Wriggle out of this, earthworms just about cut the mustard

After a fine dinner at our home last week, our guest (and chef for the evening) was (figuratively) in full flight and turned to the squirmy subject of earthworms.

Wriggle out of this, earthworms just about cut the mustard

This, I should explain, was after, rather than before or during, the meal.

I was surprised to learn arcane facts about these useful creatures, present in perhaps thousands in our garden.

Authorities say populations are normally 10 to 15 per square yard. Surely, per cubic metre would be a better measure, especially as the most important species are the deep burrowers, aerating the soil.

Our guest, Michael Smith, the brother of an old friend, has recently retired from the USA to Clonakilty, Co Cork, one of Ireland’s most interesting towns, famous for its dedication to, and diversity of, music, its colourful blow-ins and the hospitality and liveliness of its community.

Michael told me that worms can be attracted to the surface by sprinkling mustard powder on the soil. Up they pop, apparently. I haven’t yet tried the experiment, not having mustard powder to hand.

However, I take his word for it, not only because he is a scientist, a cordon bleu chef and holder of the légion d’honneur (not for cooking, I think, but he is very good at that) but because he truthfully admitted that the source of his “awesome learning was the erudite and passionate lady curator (or curatrix?) of worms at London’s Natural History Museum.”

He added that the lady was also President of the British Earthworm Society, and suggested I join. His brother deeply regrets being unaware of that august body when he was an organic farmer in Ibiza in the Balearic Islands. He would undoubtedly have signed up.

Following his visit, Michael emailed me further information: “You may think that humans eating worms is reserved for reality television, but that is not necessarily so. Humans in many regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America — indeed in some 90 countries worldwide — regularly eat insects and worms.

While in the ‘developed world’, most people would only consider eating worms as a survival tool if lost and starving in the great outdoors, a TV chef, David George Gordon, author of The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook, wants to change people’s minds about invertebrate-eating, and promotes worm recipes such as superworm tempura with plum dipping sauce, fried green tomato hornworm and alpha-bait soup.

Some trendy US restaurants have recently contrived bug menus in order to offer something different to patrons who consider themselves “foodies” (or who simply want to brag to their friends). Those who, now and then, eat a worm meal in a restaurant, and those who eat them as part of their everyday diet are, of course, worlds apart. Regular insect-eaters typically do so from necessity and custom.

While the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation applauds such cultures and advocates worldwide insect-eating (called ‘entomophagy’) Gabriella Petrick, a food historian recently quoted on NBC news in America, points out that once those who rely on entomophagy for survival enter the realm of the middle class, their worm-eating preference abruptly ends, and they take to eating meat, like the rest of us.

The Royal Society, whose membership includes the world’s most distinguished scientists, published a study of the nutrient content of earthworms in its monthly journal of January 2003. Researchers studied the eating habits of Venezuela’s native Yekuana people who traditionally eat two kinds of earthworms — one an indigent of muddy stream banks and another that lives on the forest floor.

The Yekuana eat the worms fresh after heating them in water, or smoke them over a fire. The Royal Society study found earthworms, in general, contain protein and calcium in amounts comparable to those obtained from consuming eggs and cow’s milk, and are also a source of iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and copper. Not surprisingly, the Yekuana believe the worms also have medicinal uses.

The aboriginal people of Australia, who could survive in seemingly lifeless deserts, were often sustained by invertebrates, including witchetty grubs, the larvae of cossid moths, living up to 60cm underground. By putting an ear to the ground near acacia bushes, they could detect their burrowing sound. Witchetties are fat, and grow up to 12cm long.

Eaten raw or cooked, witchetties (or witjutis) are very high in protein and have a nutty flavour. On the hoof, they apparently taste like scrambled eggs, and when cooked, like chicken. Ten large grubs are sufficient to provide the daily needs of an adult.

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