via The New York Times
RARE roast beef splashed with meaty jus, pork enrobed in luscious crackling fat, perhaps a juicy, plump chicken ... these are feasts that come to mind when one thinks of quintessential British food. Lately, however, a new meat is gracing the British table: squirrel.
Though squirrel has appeared occasionally in British cookery, history doesn’t deem it a dining favorite. Even during World War II and the period of austerity that followed, the Ministry of Food valiantly promoted the joys of squirrel soup and pie. British carnivores replied, “No, thank you.”
These days, however, in farmers’ markets, butcher shops, village pubs and elegant restaurants, squirrel is selling as fast as gamekeepers and hunters can bring it in.
“Part of the interest is curiosity and novelty,” said Barry Shaw of Shaw Meats, who sells squirrel meat at the Wirral Farmers Market near Liverpool. “It’s a great conversation starter for dinner parties.”
While some have difficulty with the cuteness versus deliciousness ratio — that adorable little face, those itty-bitty claws — many feel that eating squirrel is a way to do something good for the environment while enjoying a unique gastronomical experience.
With literally millions of squirrels rampaging throughout England, Scotland and Wales at any given time, squirrels need to be controlled by culls. This means that hunters, gamekeepers, trappers and the Forestry Commission (the British equivalent of forest rangers) provide a regular supply of the meat to British butchers, restaurants, pâté and pasty makers and so forth.
The situation is more than simply a matter of having too many squirrels. In fact, there is a war raging in Squirreltown: invading interlopers (gray squirrels introduced from North America over the past century or more) are crowding out a British icon, the indigenous red squirrel immortalized by Beatrix Potter and cherished by generations since. The grays take over the reds’ habitat, eat voraciously and harbor a virus named squirrel parapox (harmless to humans) that does not harm grays but can devastate reds. (Reports indicate, though, that the reds are developing resistance.)
“When the grays show up, it puts the reds out of business,” said Rufus Carter, managing director of the Patchwork Traditional Food Company, a company based in Wales that plans to offer squirrel and hazelnut pâté on its British Web site, patchwork-pate.co.uk.
Enter the “Save Our Squirrels” campaign begun in 2006 to rescue Britain’s red squirrels by piquing the nation’s appetite for their marauding North American cousins. With a rallying motto of “Save a red, eat a gray!” the campaign created a market for culled squirrel meat.
British bon vivants suddenly couldn’t get enough squirrel. Television chefs were preparing it, cookbooks were extolling it, farmers’ markets were selling out of it and restaurants in many places were offering it on the menu.
Meanwhile gamekeepers, hunters and trappers were happy to know that the meat was being eaten, not wasted. “My lads don’t like to kill an animal if it’s not going to be eaten,” Mr. Shaw said of the hunters who bring him game.
Many enjoy squirrel, however, simply because they like its taste. Mr. Carter said he didn’t know what he was eating when he tried it. But, he said, “at first bite, I thought it delicious.” Patchwork will send squirrel pâté, by the way, in return for a donation to “Save Our Squirrels” — but only within Britain.
Mark Holdstock, a writer and broadcaster specializing in countryside matters, is less enthusiastic, having recently eaten squirrel on the air on “Farming Today,” BBC Radio 4’s iconic program devoted to rural issues. “It’s fair to say I didn’t dislike it,” he said.Nichola Fletcher, a food writer and co-owner of a venison farm, held a squirrel tasting for Britain’s Guild of Food Writers, finding “their lovely flavor tasted of the nuts they nibbled.” At a later event, however, she found the flavor disappointing, with “a greasy texture and unpleasant taste,” presumably reflecting these squirrels’ diet.
Though squirrel has been promoted as a low-fat food, Ms. Fletcher said that in her experience, “the quality and amount of fat varied from no visible fat to about 30 percent, depending on the season, their age and, especially, diet.”
Fergus Henderson, the chef and co-owner of St. John restaurant in London, offers squirrel on the menu “seasonally.” Though the meat is available all year long, it is in the spring, when hunting season is over, that country folk can focus their attentions on controlling the squirrel population. That’s when squirrel appears on St. John’s menu.
Mr. Henderson, who cooks with both poetry and passion, sometimes prepares his squirrels “to recreate the bosky woods they come from,” braising them with bacon, “pig’s trotter, porcini and whole peeled shallots to recreate the forest floor.” He serves it with wilted watercress “to evoke the treetops.”
Other chefs may be less lyrical, but they are no less enthusiastic. The Famous Wild Boar Hotel in Britain’s Lake District serves squirrel Peking-duck style; at Matfen Hall, a grand country house hotel, it is layered with hazelnuts into a terrine; in Cornwall, it can be found baked into the iconic meat pie known as a pasty.
If you want to grab your shotgun, make sure you have very good aim — squirrels must be shot in the head; a body shot renders them impossible to skin or eat. (You want to get rid of the head in any event, as squirrel brains have been linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of mad cow disease.)
Skinning a squirrel is “difficult and unpleasant,” the food writer Leslie Mackley said, adding, “You have to fight to rip the skin from the flesh.”
A. H. Griffiths, who sells squirrel for the equivalent of about $3 per squirrel at the butcher shop in Shropshire that bears his name, added that it is “best left to the professionals.”
“Each squirrel skinned makes the next one easier,” he added. “When you’ve skinned as many as I have, you find the best way.”
Mr. Griffiths is a fan of the meat, likening it to a slightly oily rabbit. “We started selling squirrel a few years ago, after the owner of our local pub bragged about winning a squirrel-eating contest,” he said. Then, he said, the owner “caught a squirrel, casseroled it up, and we liked it so much Griffiths has been selling it ever since.”One might think that because of easy availability, squirrel would be the perfect meal-stretcher for these economically challenged times, but it takes a lot of work to get the meat off even the plumpest squirrel. (One would make a good main course.) Combined with the aforementioned difficulty in skinning, Mr. Carter said, many otherwise enthusiastic hunters, gamekeepers and chefs “can’t be bothered with it.”