Escamoles are the larvae and pupae of ants belonging to the Liometopum apiculatum Mayr species. They are native to some semi-arid areas of Mexico and the southern United States.
They are found around the central plateau of Mexico, primarily in the states of Hidalgo, Puebla, Queretaro, Tlaxcala, Mexico, Guanajuato, Michoacan and San Luis Potosi. Their use as food is an ancient tradition in Mexico, where nomadic tribes such as the Otomis enjoyed this delicacy mainly because they were difficult to raise and unattractive to the Aztecs. They even traded them, because the consumption of insects was very common among different tribes. The Nahua (Aztec/Mexica) and Nahnu (Otomi) people are still linked to this culinary tradition today.
The ants eat pepper trees (Schinus molle L.), oaks (of the Quercus genus), maguey or agave, Opuntia cacti, Garambullos cacti (Myrtillocactus geometrizans) and other cacti. The growing of a new nest starts during a nest’s second or third year (when it weighs about 1.5 kg) and reaches maturity the fifth or sixth year (when the nest weighs 5 – 6 kg). One nest has a lifespan of about 20 years, depending on the care and technique used to collect the escamoles. They are available only for 10 – 12 weeks between February and April. Each nest will produce escamoles three to five times during the season. Weather is highly influential during the yearly season, and in particular, heavy rainfall can destroy the ants’ nests.
From a gastronomic point of view, the taste and texture are very delicate, so it is not recommended to add ingredients with strong flavors to escamole dishes. 90% of the time they are prepared with a traditional recipe, with a small amount of green chili and finely chopped onion as well as a few leaves of epazote. The escamoles are cooked lightly for about 5 minutes or until they turn white or ivory. They are eaten in tacos with corn tortillas. They are perfectly matched with many white wines, some roses, and a few reds. A portion of 100 g provides 157 Kcal and 42 g protein, 11 g fat, 3 g of fiber, and numerous amino acids. Laboratory tests have shown that they can be kept frozen (at -10 to -15 ºC) for up to two years, raw or cooked, without losing flavor and nutritional value.
They are not really raised, but collected in the wild, by farmers called escamoleros. Every year, they go to the hills to find known nests and search new foundations. After finding a nest, usually in a rock a few meters away from their food source, the trabecula is located (the structure where mature ants deposit and care for escamoles) and carefully uncovered. No more than 70% of the escamoles are extracted. They are washed, frozen, and sold throughout the year in markets and to restaurants. Escamoles’ market price varies between $35 and $100 USD per kg, depending on availability, demand and sale type (such as wholesale or retail, location of the point of sale, conditions of conservation, etc.).
Many people have little knowledge on how to collect escamoles, which has caused the production to be unstable or seen the ants’ nests moved to other locations, in some cases being lost forever. There are dozens of collectors that are scattered throughout Mexico. An organizational structure is being created to promote and market the product, and to establish production protocols in accordance with traditions and current regulations, hygiene rules and trade agreements.