(The Guardian) It tastes sweet, like a cross between lamb and duck. And it’s selling as fast as butchers can get it. It’s low in fat, low in food miles and completely free range. In fact, some claim that Sciurus carolinensis – the grey squirrel – is about as ethical a dish as it is possible to serve on a dinner plate.The grey squirrel, the American cousin of Britain’s endangered red variety, is flying off the shelves faster than hunters can shoot them, with game butchers struggling to keep up with demand. ‘We put it on the shelf and it sells. It can be a dozen squirrels a day – and they all go,’ said David Simpson, the director of Kingsley Village shopping centre in Fraddon, Cornwall, whose game counter began selling grey squirrel meat two months ago.
At Ridley’s Fish and Game shop in Corbridge, Northumberland, the owner David Ridley says he has sold 1,000 – at £3.50 a squirrel – since he tested the market at the beginning of the year. ‘I wasn’t sure at first, and wondered would people really eat it. Now I take every squirrel I can get my hands on. I’ve had days when I have managed to get 60 and they’ve all sold straight away.’
Simpson likens the taste to wild boar. Ridley thinks it is more a cross between duck and lamb. ‘It’s moist and sweet because, basically, its diet has been berries and nuts,’ he said.
Both believe its new-found popularity is partly due to its green credentials. ‘People like the fact it is wild meat, low in fat and local – so no food miles,’ says Simpson. Ridley reckons that patriotism also plays a part: ‘Eat a grey and save a red. That’s the message.’
A glut of back-to-the-wild TV programmes featuring celebrity chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has also tickled the public’s palate, but squirrel is still unlikely to be found in the family fridge. The Observer’s restaurant critic, Jay Rayner, said he had never tasted squirrel, but if he did have it for dinner ‘it would have to be a big, fat country squirrel and not one of the mangy urban ones you see in cities’.
‘People may say they are buying it because it’s green and environmentally friendly, but really they’re doing it out of curiosity and because of the novelty value. If they can say, “Darling, tonight we’re having squirrel”, then that takes care of the first 30 minutes of any dinner party conversation. I see it remaining a niche. There’s not much meat on a squirrel, so I’d be surprised if farming squirrel takes off anywhere some time soon.’
Kevin Viner, former chef-proprietor of Pennypots, the first Michelin-starred restaurant in Cornwall, who now runs Viners bar and restaurant at Summercourt, believes it will remain a niche market. But with a plentiful supply of meat – there are estimated to be almost five million grey squirrels in Britain – there is room for the market to expand.
Viner – who comes from a rural ‘if you shot it, you ate it’ background – said the trick was to serve squirrel fresh and not to leave it hanging like other game. ‘It looks a lot like rabbit, though it is a drier meat and slightly firmer. Most of the meat comes off the rear leg. The loins are so thin they need much shorter cooking time,’ he said.
‘A large squirrel would be enough for one-and-a-half people. The public really are being drawn to it. I think that it’s because it is being perceived as a healthy meat. Southern fried squirrel is good. And tandoori style works. It is especially tasty fricassÃ©ed with Cornish cream and walnuts. But the one everyone seems to like is the Cornish squirrel pasty.’
And his own favourite recipe? ‘I must admit, I’m a beef man myself,’ he said. ‘But my huntsman swears by squirrel with sausage meat and bacon.’
How to make squirrel pasties
Kevin Viner’s recipe for two pasties
140g squirrel meat cut into 1cm cubes;
100g sliced potato; 100g sliced swede; 50g diced onion; 30g smoked bacon;
15g chopped hazelnuts; 75g butter;
5g chopped parsley; a good pinch of salt and pepper
· Egg wash edges of pastry circles.
· Place the potato, swede, hazelnuts, parsley and seasoning on to each circle followed by the bacon, squirrel meat and, finally, the onion.
· Place butter in each pasty, then fold over the pastry and crimp the edges.
· Put the pasties on to a greaseproof baking tray, egg wash both pasties well, place in a pre-heated oven at 180C or gas mark 5.
· Bake for 45-50 minutes. The juices should start to boil and the pasties should be able to move on the tray with ease.