The Dish Du Jour? Squirrel
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
Yes, you read that right; squirrel, grey squirrel to be precise, is on the menu as chefs and retailers report an increasing interest in eating this furry rodent.
Often viewed as a pest, responsible for pigging out on bird feeders and chewing through cables in loft spaces and eaves, this rise in popularity is thought to be attributed to diners’ growing interest in sustainable, cruelty-free food.
The grey squirrel seems to fall into this category; classed as an invasive pest, it is an animal which is often culled as it has few wild predators and has largely taken over the territory of the endangered red squirrel.
In the name of reducing waste, chefs are getting creative with squirrel meat; using it in a range of dishes from croquettes to lasagne.
Ivan Tisdall-Downes, who runs the restaurant Native in London’s Borough Market, makes a squirrel ragu by slow cooking the meat from its hind legs. His wild boar supplier coincidentally helps with grey squirrel culling, and sends the carcasses down to the restaurant.
Ivan explained that his customers are increasingly interested in eating cruelty-free wild meat and reducing their carbon footprint, both checkboxes that grey squirrel meat seems to tick. Ivan said:
“There are 5 million grey squirrels and only about 150,000 red squirrels at the moment, a record low. Because there aren’t really any predators left for the grey squirrels the population is booming and they are taking over the red squirrel habitat.
“I think sustainable eating is becoming more popular now. More and more people are more conscious of their carbon footprint and the damaging additives that get put in their food. I grew up in South East London and hadn’t heard of wild food. Now wild food is everywhere.” (The Telegraph)
So what does squirrel meat taste like? The phrase ‘tastes like chicken’ comes to mind, but apparently squirrel differs quite drastically. Ivan explained:
“Squirrel is one of the most sustainable proteins you can cook really. It is almost exactly the same in taste as rabbit.
“It’s tasty, it’s not as gamey as rabbit, it’s nice white meat. It’s good to cook down slowly and make stews from and ragus for lasagne.
“It’s very good for you, it’s quite lean.”
If you were thinking this is just a trendy London fad, then think again. Kevin Tickle, who runs Michelin-starred restaurant The Forest Side in Cumbria, has had a “critter fritter” on the menu since 2016. With his restaurant situated in a red squirrel conservation area, he has used the grey squirrel to his advantage. Kevin explained:
“They’re a pest, we are stuck bang in the middle of a red squirrel conservation area.
“I also enjoy shooting, I shoot quite a lot of greys so it makes sense to put it on the menu – if we shoot them we should cook with them.”
‘Waste not want not’ is clearly at work here.
Going back to 2013, Devon surprisingly seem to be ahead of the squirrel trend that is captivating trendy restaurants across the UK. TV chef and champion of wild food, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall started serving fresh squirrel at the River Cottage Canteen in Plymouth. The grey squirrels were shot at River Cottage HQ and sous-chef Andy Richardson, responsible for butchering and braising the meat, agreed with Ivan’s description of a gamey flavour similar to rabbit.
And it’s not just restaurants that are reporting squirrel success. Robert Gooch, director and owner of the meat supply company Wild Meat said that squirrel has risen in popularity over the past five years to become the third biggest seller after venison and pheasant. Robert said:
“Consumers are very concerned about the stress that farmed animals go through in their lives so are more interested in wild meat.
“Eating meat from animals that are killed or culled anyway is sustainable otherwise it would be waste.
“Game meat is also very popular in the paleo diet.”
If you are at all écureuil-curious, you can purchase squirrel meat from a range of suppliers online and the best meat, apparently, can be found on the hind legs. Bon appetit…