There's a scorpion on the plate in my hand, tail curled over its body, stinger poised to attack. My instincts tell me to drop the plate and run. Instead, I grab the creature by the tail and drop it, head-first, into my mouth.
The exoskeleton is quite crunchy; bits of it stick to my tongue and to the roof of my mouth. I can feel that the tail and stinger are intact, so I chew carefully until they're pulverized before I swallow. I take a sip--a big sip--of Sauvignon Blanc and wash down the remaining chunks of scorpion. Not bad.
Next there's a palm-sized tarantula splayed on a skewer--an eight-legged lollipop of sorts. It's less crunchy than the scorpion and has a more intense flavor, like eating a shrimp with the body and legs still intact. A buttery Chardonnay pairs nicely, as I try to forget that an hour ago this creature could have killed me.
I'm not a contestant on Fear Factor, nor am I struggling to survive in the Amazon. I'm at a suit-and-tie dinner hosted by The Explorers Club in New York, an organization for adventure-seekers and field scientists. We're learning how to pair exotic foods--like my scorpion, as well as other insects and exotic foods such as alligator, rattlesnake and wild boar--with wine, provided by California's Redwood Creek winery. Crickets are matched with Pinot Noir, rattlesnake with Chardonnay, and deep-fried alligator with Cabernet Sauvignon. It's the first time I've sampled any of these creatures, and I'm glad there's plenty of wine available to keep my taste buds greased (and my mind open).
I'm particularly intrigued by the insects. What we Americans typically think of as nasty nuisances are an essential part of many other cultures' cuisines. Entomophagy--the consumption of insects--makes sense, once you overcome the idea that you're eating something that you might find crawling around under your refrigerator. Insects have a higher protein content than most meat, poultry and seafood, and they're readily available in places where steak and salmon are too scarce or expensive to buy. And, once you get over the initial shock, they can be delicious. In Asia, snacks like fried grubs are popular street food, and in Venezuela, the giant Theraphosa blondi tarantula--large enough to eat frogs, lizards and mice--is a delicacy.
So, when faced with a plate of sautéed crickets or earthworm tempura, why not pair it with wine? I found several entomophagy experts and discussed some ground rules for these buggy combinations.
Gene Rurka, the chef and exotic foods guru who orchestrates The Explorers Club's venturesome feasts, says wine is a logical match for insects. "When you see a piece of chocolate, your mouth waters. When you see a bug on your plate, your mouth shuts down and stops producing saliva. The right wine can help you create the juices required to eat the insect and enjoy it."
Rurka's insect repertoire also includes deep-fried maggots ("They're almost impossible to get here. People in Asia love them"), dried grubs ("Like a mild, woody walnut") and killer bees ("Taste like tortilla chips"). The purpose for preparing a feast of insects is not to scare diners, but to teach them about what other societies see as a staple cuisine. "People in America are becoming more comfortable with exotic foods," Rurka says, "but lots still have the hamburger mentality. I think if more people had an open mind about these foods, we'd be a more tolerant society and more accepting of other cultures."
To come up with the pairings for the Club's most recent dinner, Rurka worked with Redwood Creek winemaker Cal Dennison. Dennison said he chose wines that would either complement or contrast with each insect's flavor. "Crickets are toasty and nutty-flavored, so I picked Pinot Noir, which is quite delicate and matches nicely," Dennison says. "The scorpion is crunchy on the outside and creamy inside, and a little bit oily. Sauvignon Blanc, with its higher acidity and citrus notes, cleanses the palate after each bite and cuts through the creaminess."
Peter Menzel, photojournalist and author of Man Eating Bugs: The Art and Science of Eating Insects (Ten Speed Press), groups insects into two categories when choosing a wine pairing. Smaller insects--including crickets, grasshoppers, ants and termites--and arthropods, such as scorpions, have a more delicate flavor and go best with a dry white wine. Most often these insects are simply prepared by marinating and lightly frying or sautéing them in oil. "They taste light and nutty, like eating a peanut with the shell on," Menzel says. He says insects often adopt and intensify the flavor of the plants they eat, so an herbaceous white, such as Sauvignon Blanc, matches the herby characteristics of leaf-eating ants, for example.
More robust creatures, such as grubs, earthworms and tarantulas, have a higher fat content and need a more substantial wine. Menzel suggests Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon. In South Africa, Mopani worms, which are about as thick as your index finger, are blanched in salt water and dried in the sun. "It's like beef jerky, but made with worms," Menzel says. "Worm jerky, I guess. And it would taste great with a heavy red."
After a trip to Thailand, Margrit Mondavi, wife of Robert Mondavi, sent Menzel her own bug-pairing tips: crickets with Chardonnay, battered-and-fried beetles with Pinot Noir, and salted flying termites with an aged Cabernet.
Biologist David George Gordon, author of The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook (Ten Speed Press), says insects should be simply prepared and lightly seasoned, so their natural flavors can be appreciated. "I want people to taste the bugs, not the seasoning," he says. Gordon says a full-bodied wine would overpower most insects' subtle flavors. "Usually the kind of pairings you use for seafood--dry, light- or medium-bodied white wines--are most appropriate. I usually go with Pinot Gris." Eating a tarantula is very similar to eating a soft-shell crab, Gordon says, but it's slightly nuttier; it needs a lighter-bodied red wine, such as Pinot Noir or Beaujolais.
Some bugs are more robust and need a heftier wine. Gordon skewers grasshoppers and barbecues them, and he pairs them with Zinfandel or Shiraz. "The barbecued crickets taste sort of like green peppers, with a texture like shrimp eaten with its body," he says. Gordon's best advice for pairing bugs with wine is to "buy two bottles and drink one while you're cooking, to give you the courage to go on."
Aspiring bug gourmands should take heed before turning over logs in search of dinner. Insects destined for the table are carefully farmed and fed to ensure they're not dangerous to eat. And, because many insects are expensive and hard to obtain (tarantulas cost around $2,000 a pound, more expensive than the world's finest caviar), your best opportunity to eat bugs might be in faraway lands, where what's considered exotic is what we eat every day here in America.