, Mariet, 53, and Seppo, 43, are looking to insects.
They are counting on Cecile to show them how to cook a menu of couscous, hamburger and baklava pastries with mealworms, grasshoppers or other insect larvae as key ingredients.
“The point is to find an alternative to meat. Not necessarily to replace it, but to reduce it,” said Mariet, who paid 50 euros (US$68) for the course.
“It’s easier if someone teaches you,” she said, at Cecile’s kitchen in the southeastern Dutch city of Sittard.
A smiling Richard confesses that for him, insects offer a perfect middle path between being a carnivore and a herbivore.
“I want to live in a healthy way, but being vegetarian is a bit too hard for me,” said Richard, who acquired a taste for creepy crawlies while traveling in Southeast Asia.
With the meat industry stricken with problems, from horsemeat labeled as beef to the environmental impact of growing animal feed, protein-rich and fat-poor insects are increasingly seen as a viable alternative.
Ten times more feed is required to grow the comparable weight in cows than in insects, according to the Netherlands’ Wageningen University, which has a special insect department and was a pioneer in promoting their consumption.
Insect eating has not yet won mainstream acceptance in Europe, although about 2 billion people elsewhere in the world consume them regularly.
Most Europeans remain reluctant to bite into a grasshopper, grub or other insect even if they are dry, clean and disease free.
“Seriously, I don’t understand why people are so disgusted by insects,” Seppo said, sprinkling a handful of grasshoppers over his steaming couscous dish.
“Frankly, I know what I’d prefer if I had to choose between an insect or seafood such as an oyster or mussel,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mariet is mixing mealworms with minced beef to make burgers — renamed here “hambuggers,” a potentially problematic name in English-speaking countries — while Richard browns some grasshoppers marinated in soy sauce in the frying pan.
The freeze-dried insects can be stored for up to a year, said Arno Snellens, who founded the Insectable wholesale bug business, which helps organizes these pedagogical evenings with Cecile Lormans.
“It’s inevitable, insects are the future, we can’t go on producing meat on such a scale,” said Snellens, who claims his company’s turnover doubles every six months. “It takes time for mentalities to change.”
Insect sales are still paltry in the Netherlands compared with meat, but Wageningen University entomologist Marcel Dicke insists that change is afoot.
Insects are slowly acquiring a culinary niche, from cooking books to increased supply and demand, he says.
“Fifteen years ago, people said: ‘What, insects, really?’ but today people say: ‘Oh yes, where can I get some?’” Dicke said. “Of course it takes time for mentalities to chance, but they can change, and I think the fact that people want to learn to cook is representative of this trend.”
The Meertens insect production business, also in the southeastern Netherlands, sells just 2 percent to 3 percent of its production for human consumption, the rest is for animal feed.
Nevertheless, the amount of production for humans has been steadily rising since production began in 2008.
The major problem is cost: the market — and therefore production — is still far too small to make it as profitable as selling meat.
Arno sells 30g of freeze-dried grasshoppers for 12.50 euros, while 50g of mealworms costs 8.50 euros.
“There are several ways to convince people, it depends on the individual: Some prefer not to see they’re eating insects, for them to be powdered in a quiche, for instance, while others prefer to insect still to be whole when eaten,” Dicke said.
In Cecile’s kitchen, three newly qualified insect chefs licked their lips as they sampled what they had just prepared.
“It tastes slightly nutty, like hazelnuts,” Seppo said, biting into his burger.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted, but it’s tasty, and crunchy,” Richard said. “You shouldn’t try to compare it to anything else, I’d just say it tastes of insects.”