Rodent ragu: grey squirrels are a surprising hit on British menus
Britons are increasingly after cruelty-free wild meat, and are helping the poor red squirrel in the process
Grey squirrels are often unwanted visitors to English gardens, thanks to their reputation for raiding bird feeders, stripping trees of bark and threatening their endangered red cousins. But the furry rodents are finding a warmer welcome to the dining table, with chefs and retailers reporting increasing interest in eating them.
Diners’ growing interest in sustainable, cruelty-free food, which leads them to choose “wild meat” from animals that would have been culled anyway, is believed to be behind the trend. The grey squirrel is one such animal, classed as an invasive pest which has few predators in the wild and out-competes native red squirrels.
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 happens to help with grey squirrel culling, and sends the carcasses to the restaurant. He said customers are increasingly interested in eating cruelty-free wild meat and minimising their carbon footprint, which makes squirrel a popular choice.
“Squirrel is one of the most sustainable proteins you can cook really. It’s tasty, it’s not as gamy 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. There are five million grey squirrels and only about 150,000 red squirrels at the moment, a record low,” he said.
Kevin Tickle, who runs Michelin-starred restaurant The Forest Side in Cumbria, uses the fact he is in a red squirrel conservation area to his advantage. He has had a “critter fritter”, a grey squirrel croquette, on his acclaimed tasting menu since the restaurant opened in 2016. “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.”
Suppliers are also reporting that the meat is becoming more popular. Robert Gooch, director and owner of the Wild Meat company, said squirrel has risen in popularity over the past five years and is now his third-biggest seller after venison and pheasant. One squirrel, which feeds one, costs just under £5 on the company’s website, with the best meat being found on the hind legs.
– © The Sunday Telegraph
A great taste if you’re game
What does squirrel taste like? You’re expecting me to say: “Like chicken.” Well it doesn’t. It’s a lot better, as I found out at London’s Native, where head chef Ivan Tisdall-Downes has been cooking squirrel since opening three years ago.
He says squirrel is perhaps the most sustainable meat available, and costs a mere £2 per animal. His are sourced from the Forest of Dean. Up first was Tisdall-Downes’ take on a lasagne; slow-cooked squirrel ragu paired with pickled walnuts, celeriac “pasta” sheets, cheese from Neal’s Yard Dairy down the road, and pangrattato (breadcrumbs). The squirrel was succulently rich and tender, the flavour similar to that of lamb mince. You could have told me it was straight off the A30 and I’d still have scoffed the lot.
But how much of a squirrel was in that tiny morsel of meat? “About half of one,” I’m told. “Squirrel is a very lean meat, so it takes a bit of cooking down. The ragu took three hours to tenderise.”
Next up was a flaky cheddar pastry encasing slow-cooked squirrel leg, topped with sweet pickled onion relish and crunchy breadcrumbs. Here the gaminess of the meat came through more strongly, much more like a rabbit or pigeon meat, and meltingly soft. At Native even the offal is used: deep-fried livers and barbecued hearts are served as snacks.So, if you are looking for something small to serve up at your next party, give squirrel a chance. – Pip Sloan