Is Italy ready for cricket-powder pizza?

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At the seafront pizzeria La Rambla in Maccarese, Italy, a short drive from Rome, chef Carlo Del Buono stood at the kitchen counter, throwing a few fistfuls of cricket powder into a bowl of pizza dough made with wheat flour.

“It adds elasticity,” he said, as he mixed the dough. “Makes it easier to work with.”

Del Buono is one of a number of chefs throughout Italy keen to introduce insect products — high in protein and sustainably farmed — into their restaurant menu.

“Crickets fall completely within the range of Italian tastes,” he said, biting into a slice of his cricket powder pizza fresh from the oven. “It’s a nutty taste, with a hint of anchovies. Perfect for a vegetable-covered pizza.”

While chefs like Del Buono look forward to putting the cricket pizza on their menu — he’ll market it, he says, as “a protein pizza” — not all Italians are as enthusiastic, at least for now.

The European Union authorized the adoption of powdered domestic crickets for human consumption in early 2023, but Italy’s right-wing government dragged its heels in approving its sale, doing so only in late December. 

A man pours powder out of his hand into a metal tray while wearing blue gloves.
Jose Cianni, co-founder of Nutrinsect, the first producer of cricket flour for human consumption in Italy, says the product is not meant to replace traditional flour, but is a sustainable protein supplement. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Agricultural Minister Francesco Lollobrigida and others argued insect flour would contaminate Italian culinary traditions, with fake news circulating that bakeries would be mandated to bake with cricket flour. 

The right-wing League party tried to pass a measure that would ban cricket flour from school cafeterias. And protesting farmers on tractors last month including insect products on their list of complaints against the EU.

WATCH | CBC’s Paul Hunter gets a lesson in cooking with cicadas:

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Benefits of (cricket) farm to table

Jose Cianni and Fabrizio Lunazzi say they are unfazed by the resistance.

“I think of it like sushi a decade or so ago,” said Lunazzi.

Cianni and Lunazzi, co-founders of Nutrinsect, a cricket-farming startup in the Italian region of Marche, have ambitious plans to introduce insects into the culinary offerings of a country known for its adherence to tradition.

A man in a white uniform places a tray containing dead crickets into a metal cabinet.
A worker at Italy’s first cricket farm for human consumption arranges bags of 30-day-old crickets, ready to be turned into powder. The crickets are put to sleep through a lowering of temperature until they die. (Megan Williams/CBC)

They, along with other investors, are the first in Italy to venture into cricket production for human consumption, launching their startup 2020, spending the last four years fine-tuning production.

Their cricket farm, a low warehouse off a rural road, houses small hot and humid rooms smelling slightly briny and that are lined with plastic bins teeming with crickets. Ringing out all around is the thick trill of 45-day-old males at their sexual peak.

“This is their mating cry,” said Cianni.

Crickets contain 70 per cent protein compared to meat, which has at most 23 per cent. Farming crickets uses a fraction of the land and just 15 litres of water for one kilogram of flour compared to meat, which requires 15,000 litres, according to Cianni. 

“Emissions in insect farming are negligible,” said Cianni, who grew up on an animal farm in southern Italy. “For If you think that traditional farming makes up 14 per cent of global greenhouse emissions, we need solutions like this.”

Lobsters of the insect world

But breeding crickets is no simple endeavour, requiring precisely calibrated conditions and a cap on density. Over-exposure to humans who tend them (more than 1.5 hours a week) raises their stress levels, putting them at risk of outbreaks of viruses, similar to stress-induced herpes in humans, say the producers.

A cricket is held by hands wearing white gloves.
A 30-day-old female cricket lays up to 150 eggs per day. Nutrinsect, Italy’s first producer of cricket powder for human consumption, say they use only five per cent of eggs laid. (Megan Williams/CBC)

With no chemicals or antibiotics involved, disease almost inevitably leads to death. Cianni says, through experimentation and careful study, the company has managed to reduce mortality to 0.1 per cent.

“Crickets are called the lobsters of the insect world because they taste so good,” said Cianni, listing off its hazelnut and pistachio notes, as well as a shrimp-like taste they have. “But they are extremely fragile creatures, which is why so few companies have launched so far.”

Challenges of scaling up

Most of the orders for the cricket powder have come so far from chefs. For now, price remains the major barrier to wider use.

A kilogram of cricket powder costs 40-70 euros, compared to a kilogram of chicken (with the same amount of protein), costing just 50 euro cents per kilogram.

A man in a grey suit jacket stands in front of a building with his arms crossed.
Fabrizio Lunazzi, co-founder of Nutrinsect, says the company plans to expand tenfold by the end of the year, opening up facilities through central Italy. (Megan Williams/CBC)

To bring price down by half through economies of scale, Nutrinsect plans to up its production tenfold by the end of the year.

The company has been in touch with the Aspire Food Group, the world’s biggest cricket producer in London, Ont., and says future collaboration isn’t out of the question.

“The market has so much potential that companies will need to cooperate in creating networks,” said Lunazzi. “It’s not competition we’re worried about, but meeting demand.”

WATCH | What other bugs can be incorporated into recipes?: 

Bugs On The Menu – How To Sneak Bugs Into Food

Lots of people are squeamish about eating bugs, so companies are trying to find new ways to sneak bug protein into food. People might not eat a whole cricket, but they’ll often eat a cricket flour chooclate chip cookie.



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