Noma’s use of live ants on the menu might’ve made edible insects unlikely darlings of the fine dining world in recent years, but for Robert Ortiz they represent nostalgia more than a headline-grabbing food trend. Growing up in Peru, the chef and his friends would look forward all year to late October, which heralded the beginning of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it season for ants. During this time, a period usually lasting no longer than a month, the ants could appear at any moment, although they were particularly likely to be seen after it had rained (which would turn the ground a vivid red). Only the atmosphere dictated their arrival, and while many would try to smoke, dig or coax the ants out early these attempts were always unsuccessful. When the swarms did emerge children would run around catching the ants, and if unprepared when they made their appearance, would stash the live insects in their socks for later. ‘You’d have to make sure you removed the spiky ends from around the ants’ heads first,’ recalls Robert, ‘or by the time you’d get home they would’ve eaten through your socks!’
Once home the ants would be toasted in a little oil and eaten as a snack ‘just like popcorn’, or ground into a colourful crumbly purée to marinate meat or spread on bread – think a flavour-packed paste like ‘nduja. Ant season was a time of great excitement for everyone (according to Robert 99% of villagers would eat them), although children were particularly adept at catching the ants and would make extra money selling them by the side of the road.
In Peru the children sell these ants for around £5 per kilo, but for Robert to ship the insects to the UK it costs over four times that amount. It's a price he's more than happy to pay to spread the love of this plump-bottomed insect, with the ants served as an unusual amuse-bouche at Lima this Valentine's Day. Appreciating that this might be a bit of a leap from oysters and olives for some people, Robert serves only the bodies of the ants to save people having to pause from their sweet nothings to spit wings and antennae into their napkins.