Would a mere sniff of chocolate suffice?

This might sound fairly off the wall, but you can now experience some of your favourite foods via sniff alone.

Writing at the Contributoria platform for independent writers, Rich McEachran explains:

Harvard professor and biomedical engineer, David Edwards — famed for his edible packaging technology — has invented a mobile messaging system that doubles as an olfactory food inhaler. The oPhone encourages users to take pictures of food, tag the images with scents (oNotes – there are over 300,000 combinations to choose from) and then send them to friends who can receive scented whiffs via a Bluetooth-connected device.

The first transatlantic smell message of chocolate and champagne was transmitted in June, and over the summer the team successfully raised nearly $50,000 to help crowdfund the beta launch of the device. From this month, the oPhone will be on display at the Cafe ArtScience which is opening up next to MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Customers will be able to try some oNotes that will immerse them in coffee aromas.

You can read the full article here.

Disclosure – I’m co-founder and editor at Contributoria.com.

Hudswell pub’s noma link plus eating ants and other insects

In an unlikely piece of foodie news, North Yorkshire’s first community pub – the lovely George and Dragon in Hudswell – is apparently to get some influence from ‘the world’s best restaurant’, Copenhagen’s noma.

Better known for its Sunday roasts and Fijian curries, the pub that’s often featured on the television show The Dales has a new landlord and the Danish influence comes in the shape of a relative who works at the renowned restaurant.

Talking to the Darlington and Stockton Times,new landlord Stuart Miller, a chef with 45 year’s experience, revealed that he will be also assisted by brother Sam, who is currently sous chef at renowned Copenhagen restaurant.

What the reporter didn’t ask was whether the menu was likely to include their famous insect garnish. When noma put on a series of meals in London, the sell out events served up ants. The ants were served on a cabbage leaf drizzled with crème fraiche, and reportedly have a flavour of lemongrass after being anesthetized with cold before being eaten. Also included in the meal was edible soil with radishes buried in hazelnut, malt, rye, beer and butter with a layer of creme fraiche.

More than 20,000 ants were imported for the twenty scheduled meals that sold out in two hours at $306 a seat!

The topic of insect eating has also been looming large on Contributoria, the journalism platform I’m editor of.

Writer Rich McEachran considers our revulsion at the idea in the article I’ve posted below. (Articles on Contributoria are published with a non-commercial share and attribution licence so that blogs such as this can syndicate great pieces like this at no charge).

Can we learn to love eating insects?
By Rich McEachran

© Six Foods: the start-up’s tortilla-style crisps are made with cricket flour

“I am confident that on finding out how good they are, we shall some day right gladly cook and eat them”, said Vincent Holt in his 1885 manifesto Why not eat insects?.

Eating insects is nothing new. Raw or cooked, they’ve long been part of staple diets, especially in South East Asia, China, Africa and Central and South America; crispy fried beetles are a popular street food in Thailand, while ant egg tacos is a popular dish in Mexico, as is roasted larvae served with guacamole.

By 2050, the world population is expected to rise to 9 billion. There are fears that this will lead to an increase in food shortages and world hunger. A report published last year by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations suggested that more people should incorporate insects into their diets. It also encouraged the international community to see insects as a food for the future if it’s serious about improving food security.

Disgust the major hurdle

Two billion people already supplement their diet with insects. But a main hurdle in the west is that people can’t stomach the thought of eating something that they associate with living in the ground. According to Jonathan Fraser, one of the co-founders of Ento (short for entomophagy), a start-up in London that is cooking up sustainable foods using insects, eating is a sensory experience and involves a lot of seeing what’s placed in front of us and not as much thinking about it.

“Most of us are not used to seeing the animal we are about to eat, be it chicken or lamb or other livestock; but traditional ways of serving insects usually present it in its whole form – like grasshopper skewers in Thailand”, he says. “We simply don’t have the cultural heritage of eating insects … Instead the overwhelming preconception is of insects as pests. This underpins our taboo against eating them.”

Disgustologists – including Valerie Curtis, an expert on hygiene and behaviour at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – believe our revulsion is partly rooted in human instinct to avoid disease and, ultimately, death. This disgust response is what has led the likes of Susana Soares, a designer and senior lecturer at London South Bank University, to explore the relationship between science and technology and find new ways to consume insects. Her project, Insects au gratin, uses 3D printing to design edible structures made out of dried bug powder – insects are ground down into a fine powder and then mixed with other food products, such as chocolate, spices and cream cheese; the resulting consistency is squeezed through a nozzle and printed into a desired design.

By creating tasty foods that embody the benefits of edible insects, we believe we can change people’s preconceptions and break down the prejudice. It happened with sushi, and it can happen with insects.
As Soares found through her research, it’s not just cultural backgrounds that might be alienating people from dining on insects; it’s the aesthetics of the dishes themselves. How the insects are presented is key to changing our palates, says Laura D’Asaro, co-founder of Six Foods, a Boston-based start-up that is turning bugs into snack foods and tasty treats, including crisps and cookies made with cricket flour.

D’Asaro and her team recognise that the presentation needs to be to insects what hot dogs and nuggets are to pigs and chickens.

“We actually started by cooking up insects whole and quickly discovered that although the insects tasted good, our friends were hesitant to try to say the least.”

D’Asaro continues: “The individual [ingredients] that go into these food products may cause a visceral feeling of disgust, but when they are presented in a form that is familiar and delicious, Americans welcome the foods into their diet … Adding insects to something familiar like chips makes insects accessible, and people have been remarkably open and excited to try our Chirps (author’s note: Six Foods’ range of tortilla-style crisps).”

Curing caterpillars like bacon

The start-up recently raised more than $70,000 through Kickstarter with the help of nearly 1,300 backers. The success of the crowdfunding campaign shows the potential to win people over and educate them on insects’ nutritional value.

Ento has taken a similar approach to cooking with insects. Recipe experiments include cured honeycomb caterpillars, using a similar process to curing bacon. The mission is to open a restaurant and get insect ready meals on supermarket shelves.

“We fundamentally believe in being honest about what ingredients we use, but we also believe the best way for consumers to accept insects as food is to serve dishes where the insects are not visible”, says Fraser. “We combine insects with complementary ingredients, and present them in abstracted formats (such as pâté and croquettes), to make foods that are delicious and familiar to UK eaters.”

Efficient conversion into protein

Start-ups like Ento and Six Foods may have a hard time converting everyone, but the potential environmental benefits are intriguing. As Holt pointed out in his manifesto, “insects are all vegetable feeders, clean, palatable, wholesome, and decidedly more particular in their feeding than ourselves”. Insects are tremendously efficient at converting vegetation into edible protein. They are cold-blooded so don’t have to waste energy keeping their bodies warm.

“They are a source of animal protein like any other livestock. And they have numerous advantages over the animals we currently farm and eat. Take grasshoppers, for example, and compare them with beef cattle; you can get nine times as much meat for the same amount of food, due to their higher feed-conversion efficiency”, explains Fraser.

Insects also use less land and water than traditional livestock.

“It takes two thousand gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, but it only takes about one gallon of water to produce a pound of crickets”, D’Asaro adds.

The positive impact insects can have on the environment doesn’t end there. They emit around 1% of the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by cows and, unlike factory farming, insects can be “raised humanely in small spaces, without antibiotics or growth hormones”. This means that insects require very little upkeep.

A note of caution

With the possibility of being able to raise 1,000 crickets in a space of 1 sq ft, insects are both a cheaper and more efficient source of protein than a lot of meat and far more sustainable. Insects can boost the environment as well as diets. Still, there is reason to be cautious. Investment in insect farming in Africa is increasing, and there are concerns that if demand for insects grows then producers may be tempted to cut corners to keep costs low. Before this can even be a worry, entomophagy needs to be brought into the mainstream.

“Eating insects can be a quirk, a niche market”, says Josephine, a regular diner at an upscale restaurant in New York that has put them on the menu. “Diners come because they are intrigued. A lot will most likely try it once and then their interest will fade. They see insects as a novelty, rather than a nutritious lifestyle choice. We should be asking ourselves how we can get more people eating them and how we can make them more accessible, not simply why aren’t we eating them?”

If operations can be scaled up technologically and financially, start-ups like Ento and Six Foods may just help us learn to love eating insects.

“By creating tasty foods that embody the benefits of edible insects, we believe we can change people’s preconceptions and break down the prejudice,” says Fraser. “It happened with sushi, and it can happen with insects.”

Making dough and baking bread: Artisan bakeries doing social good

The article below first appeared on the community funded collaborative journalism platform that I work on called Contributoria.com. The articles produced there are released on a creative commons non-commercial licence which means I can share it with you here, confident that the writer has already been paid for his work. The writer is, Rich McEachran who is a freelance writer specialising in sustainability, global development and the role of business in society. I wanted to share his work here because I think it’s a good read, I hope you enjoy it too.

Making dough and baking bread: Artisan bakeries doing social good by Rich McEachran
They say baking is cathartic and that the process of making bread can be good for mental wellbeing. Inspired by a passion for baking and social change, a number of artisan bakeries have been set up to prove just this. There’s the Better Health Bakery in Hackney, and the Yorkshire-based Veterans’ Artisan Bakery, which is supported by celebrity chef Rosemary Shrager and is helping ex-service men to rebuild their lives.

Measuring, mixing, whisking and kneading – there is something pleasurable about the process. I have a bit of experience in this area myself; a part-time job in a supermarket used to involve piping jam into doughnuts and then coating them in sugar. It may not have helped me through a difficult time, but the creative and sensual act of making the doughnuts gave me focus during long and early shifts.

“There is a mass of research to show that working with your hands in this way is therapeutic,” says Matt Fountain, founder of the Freedom Bakery in Glasgow, a social enterprise that will train and employ ex-offenders.

Fountain is currently developing his social business model and plans to open later this year. He gave up a funded doctorate at the University of Oxford so he could pursue a more socially conscientious career. But why bread? The beauty of it, Fountain says, is that it can connect people from all walks of life.

“Let’s get back to basics,” exclaims Fountain, who is currently based at the Centre for Drugs Misuse Research. “We are talking about bread: a staple food with quotidian (everyday), social, religious and philosophical significance. Cooking is different and people’s knowledge of recipes, cuisine, and even simple ingredients, will differ widely. [But] we can at least start with a uniform understanding of what bread is and how we eat it.”

Fountain wants the Freedom Bakery to pride itself on this philosophy. Its mission is to help those caught up in the vicious circle of prison and re-offending to turn away from crime, by recruiting them and using baking as part of their rehabilitation.

The boys, as Fountain likes to refer to them, are likely to come into the kitchen with few cooking skills and little knowledge of how to bake a loaf. Essentially though, bread is made from four ingredients: flour, yeast, salt and water. The process is relatively simple and the impact immediate.

“In a day, we can train people to make a good, simple loaf of bread,” claims Fountain. “Making bread is all about the art of developing your dexterity, mixed with the science of formula and timing. The boys can see their successes instantly, and this does much for early self-esteem building.

“Our main objective is to always nurture their sensitivity to working with their hands, whilst improving their application to formula and timing. This repertoire is key to keeping the guys interested.”

The impact these artisan bakeries can have goes far beyond the playful repetition of cracking eggs, whisking and beating though. Baking is not just enjoyable; it’s labour intensive and helps acquire new transferable skills.

“It’s not just about allowing for creativity; it’s about using their own confidence and ideas to further develop their craft,” explains Fountain. “The more confidence, and dare I say it ‘conviction’ they gain, the more they learn from their work, and the more employable they will be.

“Like with any professional working in the food industry, my team will need food and hygiene qualifications, which will allow them to be certified to work in any kitchen,” he continues. He’s quick to point out that there is a difference between training people for accreditation and simply training people to tick a box and make your organisation look like it’s doing social good.

Artisan bakeries that operate as social enterprises need to sell a lot of bread (and make a lot of dough) to be commercially viable. To do this they need to deliver on their social outcomes and they also need the support of the local community – none more so than artisan bakeries that employ ex-offenders as their core staff. People may be wary of ex-offenders being rehabilitated into, and employed within, their community. In these instances, preconceptions need to broken down.

“We bring the public into contact with people they would not normally have interaction with, and through our product and service, leave them with a positive reflection on what [our boys] are achieving,” says Fountain. ”Changing opinion surrounding ex-offenders has massive impact; it serves a social purpose, as well as an economic one.”

The belief is that the more the public begin to accept ex-offenders being reintegrated into their communities, the more likely they are to stay in sustainable employment, rebuild their lives and be able to contribute to the local economy. And for every ex-offender that he manages to keep in employment, Fountain claims he’ll be able to “save the Scottish taxpayer £940,000 in associated criminal justice and social costs”.

So, is a loaf of bread baked by someone with a criminal past any different than one you can buy from a local shop or supermarket? Probably not. Are people more likely to buy from a bakery run by ex-offenders? Again, not necessarily. But with artisan bread becoming ever more popular, Fountain hopes to tap into the market and produce luxury bread and cakes (including modern twists on Scottish classics) which, first and foremost, can be competitive in Glasgow’s food industry. The Freedom Bakery’s selling point will not be who it employs, but what it bakes.

Fountain believes that seeing the bakery as a business with a social aim, and not simply as a charity that supports ex-offenders, makes it a worthy investment to interested parties. He is so confident, that it will also be grant free and will receive no public subsidy.

“The Freedom Bakery will do things differently,” concludes Fountain, referring to the bakery’s sustainability. “I believe it can make a real difference.”

Artisan bakeries can give people at risk from crime, drugs and mental health problems a focus. They can learn new skills and hone a craft. They can make dough, in both sense of the word, and have a social impact long after the doors open.

Honours, fish and chips and investigations – hello 2014

A very Happy New Year to all!

Getting 2014 started here at the food blog with heartfelt congratulations to Manchester’s amazing Tse sisters, Lisa and Helen.

The twins, who operate the Sweet Mandarin restaurant, were each awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours list.

While they are probably best known to many for the Dragon’s Den appearance below, I shall personally remain in Lisa’s debt for teaching me some wok moves all those years ago when the pair of us tweeting our cookery lesson became a first for a UK restaurant. Wow, how times have moved on.

Cheers to you both for your well-deserved recognition.

A haddock fillet with light and non-soggy batter, mahogany edges protruding from the soft embrace of a scantly buttered bap. Fried in dripping, not sunflower oil. Always with scraps, those delectable leftover fragments, the pain perdu of the fryer.

This, what I can only call an ‘ode to fish and chips’ was published earlier this week on my latest project, Contributria.com – a community-funded writing platform. It was written by Kate Feld, the writer behind the enduring Manchizzle blog and is a delicious piece of food writing. If you fancy doing something similar for a future issue, the site is now open to writers to propose submissions for commission and membership is currently free. Further details on that here.

Finally, I happened to catch, briefly, some trashy TV programme over the break about how the food and health industries make us unhealthy. Before I switched over, a startling claim was made – that industrially produced bread is padded out with chicken feathers. Now whether this is true or not I haven’t had time to properly investigate – I’m guessing there’ll be many a complaint from the food lobby to Ofcom if it’s not – but it struck me that many edible products now seem to contain what can only be described as byproducts from other parts of the food industry.

I’m hoping to look at this more at some point this year and would very much like to hear from anyone who has first-hand knowledge about any such activity. Please feel free to contact me in confidence foodiesarahATme.com.