Stewed muskrat is best eaten with your hands. You pick at the small rib cage, suck on the skull, pluck the meat from under the armpit, and eat the tongue as a delicacy. When you manage to let go of labels like "dirty" or "vermin," it really is a damn good piece of meat.
I spent a whole afternoon cooking and eating with Rob Hagenouw and Nicolle Schatborn of The Kitchen of the Unwanted Animal. For five years, they have been serving animals that no one wants from a self-built food truck and at dinners they organize themselves. With their kitchen, they want to break stale taboos, provoke debate, and combat food waste.
I meet Rob and Nicolle in a barn that has been converted into a kitchen. In a large cooler, a muskrat is placed between a crow and a swan. On other days there are also pigeons, geese, or pieces of horse. All but the horse are animals that cause a nuisance to humans in one way or another. Swans are a threat to flight safety at Schiphol airport; crows devastate the harvest of farmers; geese leave kilos of poo; whole armies of pigeons soil the streets. The Dutch government's response is to allow hunters to kill the animals. Luckily, there are some amazingly tasty dishes to be made from this "unwanted" meat.
Rob explains that everything we do and don't eat has to do with our feelings about a given animal. In the Netherlands, the animal kingdom is divided into three categories: pets, edible animals, and pests. "They seem unmistakable. Pets must not be eaten. You only see edible animals if they are already in packaging. And pests—which may not be pets—you cannot eat them. "
As he tells me this, he shows me the crow. "A crow is treated as a weed, rather than as an animal. They are actually very social animals. They recognize each other, and if one dies, they go through a grieving process. When people raise a little one, it will remain with them for years. "
Rob then gets the swan from the refrigerator. "Last week, we had a swan dinner. It was a shock seeing the first swan hung on two strings in my kitchen. They are very beautiful animals, but yes, they get shot because they cause damage. The hunters do not really know that this meat could also be offered to the meat industry. Besides horses, a huge taboo rests on swans."
Who decides which animals are suitable for the kitchen? Why is it weird to eat guinea pig or horse, but not a pig hung over a fire? And why does a crow have less right to live than a swan? "A large number of [human] carnivores do not see that their meat comes from an animal. We just want to make it visible," says Rob.
Rob and Nicolle had never plucked a chicken or skinned an animal before they came up with this idea. Nor have I, but that will change today. I get started with the fluffiest pest ever. The muskrat was brought here from America in order to make use of their fur, but the beast broke out and became a national enemy. With their beaver-like teeth, they drill their way through the dikes of the Netherlands, angering farmers in the process.
The first step requires some special equipment. We break off the feet with one tool, and remove the rest with a knife. "Do not think that I don't feel anything—I still find it violent," Rob tells me. The crackling and cutting echoes in the room. I'm actually not a fan of meat that looks too much like an animal—chicken legs in soup or a bloody steak. I clearly fall into the category of the hypocritical carnivore.
"Now we are going to skin," Rob says. I swallow as Rob bisects the fur of the abdomen. "If you are just starting to clean animals, a bird is actually easier because it is less close to humans. This is still a mammal. I once found seven youngsters in the belly of a mother. At that moment, everyone was very quiet."
Rob shows me how hard you have to pull to remove the skin. When I take it from him, I have to pull the skin backward first. I suddenly have an empty tail in my hands. Then I pull the rest forward over the head of the animal. "Hold onto the head," says Rob, "or pull his head off." The skull cracks slightly under the pressure.
After that, the thin skin comes off and the intestines are exposed. The scent gland has to come out—this is what gives the muskrat its name. "These smelly glands are the tastemakers in the food and in the perfume industry."
Now we move to the kitchen for some real cooking. The animal must be rinsed just beforehand, so that the meat doesn't start to go bad. As we embark on the stew, we let the animal dry.
Nicolle and Rob often eat unwanted animals at home. "It's just much better than the chicken at the market. What we are preparing now is extremely fresh, and you can taste the difference." We add two onions to the pan, toss in celery and carrots, and then tip in a half bottle of red wine with a bit of bay leaf.
Meanwhile, the muskrat is in the pan, with teeth and carcass and all. It smells surprisingly tasty. Once seared, the animal goes in the wine sauce, along with the gravy, for 45 minutes. We fry the liver first to go with a glass of red wine.
The Kitchen of the Unwanted Animal has to be incredibly flexible, because they never know which animals they will get. "The chef at our last dinner was panicking because we had prepared ourselves for coot, but we had to do it with a squirrel from England."
Nicolle tells me how other countries deal with pests. In Korea, where the nutria is a scourge, the government has posted a video online that shows residents how they can capture the animal and prepare it. In the Netherlands, the topic is much less discussed. "Many people do not even know that so many swans are slain in our country. If a hunter walks around with a dead swan, he is threatened." Dutch animals are destroyed or exported to other countries, and we seldom hear about it. The Kitchen of the Unwanted Animal tries to bring these issues out into the open.
I get a rib and a chest piece—I don't dare touch the plate with the teeth on it. Surprisingly, the first bite is an explosion of flavor in my mouth. It's a beautiful piece of meat, which only occasionally gets stuck in my teeth.
The beauty of all these species is that they they have hardly been experimented with in the kitchen. According to Nicolle, roti with goose is quite tasty, and muskrat pairs nicely with beer. Soon, they'll cook a guineapig. We fantasize about guinea pig in curry sauce, guinea bacon in pancakes, and guinea pig stew, and come to the conclusion that a pest snack for students is perhaps not a bad idea.
If you encounter The Kitchen of the Unwanted Animal at a festival this summer, try a My Little Pony Burger and ask your neighbor if you can have a bite of their goose kroket. It'll probably be a lot better than those seaweed burgers or boring quinoa salads—total has-beens.
This article originally appeared in Dutch on MUNCHIES NL.