January 06, 2011
Mmmm, içás (queen ants)
"'Tastes like mint,' said Mr. [Jorge] da Silva, with an audible crunch of his teeth."
That's the second sentence of yesterday's New York Times story about the gastronomic obsession of Silveiras, a town of 6,000 located between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The ants (above and below), a delicacy there and elsewhere in Brazil, find their habitat threatened by pesticides.
Excerpts from the Times piece follow.
Here's a link to the accompanying video featured up top.
Jorge da Silva plucked a giant ant from the muddy ground, pulled off its wings, legs and mandible, and tossed it into his mouth like popcorn.
“Tastes like mint,” said Mr. da Silva, 58, with an audible crunch of his teeth.
In his rubber boots, Mr. da Silva roamed the hills above this town of 6,000 people with a stick and a plastic bucket. He was on the hunt for Silveiras’s obsession and a rare gastronomic delicacy in Brazil: içás, or queen ants.
The thunderous spring rains in October and November drive the ants out of the ground, and for a few short weeks Silveiras becomes a frenzy of ant hunting. Residents stock up, cleaning the içás and freezing them in one and two-liter bottles to get through until the next season.
But this year the ant haul was smaller than usual, residents said, and the number of ants has been dwindling. The principal culprits are pesticides used on eucalyptus trees that are planted to produce cellulose for paper and other products, residents and local officials said.
“With urbanization and the poison that they are putting into the soil, we do not have much time left,” said Vera Toledo, 67, a writer and anthropologist whose husband is a native of Silveiras.
Generations of indigenous people treated the ants as a protein substitute for fish and monkeys, residents said. Today, Silveiras residents — and the people who drive hundreds of miles every year to buy the ants — value them not only for their protein, but also as an aphrodisiac and source of natural antibiotics.
Residents of this town 190 miles from São Paulo have kept alive the ancient indigenous tradition by cooking and serving the ants with traditional Brazilian dishes. These are no ordinary ants scampering over sugary leftovers, like the tiny American variety. Içás are big — up to an inch in length — and fat, and they can bite viciously.
Residents have not tried to make the ants into a big commercial enterprise. In northern Colombia, locals are exporting their “hormigas culonas” or big-rear queen ants, to France, Britain and other countries, where they are dipped in chocolate.
The giant leaf-cutter ants in Brazil come from the same Atta family as the Colombian species, said Marina Saiki, a biologist at the São Paulo Zoo. But while residents here say they could certainly use the extra money, many seem more concerned with preserving the tradition — and the ant population — for themselves.
Ocílio Ferraz, Silveiras’s resident içás guru, has dedicated himself to keeping the ant feast alive. A self-professed environmentalist, he has resisted efforts to export them, preferring to receive visitors at his restaurant, where he has a special kitchen devoted to frying the içás.
Mr. Ferraz, 72, says he receives almost daily phone calls asking him to start delivering ants to far-off towns. He said he looked into exporting them at some point but gave up because the Brazilian export laws for food are too complicated. Beyond that, he said, “I don’t think making deliveries would be good for the quality of the tradition.”
He grew up eating içás at home and taught the tradition to his children. Then, 20 years ago, he held an içá festival that drew more than 400 people. The festival’s success inspired him to create an arts and crafts center dedicated to the tradition.
Slowly, Mr. Ferraz was able to help break the stigma that used to surround eating içás, which had been seen as a tradition reserved for poorer families. “Many people would say they were embarrassed about eating içás,” he said. And yet, he said, every October and November “the entire town would smell like frying ants.”
Today the residents are more open about their appreciation for the crunchy queen ants.
“I am an içá fanatic,” said María José Camargo, 29, as she sampled some ants at Mr. Ferraz’s restaurant. “I love it so much. It’s worth saving money all year to spend on içás. My children are too young to catch them, but when they are grown they will catch içás for sure.”
Back in the hills, Mr. da Silva, the ant hunter, is teaching 12-year-old Dudu da Silva, no relation, how to capture the ants. With his bare fingers, Mr. da Silva grabbed the içás one by one and tossed them into the bucket. Thump. Thump. Thump.
The ants frequently bit Mr. da Silva, whose hands are typically bloodied after a day of catching them. At one point, a little girl watching him work cried out in pain as an ant bit her foot.
Back at Mr. Ferraz’s restaurant, the ant catchers sell their haul for an average of about $15 per liter. He charges about $12 for a large plate of içás with wheat fried in pig fat meant for two.
While the ants sell fast and are a seeming source of pride, some Silveiras families are divided over the practice. Edson Mendes Mota, the former mayor of Silveiras and now its development director, said he does not care for them, even though his wife has 17 pounds of içás in their freezer. “My wife likes it, my kids like it, the whole town likes it,” he said.
If the içás are imperiled here, some residents say they believe there is still a place where the eucalyptus plantings are not killing off the ants.
“People say there are a lot of içás in the cemeteries because they eat people’s brains,” said Osmar da Silva, 43, an içá salesman. “But it’s a legend,” he said, though he admit ted “I have never had the courage to go into a cemetery and actually look there.”
January 6, 2011 at 04:01 PM | Permalink
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Completely repelling. I think that some people's tastebuds are not in their mouths...
Posted by: Jesse | Jan 7, 2011 8:04:30 AM
"tastes like mint" - NOT like chicken? Eating ants will not go anywhere...
Posted by: Terrence | Jan 6, 2011 8:03:46 PM
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