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Science graduate Peter Randrup grew up on a Waikato dairy farm but jokes that his stock numbers now far outstrip anything his parents could have imagined. That’s because he’s wrangling much tinier critters … insects, not cows.

As co-founder of a Christchurch company, Anteater, his stock-in-trade is Wild Harvested NZ Lemongrass Ants, NZ Native Grass-Fed Locusts and NZ Native Huhu Grubs.

A few years ago, Peter became fascinated by the potential of insects as an alternative protein source and took his idea to a start-up weekend in Christchurch. Also attending the event was Bex De Prospo, a well-travelled free thinker and foodie whose background was in music and theatre venue management. Impressed by Peter’s vision, she decided to join him in forming an edible insects business. Within a week they had entered the University of Canterbury’s Entré $85k Challenge, eventually winning the grand prize.

It was a whirlwind start to their venture. They were still figuring out how to source their product when they got their first sale from a chef at Lyttelton’s Roots Restaurant.

‘We’d read a bit online about edible insects around the world in a 2013 UN report about the prospects insects have to help with global food security and food sustainability,’ Bex recalls. ‘We knew locusts were edible, along with some species of ants.’

Peter took a selection of edible ant candidates to the chef in question to sample; one of these – Lemongrass Ants – was a hit and is now their top selling product. What hooks people on these tiny wild harvested ants is quite simply the taste, described as lemongrass and kaffir lime with a mild blue cheese aftertaste.

Anteater ants are mostly used as a garnish and have even been brewed into a sour ale called the Aardvark, produced by Garage Project. In case you’re wondering, around 10 ants per 100 ml is enough to infuse the beer.

‘Lemongrass Ants have an incredibly unique flavour: it’s huge and robust, unlike anything else you would have tried,’ Bex says. ‘They’re not so much a protein source as an ingredient and they sit at the high end of the market, a little like saffron or black truffles.’

Anteater’s other products – NZ Locusts and Huhu Grubs – are proving popular too, with past and current clients including six of New Zealand’s top Cuisine magazine three-hat winning restaurants.

One of Anteater’s collaborations last year was with Te Papa, coinciding with the museum’s Bug Lab exhibition. Their locusts were worked into a tasty ‘Bug Slider’ – a burger patty of fried locusts and minced chicken served on a slider bun.

‘We’re having a lot of conversations right now with food producers interested in collaborating with us to create products that could be exported overseas,’ Peter says. ‘We’re looking at sauces and pastes, potentially using Lemongrass Ants as a value-added component.’

Initially, they’re planning to target the US as a potential export market and have been working to achieve required certifications. ‘Australia is also an option as we’ve had enquiries about promoting our products there too.’

Peter and Bex bring complementary skills to their unique business. US-born Bex holds two masters degrees (in English and Sound Design) and a graduate diploma in Entrepreneurship. Combined with her passion for home cooking and a background in events management, it’s a potent recipe for success in a venture like this. Peter has a degree in Biological Sciences and prior to starting Anteater was involved in running a business out of Akaroa producing sustainably harvested kelp for the food and beverage industry, ‘kelp pepper’. It has been a useful grounding for the production side of Anteater.

Developing the business has led to some incredible experiences. In the course of researching edible insects in Southeast Asia, they ended up joining a hunter in Cambodia tracking down scorpions and tarantulas for the pot.

‘He was a supplier for a local fine dining restaurant that specialises in insect-based cuisine, so we went there with the express purpose of sampling the menu,’ says Bex, adding that she’s probably eaten around 20 different insect species by now; Peter has apparently tried twice that many.

The pair has been named as Edmund Hillary Fellows, in recognition of the innovative work they are doing as change-makers. In turn, this connects them with a global network of like-minded entrepreneurs.

In Canterbury, Anteater products are finding their way onto menus at select cafés and restaurants throughout the region. In April, F.O.D Café in Rangiora added a wild salad with Anteater’s NZ Locusts to their range, noting that the flavour of the locusts was ‘mild and buttery’ and could be compared to freshwater prawns. ‘It has been well-received,’ Peter says. ‘People are hesitant at first but once they try it, they really enjoy it. People say it’s like eating high-protein chips or popcorn.’

At the time of interview, Waipara’s Black Estate winery was on the cusp of introducing Anteater edible insects into their cuisine. Anteater’s NZ Locusts have also been worked into cocktails served at upmarket Christchurch bar Red Light District. Anteater products pop up at various Vbase events in the city.

Huhu grubs are trending in popularity across the board. Used in degustation dishes, starters, cocktails and sauces, these grubs are said to rival pine nuts in taste. ‘They make a great entrée: roast them up with a bit of salt and they’re really nice,’ says Peter.

Getting enough edible bugs can be a challenge, so Peter and Bex are actively encouraging prospective commercial insect farmers to get in touch. Currently, Anteater’s Lemongrass Ants and Huhu Grubs are foraged at various places in Canterbury and they source NZ Locusts from a supplier in Dunedin.

An exciting project on the horizon is a possible collaboration between Anteater, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, Plant & Food Research and Ngāi Tahu to develop a huhu grub farm over a three-year period. At the time of interview, the proposal was under review with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

‘We’d love to be involved in such a pioneering project that could be used as a prototype for this type of farming,’ Peter says. ‘There are so many farmers in New Zealand crying out for something else to farm. This could well become an exciting option in the future – the potential is huge.’

Peter and Bex, who are in demand as public speakers, say education is a big part of their business model. They have promoted edible insects at various occasions from graduation ceremonies to corporate events. With changing perceptions around food protein, they suggest that insects could become a mainstream dietary item in New Zealand within the next 10 to 15 years.

As Bex says, ‘It’s why we feel it’s so important to get it right, so when people taste insects for the first time it’s a pleasurable experience.’

[ WORDS Kim Newth ]