Gray squirrels are everywhere. They're in the bins in your local park, stuffing discarded sandwich crusts into their mouths. They're in your garden, burying nuts in your lawn and pissing off your cats. They're up trees taking eggs from bird's nests. You pretty much can't walk five feet in London without one of the cute little bastards stopping in your path, transparent tail bouncing, and staring you out. But while they might be bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and an endless source of amusement, they—all five million of them—can also be a complete pain in the arse. So should we be thinking about eating them?
Some people might baulk at the idea of eating a rodent, but the squirrel's cousin—the rabbit—is widely eaten. There are those who can't get past the rabbit's fluffy pet-ness, but plenty can, and in our age of financial severity should we be considering the potential epicurean values of something that is, quite literally, everywhere? Could it be the ultimate free-range meat? Robert Owen Brown, celebrated chef and author of the brilliant Crispy Squirrel and Vimto Trifle cookbook, thinks so. Fergus Henderson is a big fan of his, telling me from the back of a cab hurtling across Manhattan bridge, "Rob is a man of many parts. He is a true hunter-gatherer, a darling, and an all-round good egg." So I rang the good egg up for a chat about squirrel and other things.
Hi Robert! Do you really have a recipe for crispy squirrel in your book? Yes, it's squirrel done in a Southern fried style. I don't know whether it's a Northern thing, but everything tastes delicious when it's been thrown in breadcrumbs and deep-fried.
Are you saying that squirrel isn't tasty? Oh god no. The opposite. It's a delicious meat—incredibly sweet and nutty (thanks to its berry and nut-based diet) and very, very lean. The loin is very small so you cook it exactly as you would a rabbit, either very quickly or for a long time.
Squirrel is still very popular in some of the southern states in the US, isn't it? They've eaten it since the colonial days. Yes, absolutely. They're quite fond of stewing it down, which seems to intensify the sweetness of the meat. It's a bit like pork in that respect.
How would I go about getting a squirrel to cook if I don't feel comfortable going out to hunt one? You can buy squirrel online very easy—there are about 12 companies on the internet that will sell you grey squirrel. If you have a good local butcher, they should be able to get one for you, too. They'll almost certainly not be displaying them with the rest of their produce, or get them in on a regular basis, but they will definitely know someone who could get you one. You would have to ask them to skin it for you, though, as an amateur would almost certainly pull it in half.
OK. And if I did want to try and hunt one, would I get in trouble? There is nothing to stop you taking an air rifle—or finding a mate who has one—and shooting a squirrel in a wild area. Nothing at all. They're bloody quick, though, so you might need a bit of practise.
What about the ones that come into my back garden and make my cat have a nervous breakdown? You might want to be careful with those.
Why? Because you never know what a squirrel in an urban environment might have eaten. Your neighbor might have put down rat poison, for example, that it could eat by mistake. You never know. In the wild, at least, you can have a pretty solid idea of what they've been eating. Their diet doesn't deviate much from eating berries off trees and nuts.
Why do you think people objected so much to the idea of squirrel meat being sold in a UK supermarket a few years ago? It's about perception. People have very deep-seated ideas and beliefs about meat—what they should and shouldn't eat—and many people in the UK buy the same kind of meat (which is sat neatly in a little Polystyrene tray) week-in week-out. So of course, when something completely new comes along, it's shocking. They can't equate the idea of this cute little thing they see all the time to being cooked and eaten.
That will never change though. Some people are very happy—and have every right—to live that way. Of course. But what I hope to do, when I do cookery demos and things, is to engage people with the idea of butchery and that meat comes from a whole animal, and indeed what animals it can come from.
So your hope is that you get a handful of people to influence a handful of people, rather than trying to change the whole system? Yes. I think it's all you can do. Unless you switched the electricity off in supermarkets—which have, on the whole, gotten a lot better—you will never stop people buying their non-organic chickens.
As a man who champions eating squirrel and everything an animal has to offer—Fergus Henderson recommends your Madeira tripe—is there anything you won't cook? Nope. Nothing. I really will use the whole of the animal.
There's nothing that makes you feel even a bit funny? OK, on a personal level, brains give me the real collywobbles. They look like something from a horror film. I can skin testicles all day long and take the fur off tongues, but brains? Eesh.