Human beings have a history of eating unorthodox meats although usually for medicinal reasons. Pregnant women were once advised to eat pigeon soup, Tudors feasted on sparrows and wild boar, and Thomas Muffet (thought to be the stepfather of Little Miss Muffet from the nursery rhyme) went so far as to advise: "The flesh of young owls is dainty and good, strengthening the mind, and diverting the melancholy and madness."
But for the past five years, two Holland-based artists have been cooking unconventional animals for pleasure, not misguided health reasons. Rob Hagenouw and Nicolle Schatborn's ethos is to keep food waste minimal by eating and educating people about animals that are likely to be disposed of as 'pests.'
The couple live near to Amsterdam's Schipol airport, where geese are often shot to prevent them flying into aircraft engines and causing accidents. After asking a friend who worked as a hunter what the airport does with a goose once it's been killed, Hagenouw found out that the carcass usually is ground up into pet food.
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"We were really astonished that nobody ate geese," Hagenouw says in disbelief. "They are twice the size of chickens. Often in supermarkets and restaurants you don't see them so we were wondering what happened to all of the geese that were shot. "
Hagenouw's hunter friend offered to prepare goose for him and Schatborn, inspiring the couple to make their first goose croquette. The croquettes are made up of two layers: goose meat and flour boiled together on the inside with fried bread crumbs on the outside.
Croquettes are common in Europe, but they usually contain other meats like lamb and chicken. According to Hagenouw, the red goose meat tastes completely different to chicken. Taste can depend on how old the goose is and whether it's a female or male.
"People often find chicken the standard. With factory food, people wait for a fixed amount of time before they slaughter all the animals, meaning that that is no difference in taste," says Hagenouw. "Supermarkets never want a different taste. It explains why McDonald's is so successful—all people get is the same taste from the factory food."
Since making the croquettes, Hagenouw and Schatborn came across other animals that were shot and treated as pests, but not used for food. It was from there that they came up with The Kitchen of the Unwanted Animal: a food van that sells dishes made from the animals whose bodies are usually left for waste.
Like the UK, food trucks and festivals in Holland have become increasingly popular. Hagenouw and Schatborn bring their kitchen to festivals around Holland and Belgium, selling anything from pigeon to bisque with remains of American crayfish. The couple also uses these events as a chance to talk about why certain animals are seen as pests.
A popular dish with the clientele is muskrat goulash. Muskrats are beaver-like animals from North America that found their way into Holland in the mid-1800s, after being brought in for their fur. Some of them escaped and burrowed homes in dykes, and have been hunted for some 80 years in Holland, with an estimated 320,000 being killed a year. According to Schatborn, the semiaquatic rodent tastes similar to hare.
"We have about ten or 15 animals now that are unwanted. We also like to know about the regulations and why they are prohibited," she says. "The funny thing with the Muskrats is that the Dutch, Belgians, and the Germans really want to get rid of them. You are legally not allowed to sell the muskrats for food or fur. But everybody likes it, so we give customers a muskrat goulash free with their chips."
The most controversial of all the dishes served by The Kitchen of the Unwanted Animal is the My Little Pony Burger, a bun filled with homemade mayonnaise, fried egg, and racing horse meat. "We have nice signs and small My Little Ponies next to the burgers," Hagenouw smiles. "Small children often run to the truck and shout, I want a My Little Pony Burger. We do make it clear that it's actually horse, mainly old race horse."
Holland is more open to eating horse than Britain, something that could have its roots in the country's culinary history.
"One theory goes back to the early Christian period, when the pagan Germanic tribes worshipped a horse god. Germans could eat horses, as it was part of their sacrificial right," explains Ivan Day, a food historian who specialises in reviving ancient cooking methods. "Some of the Christians thought that the Germanic tribes were infidels, as they saw horse eating as associated with a religion that for them was taboo."
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Attitudes towards eating horse vary around Europe. In Italy, horsemeat is popular, with some restaurants even having a horse head on the front of them. Although Britain is generally averse to it, there have been times when the population has eaten horse meat—and not just during the horse meat scandal. It was eaten during both World Wars and even subject to rationing.
Hagenouw and Schatborn also serve pigeon from Amsterdam's Dam Square, one of the city's major hubs and a flocking point for crumb-seeking birds.
"People are often are put off pigeons and say they are all sick because they eat scraps of old chips and hamburgers people have left," says Hagenouw. "But pigeon tastes like the best beef steak you've ever tasted. It's really gorgeous. You take out small breasts that are about 50 grams each. You bake it in butter for a short time so the middle part is still a little raw. It's really delicious."
The couple hopes to keep The Kitchen of the Unwanted Animal going for few more years, with plans to source and sell crows, another bird with less-than-glowing connotations.
"What these guys are doing is quite new. The only thing that's old about it that it's based on the philosophy of not wasting things," says Day. "Anything can be dressed by a good cook to make a really good dish. It just takes a bit of imagination and an understanding of the culinary arts."
And if you can make something that sounds as unappetising as muskrat taste good, you must have a pretty good handle on the culinary arts.