By John Otis
Carlos Valluna has an unusual job.
He's an ant dealer.
Valluna roams the Colombian countryside, paying peasants $5 a pound for "big-butt ants," known in Spanish as "hormigas culonas." They're found almost exclusively in the mountains of Santander department in northern Colombia.
The brown, cockroach-sized insects are a species of leaf-cutter ants. The female ants are packed with protein because they are bloated with eggs; hence their big-butt nickname.
When the females crawl out of their colonies each spring to mate, farmers abandon their crops and children skip school to catch the ants, according to one local farmer, Miguel Paez.
"When you toast them, they have a very good flavor," Paez said. "The more you eat, the more you want to eat."
Colombians aren't alone in their taste for bugs. In several Latin American and Asian nations, people eat crickets, grasshoppers, and palm weevils. Next year, the United Nations will hold a conference on edible insects. Some experts say they're a more environmentally sustainable source of vitamins and protein than livestock.
In Santander, many farmers sell their insects to Valluna. He can determine how much a bag of ants weighs just by picking it up. But Valluna is a tough negotiator. At one point, he disputes the weight of a farmer's ant supply. To settle the issue, the two men march to a general store and place a swarming mass of ants on a scale.
The insects must be kept alive until the moment they're cooked to avoid tasting bitter.
Some of Valluna's ants seem to be flagging, so he puts them in a sack poked with holes then sets it on the roof of his car for a blast of fresh air on the ride home.
Once in his backyard, Valluna lights a gas burner and dumps the insects into an aluminum pan. Then he winnows the insects, tossing them in the air so the wind can blow away the legs and wings.
The roasted ants are served like peanuts. They have an earthy, nutty taste and the texture of day-old popcorn, so it's hard to tell what all the fuss is about.
But then I meet Jorge Diaz, a local chef and big-butt ant aficionado. In the off season, when the ants are scarce, he will pay up to $40 for a pound of ants.
"They are very nice," Diaz said. "Crunchy!"
He added that the ants can run 10 times the price of coffee, but you can't cultivate them like coffee. They only come out once a year, he said.
Diaz is willing to pay a premium because he specializes in ant-based recipes at his restaurant in Barichara. It's called Color de Hormiga or "the Color of Ants." Among his inventions are ant bread and a dip made with ants and cream cheese.
But Diaz's signature dish is filet mignon drizzled in a reduction of beef stock, herbs and big-butt ants run through a blender. It's now it's the most popular item on the menu. In fact, the entrée has helped his restaurant earn a spot among the top-10 Colombian eateries in the Lonely Planet travel guide.
When I ask Diaz about cooking with other insects, he hesitates — but only for a moment.
"Like a cockroach, you know, I would say: ´Oh gross, you cannot eat that'," he said. "But once you're eating insects, that's a whole new world to explore."