The caviar of the sea, sturgeon eggs, have dotted luxury menus for quite a while now. But there’s a region in Mexico, nowhere close to the sea, which also produced a prized variety of caviar. This is the caviar of the desert: escamoles.
The nut-buttery taste and cheesy texture is coveted, but it’s the difficulty in harvesting that has put escamoles well at the top with other luxury food items. Harvested in the high plains of central Mexico, the larvae of velvety tree ants are known as escamol. Once harvested and cleaned, these ant eggs are transported to bigger cities where they are sold at exorbitant prices in fancy restaurants.
This desert delicacy has roots in ancient Aztec civilisations with the eggs featuring in songs, dances and other pre-Hispanic texts.
Escamoleros, or ant-egg farmers, go digging up the mountains, among the roots of mezcal and tequila plants during harvest season to find the tunnels built by the velvety tree ants. These nests can produce eggs up to four times during spring and if the farmers are careful, they can harvest the same nest for nearly two decades.
The nests are dug up using traditional, sustainable techniques, about seventy per cent of the eggs can be safely harvested using sieves to separate the ants, and the rest are put back. Escamoles can sell for anywhere between $35 to $100 per kilogram as they make their way up the supply chain to high-end restaurants.