A Chat with the founders of Laroua Foods
NOTE: This is Part II of a two-part exposé of the Brooklyn Bug Fest. Part I, an overview of the fest, ran last month.
The Brooklyn Bug Fest, staged over Labor Day weekend in Williamsburg, pulled the curtain back on a small but growing family of urban entomophagists (bug eaters) as they bled bug hearts over the culinary spread of this fine city. Staging lectures, demonstration meals,and product demonstrations, the fest offered the curious and the converted a chance to eat bugs among friends, while pondering a future built on insect-derived protiens as one possible solution to the basic problem of too goddamn many of us
A high-point of the weekend was Saturday’s Vendor Market, which collected a dozen entomophagic businesses under the big top in the backyard of Greenpoint’s T.B.D Bar for samples, tips, and conversation. Brooklyn’s own SEEK foods offered snippets of their popular — and very tasty! — cricket granola; One Hop Kitchen showcased a cricket-derived textured protein (TIP) in a toothsome Bolognese sauce; and various cricket and chapulines (Mexican grasshoppers) vendors offered up crunchy bugs in a variety of flavors (Sea Salt & Vinegar, Totally Taco). Meanwhile, in the corner, a Children’s Bug Workshop offered kids the chance to eat ants and pet a hissing cockroach.
I took the chance to talk to one of the more unique vendors, Laroua Foods, from Vermont. By the time I’d arrived, they had sampled out of their signature product — a Bee Embryo Paté — but the fresh-faced team behind this crazy-sounding product had saved me a taste. I am not shining you on when I say that, of all the things I tasted at BugFest, this was my favorite. A creamy, rich spread that put me in mind of a fancy hors d’ouvre rather than a mouthful of bug.
I talked with Laroua’s Jules and Kitty about bug life.
So far, you have created a singular “tentpole” product: Can you describe that product for us?
Our main product is a spread called BeeButter. Our first flavor is Rosemary and Roasted Garlic, but really the primary ingredient is the bees. It’s a pretty mild and rich flavor that people have compared to boursin or a mild pâté. We are also working on a chocolate flavor which we call Umbrella Butter (Umbrella? Nutella? Get it?) All of our products are “vegan+bugs” and produced without gluten (though not in a gluten free facility). We have dietary restrictions in mind when we create each product.
Using bee embryos does not sound immediately “sustainable:” you’re killing bees before they even get to be!
Well actually, the bees we are using would be thrown out if we didn’t salvage them. The secret plot is really just hard working, organic beekeepers choosing not to use chemicals to keep their hives healthy. Most beehives are infected with this parasite called varroa mites. Some apiaries use chemicals to control the mites, but other people tap into this quirk of mite behavior: they only lay their eggs on male brood (young bees). The beekeepers we work with actually encourage the bees to have male babies on a particular frame to attract the mites and then before the mites have a chance to hatch the beekeepers remove the frame: mites, bees, and all. It’s a literal bait and switch, and then harvest the bees from the frame
Right now we are working with a few small organic beekeepers in Vermont. As we expand we want to bring on more small beekeepers, rather than having a few apiaries scale up.
Who is your target market for this product?
We want consumers that want a product that is nutritious, sustainable, and really tasty. By supporting our product, individuals are able to support local apiaries in their state that are maintaining healthy bee populations, and in turn helping our food system as a whole. We also want this product to be accessible to as many people as possible which is why we have made it vegan+bugs and gluten free. In the future, we would love to be able to supply this product to kitchens as well for it to be incorporated into creative cuisine.
As a Bug-based foodstuff startup, what is your biggest challenge?
Our biggest challenge is actually having enough supply of the insects, both for our BeeButter and also for our side project which is involves mealworms. From what I understand, this is true across the edible insect industry, the demand is way higher than the supply. Certainly some people are a little squeamish at first about the idea of trying bugs, but for most people once we educate them about the benefits of insects and they see that it actually tastes really good, they are sold.
I think for us it’s also helpful that our products aren’t crawling across the plate to meet you! We feel like most Americans wouldn’t eat chicken if it came in the grocery store still looking like a chicken so we take the same approach with insects. We want to highlight the flavor of the bugs (because they are delicious!) but we aren’t taking the whole-bug approach.
How did you get involved in this field?
Jules first heard about eating insects in her anthropology class and Kitty heard about it through her nutrition class. We collaborated on our interest for the potential of insects as a nutritious and sustainable source of food that could be accessed in the region of Vermont. Initially, we found an internship together at a cricket farm, but after a few months we decided to strike out on our own with some alternative insects in gourmet food products. The bee idea came from Jules’s dad who is a beekeeper, and we went from there to begin developing our product.
Other than your product, what bug products have you eaten?
Initially, crickets were our introduction to tasting insects in the form of whole crickets and flour and recently we were able to try One Hop Kitchen’s textured insect protein that uses crickets. We have
experimented with frying mealworms, and roasting them in our own kitchen. The Brooklyn Bugs exposed us to a lot of additional insects such as seasoned chapulinas, the ants, and water beetles.
Jules enjoys Chirps Chips, a chip product using crickets, and One Hop Kitchen bolognese. Kitty really enjoys Seeks energy balls for their texture and nuttiness, and chocolate covered ants! We both like the taste of mealworms because they have a very rich taste.
Do you have other products you hope to make?
We are interested in making sushi that uses mealworms because they are a good analogue to fish in terms of omega 3s. Jules has been making sushi since she was a kid and Kitty likes the potential for fresh ingredients to be used in an easy to-go food. We think it allows itself for beautiful presentation that can really serve as a template to highlight specific ingredients but can also be exciting to make because there is so much potentially for creative recipe.
You can email Jules and Kitty at firstname.lastname@example.org