Overland miles: 6111 Bus hours: 184.5 Empanadar: 8
In which Clare and Jovian continue their quest to find edible leafcutter ants in Guane and San Gil, Colombia. Warning: Ants were consumed during the research for this post. Readers of a gastronomically queasy nature may want to click away now.
In our last post, Prawns for Breakfast trekked to the tiny South American town of Barichara, to hunt down the legendary Hormiga Culona, or big-assed ant. In our second installment on this fascinating subject for the ever-curious Epicurean, we get to the bottom of why Santanderenos like to munch on a lunch with junk in the trunk, discover an arthropod population in decline, and find that ants have crawled off the menu.
We had stayed overnight in Barichara at Hostel Tinto, which had been recommended to us by staff at the place we were staying at in the city of San Gil. They had even phoned up to reserve our place there, and kept hold of our rucksacks so we could hike with just our day bags. It was a perfect mini-break from the travel circuit, and Tinto was exactly the secluded lodge we wanted to shut ourselves temporarily away in.
For just 10,000 pesos (US$5) more than we would normally pay, we got a beautifully decorated, high-ceilinged en-suite, with oak benches, beams and shutters. It was gorgeous; we could have happily camped out there all evening. But we were on a mission, and that mission was to taste Barichara’s most famous export, Atta laevigata, the big-assed leafcutter ant. So we hopped over to the main building, to find out more from the hostel’s owner, Javier, about what they looked and tasted like, and where we could road-test the dish they appear in most: Fillet Mignon in Ant Sauce (seriously).
Our host showed us a bowl of the sought-after insects, and explained that the Queen ants are collected during the rainy season, between April and June, when they make their nuptial flight to search for mates. Only Queens make the grade: worker ants don’t have the juicy booties. The Queen Hormigas have their legs and wings removed. They are then soaked in salt-water before being dry roasted to a point where they take on the appearance of chocolate coated raisins.
But these miniature bon – bons are far from a sweet treat. I was pretty curious about what they would taste like, because when I read about this culinary excursion, no-one seemed to have bothered to report on taste. Our guide book wasn’t too helpful on the subject, suggesting only that they would taste exactly as we thought fried insects would. But I hadn’t tried eating ants – or any anthropoid – before, so I really had no idea: would it be as disgusting an experience as the celebrities in the jungle always profess it to be, or genuinely tasty? Javier indicated that it was time to stop touching the tuchus I was inspecting in my hand and take a big, crunchy bite – sans sauces, sides or toppings. No ifs, all butts.
In texture it was both chunky and flaky – somewhere between peanut and popcorn. In taste, well, it did have a salty tang, perhaps even a hint of pork scratching, but it would be hard to say that it had masses of flavour. But I could see them working really well as a bar snack, as they have that addictive crunch-factor that partners an ice-cold lager so well. I was curious whether their flavour would be distinctive enough to add real colour to the ant sauce being served by innovative restaurants like Jorge Diaz’ Color de Hormigas. But then our host dropped the bombshell: Although the eco-lodge remained open for business, the restaurant had recently closed, citing a lack of their namesake’s product.
The tradition of catching and eating leaf cutter ants as a sought-after delicacy reaches back to pre-Colombian times, when the indigenous race from this area, the Guane, used to give them as a wedding gift to help the lucky lovebirds, er, pull up to the bumper.The ants are still prized by Baricharans today perhaps not so much for their taste as aphrodisiac qualities, something of an irony given that the Queens themselves are caught before they mate. But according to local studies they are high in protein and have high nutritional value. As the bootylicious bites became more trendy in Bogota and abroad, a possible combination of increased competition between the harvesters, and the difficulty of catching the Queen with her strong and painful mandibles, means that the ant population has reduced significantly in the last few years, and an already expensive product (COL$40 – 50,000 / pound) has become even rarer.
The next day, disappointed by our lack of crack but undaunted, we took another beautiful – and less physically demanding – trek to Guane, the sleepy home town of the indigenous community of the same name. Our ever helpful LP suggested this was the place that “time forgot”, but tourism certainly hadn’t. After sampling and buying some of the local firewater, Sabajon (which tasted like a slightly sharper version of Bailey’s Irish Cream), we escaped the sun in a tienda on the main plaza, and ordered a couple of empanadas (deep fried pasties) and chicha, a beer made from freshly fermented fruit, which tasted like, well, fermented mango. The empanadas were fresh out of the frier, filled with a tasty concoction of chicken, egg and herbs, and accompanied by a tongue-tantalising chilli sauce. The fruit beer was a perfect drink to wash it down with whilst we tourist-watched and rested weary legs. But to our surprise, no big-assed ants were to be found on sale anywhere in town.
Back in San Gil that evening, our hostel put us on to a gastro pub they ran in town, which served their own version of the famous Steak in Ant Sauce dish – and which hadn’t run low on their supply of the money-making moneymakers yet. We needed no further incentive to book a table there (although they offered us a free beer to do so), and I ordered the dish with some trepidation. When it arrived, I was initially surprised to see the little critters peppering the steak as if scattered as an afterthought, but then it occurred to me that if they were actually puréed into the sauce, you might not feel you were getting the full insect-eating experience. The beef was better than I had imagined; cooked to perfect tenderness. And the generous serving of caboose juice on top did add an extra dimension to the dish, but in honesty I prefer my steak naked save a dash of English mustard. And I like my ants before dinner. So, after hunting the Colombian highlands for Hormigas Culonas, my final assesment is that – next to beer – big-bottomed girls do make the rockin’ world go round.