The celeriac lasagne served at Native, a restaurant in London’s Borough Market, contains thin slices of the nutty root vegetable and a garlic-laden ragout, laced with pickled walnuts and cheese curds. Under the crispy breadcrumb topping, deep within that rich tomato sauce, is a light brown meat: squirrel.
Contrary to the tabloid Photoshop jobs of severed squirrel tails that emerged when news broke of Native’s lasagne earlier this month, the £12 squirrel starter is a delicate, carefully constructed dish. To me, the meat tastes like a leaner, gamier chicken—or a less earthy rabbit.
Despite the recent media coverage (customers have since travelled from as far as Germany to try the lasagne), Native head chef Ivan Tisdall-Downes insists that the point of the dish—made from what he calls “waste meat”—wasn’t to manufacture a PR stunt.
“The aim was to not put a stress on the food chain and serve what’s available to us,” he tells me, as we sit in the restaurant's parquet-floored dining room.
Tisdall-Downes came up with the idea of using squirrel meat when his venison supplier, who is based in the South Downs, mentioned that he had been forced to cull squirrels, due to their fondness for eating unhatched pheasant eggs.
“The park rangers and game keepers are killing the squirrels anyway,” explains Tisdall-Downes, “and if they know they’re going to make a profit out of [a squirrel’s meat], they’re going to make sure its head is shot instead of poisoning or trapping it and throwing it in a landfill somewhere.”
The grey squirrel, which was introduced to Britain in the 1800s by Victorians returning from North America, is described by The Wildlife Trusts as a “major factor” in the decline of the native red squirrel, due to competition for food and transmission of the squirrelpox virus. There are now just 140,000 red squirrels in the wild in the UK, compared with 2.5 million grey squirrels.
Native has focused on seasonal cooking using local, often foraged, ingredients since it was founded by Tisdall-Downes and Imogen Davis in 2016. Serving a low-air mile, low-impact meat like squirrel was an extension of this ethos, and it had been on the menu for long before Squirrelgate happened.
“I had it at River Cottage originally, it was a natural progression from rabbit,” says Tisdall-Downes, referring to the first time he ate squirrel at a restaurant. “We put it on the menu two years ago for the first time, and it’s part-and-parcel of the restaurant.”
Davis adds: “It wasn’t like we made the decision, ‘OK, we’ve done this so now, it’s one set thing to have squirrel.’ We choose our suppliers carefully so when they have something on the off-chance, we consider this meat no different to rabbit, pheasant, to anything. I’m quite surprised by how personally people take it.”
Squirrel may be just another ingredient for Tisdall-Downes and Davis, but when the public is alerted to rodents on a menu—whether at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Devon restaurant or in a curry at upmarket Indian restaurant Cinnamon Club—there is surprise, and sometimes even outrage. Tisdall-Downes anticipated this, so tried to make the dish as accessible as possible. A squirrel lasagne sounds far more palatable than, say, squirrel foie gras.
“What we do here is feed people this wild food in the manner they’re comfortable, making it accessible,” he explains, giving the example of some of the restaurant’s other out-there meat dishes, including wood pigeon kebab and Southern fried rabbit.
While both Tisdall-Downes and Davis are clearly advocates of eating sustainable meats—however unusual they may be—they're also happy when these dishes push diners to question their meat-eating habits.
“Fair enough if people come here then decide they no longer want to eat meat,” he says. “We’ve had it the other way around, though. Vegans have turned up telling us, ‘We want to eat the deer here because we know it’s been sourced really well.’”
This focus on sourcing spreads to other ingredients, too. Native gets its vegetables from neighbouring Borough Market, the bread is baked on-site, and cheese biked over from Neal’s Yard Dairy in Covent Garden. The quinoa comes not from Bolivia but Essex, and Tisdall-Downes’ mum often pops by with donations of foraged plants.
As well as sourcing locally, the Native team ensures to use up every last scrap of ingredients with initiatives like the “chef’s wasting snacks,” a selection of pre-dinner dishes made of food that would have otherwise been thrown away.
“If we have a cauliflower, we’ll use the leaves, we’ll use the stalk, and we’ll use the florets too,” says Tisdall-Downes.
“We have biodynamic vegetables that take so long to grow and we know the farmer and the family and and the effort that goes into them,” Davis says, “so we’re not just going throw away the leaves."
In fact, Native throws away so little waste that one refuse collector was concerned enough to ask whether business was going well.
Davis laughs: “I was sitting here in this big room and he said, ‘So, are you doing alright? Because you only need one collection a week.’ He thought we would definitely close down, he didn’t believe that we’d have so little rubbish.”
As the scale of the global climate crisis becomes terrifyingly more apparent, many restaurants now put sustainability and reduction of waste at the core of their business. Skye Gyngell’s Spring in Central London runs a single-use plastic-free kitchen and Stockport restaurant Where The Light Gets In is committed to using only local suppliers.
Sustainably sourced meat, however, is a slightly more complicated affair than refusing unnecessary plastics or finding ways to cook cauliflower leaves.
“I won’t ever preach about what you should and shouldn’t do,” Davis says, aware that Native’s pricing makes it inaccessible for many living in the capital. “But some of the same people criticising eating squirrel will go to a well-known chicken restaurant that says on its website that they don’t sell free-range because they want to keep prices low.”
If you can afford it, squirrel is undoubtedly kinder on the environment than factory farmed chicken, but there’s not denying that the best thing we as individuals can do for the planet is cut meat out of our diets. Davis reasons that this may not be possible for everyone, and that waste meat offers a a good alternative to mass-produced options.
“Having meat every once in a while, or a bit of squirrel here and there seems far better than putting pressures on intensive farming to produce this horrible piece of meat that does nobody any good," she says.
Native’s squirrel lasagne isn’t about baiting the tabloids or creating a gimmicky dish, but showcasing the ways in which sustainability can become a small but substantial part of any restaurant.
“It’s about doing what’s viable without spending millions of pounds,” Davis says. “We were never thinking ‘sustainability’s going to be big,’ it just goes hand in hand with everything that we already believe.”