London’s Archipelago restuarant
It’s raining when I land in London, and there’s not much to be said about that. The queues outside the British Museum extend for half a kilometre in both directions and crawl around the block, but that’s to be expected too. Mustn’t grumble. My shoes squelch a tragicomic commentary as I shuffle along.
Inside, though, it’s shoulder to shoulder and muggier than a terrarium. I end up in the Enlightenment gallery, staring at a kunstkammer: a cabinet of curios, assorted without discretion, that represents a fascination with both natural history and human ingenuity. This one is mostly rare materials worked to baroque detail – a nautilus shell carved with topographical portraits and landscapes, a human likeness chiselled from a walnut shell and “a translucent agate made into a casket”.
Late that afternoon I meet up with my dining companion at The King and Queen, a pub near to our chosen restaurant, Archipelago. Ally, a pescatarian, knows the area well but has never experienced this notorious dining house. It advertises itself with the slogan “Exploring the exotic”.
“First, a little magic trick,” a waitress says on our arrival. We each take one of her proffered pastilles and drop them into bowls of shredded rose petals before she pours some hot water in. I’m expecting tea; instead, the little discs inflate rudely and waggle about like overexcited mushrooms. “They’re not marshmallows,” the waitress tells me just in time, “they’re handtowels.”
The menus are printed on the back of maps and scrolled up into little jewellery boxes, patterned with what could equally be a Celtic knot or a mandala or something else entirely. They boast of zebra and crocodile, Burmese and Caribbean and half a dozen African cuisines.
But we’re mainly here for the insects. Archipelago is one of those restaurants that were seemingly everywhere a few years ago – part novelty, part avant-garde – that concerned themselves with pushing a culture of bug cuisine into Western dining. Many readers would have heard arguments about sustainability and health, and that insects are prevalent in much of the world’s diet. Nonetheless, I can’t think of the last time I saw ants or centipedes make it onto a menu.
With this in mind, we make a couple of selections, order a bottle of wine, and settle in.
Archipelago is small, with perhaps 10 tables. It looks like the front room of an old hand come home from the colonies. Dusty icons from several continents jostle without deference to time or space or, indeed, cultural tribalism. A carved tortoise floats up one wall, behind a stuffed peacock nesting on a hatstand. A chorus line of dolls – Javanese? – dance along a longboat of some kind. Buddha smirks from every corner. Is this a lingam or a pestle? And that a mask or a shield? I can’t tell what’s functional and what’s symbolic.
The room stinks of Empire and vanity. A vomitorium annexe wouldn’t surprise. It’s overstuffed with an opulence that lacks context, like the first panel of a Hieronymus Bosch viewed in isolation. All that’s missing is a bone-backed comb. A skull. A servant, whispering in my ear.
Seeing the Buddha I remember the parable of Siddhartha the prince, so absorbed in excess that he didn’t know the concepts of hunger, sickness or death. I find myself wondering if it isn’t sinful to have so many types of lifeform in one sitting. And what are the ethics of eating, say, zebra? Is there an ethical-sustainable-healthy angle?
But it’s too late to navel-gaze once the first dish arrives. And anyway, there’s no denying I’m hungry. The waiter lays our shared appetiser, a salad with the title of Sumer Nights, in the centre of the table. Laid out like the aftermath of a Sergio Leone gunfight, a dozen insects lie in a smear of chilli paste. Some have had their wings and limbs tossed vulgarly askew; others have their appendages tightly folded across their bodies. Not for the last time that evening, it occurs to me how much these black, pan-fried crickets resemble the aftermath of a hearty spray under the fridge with Mortein. A simple salad of bitter rocket, quinoa and baby spinach accompanies them. It’s the kind of unassuming leafy mix that I associate with cherry tomatoes and walnuts. The parsley feels somehow out of place.
I’d envisaged crickets as a dish to be something brown and flaky and larger. Something more similar to pappadums or spring rolls: cocktail-party finger food, deep-fried and salty. I squish one onto my fork, count to three, and munch. It’s not crispy. But it is crunchy – crunchy and simultaneously soggy, a bit like a sautéed prawn with the shell on. I roll my tongue around looking for textures, but I can’t differentiate between leg and wing, exoskeleton and flesh. Something pops under pressure and squirts a warm, bitter liquid. Was that the brain, I wonder. The eyeball?
“It smells like a squashed cockroach,” Ally says thoughtfully.
My teeth are coated with shreds of cricket skins like flakes of dried chilli. A gulp of wine washes them down. The tempranillo, we agree, was a good choice. It’s a gentle wine and free enough of tannin that it matches the bitter dish; sweet enough to contrast with the briny juice of the bugs, but cheap enough to fit my budget.
As soon as we’ve polished off the crickets, our mains arrive. I’ve decided on jerked alpaca with cassava and cornmeal fritters, accompanied by chilli and buttermilk jellies. It’s gamey, very filling – and unthreatening. We don’t eat many animals whole, which is perhaps what makes insects a little unsettling. Once meat is butchered and cooked it could be anything, coming with a sort of anti-Brechtian alienation, a reverse verfremdungseffekt. Seafood is a common exception, and Ally has gone for escolar with a potato and tofu “chorizo”. The escolar, a deep-sea fish, has the chewy consistency and meaty flavour of a smoked haddock. The next day, my belated research will warn me that the escolar is sometimes called the “Ex-Lax fish” and is renowned for its laxative qualities. The oil content of the flesh, and its proclivity to induce keriorrhea (“waxy flow”), has led to its prohibition in Italy and Japan.
But of course we leave room for a side dish. Our “love-bug” salad features oak lettuce garnished with mealworms and locusts. The worms are tiny inoffensive things reminiscent of puffed rice; they hardly register on the tongue, disintegrating before they reach the molars. I could see them doing great service in a kind of tapioca pudding, perhaps, but in a salad they’re a poor cousin to the locusts.
If I were to take one thing away from this meal, it would be to warn your dinner guest before they order escolar. But if I were to take a second thing, it would be that you can make a pretty decent crouton out of a locust. Locusts are everything that crickets should be, as a foodstuff at least. The crackle of a locust on the teeth is its own reward, as simultaneously satisfying and more-ish as Pringles. They’re close to tasteless – the only note is a hint of toaster scrapings. But there’s an Old Testament irony involved in chowing down on a forkful. I vaguely recall a scene in The Good Earth when the peasants, after beating off a swarm of locusts with threshing flails, made a feast of their remains.
The meal feels comprehensive. Of course, we haven’t gone near the python, ostrich or kangaroo – half the British Empire rendered as ingredients – but having covered so much new ground in one sitting we’re happy to retire. I’d wondered about the “Medieval Hive”, featuring “brown butter ice cream, honey and butter caramel sauce and a baby bee”. But I’m relieved when the waiter informs us that the latter ingredient is out of stock. Baby bees are not in season, he says.
Happily, I’m beyond full – my stomach holds the bones of fish, flesh and good red locust. Anything more would be only gluttony.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 4, 2017 as "Meal worms". Subscribe here.