Free range is key when it comes to meat, with all the recent uproar about intensively reared chickens featured in yet another firm offering from Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall, it appears it is now at the forefront of Britain’s conscience. It is so easy to see a pack of meat that looks the same as another pack of meat, one being half the price of the other, that you would you would snatch up the cheaper…except for two words printed on one of them which read ‘free range’. Now that is where the mind starts to tick over and the heartstrings begin to pull. Therefore it was with a relatively clear conscience that I decided to eat my first squirrel. Having shot many in the past I thought I should take the time to appreciate what this rodent-like creature had to offer. Gone now are my days of trigger-happy-yank-style shoot and ask questions later, these days an animal only tends to meet its maker if I am prepared to eat it.
The problem is a lot of people probably have with eating these furry little critters is that they look so adorable…really? They look like grey haired rats with bushy tails! Then again if cows, pigs and chickens looked like care bears or cabbage patch kids they might too be spared slaughter for the British public’s dinner table. Perhaps it is me…I have a tendency to see things in black and white. Curiosity has the better of me, its an edible creature, what does it taste like? I feel in this case it was as if someone had said to me “you see that red button there? DON’T touch it”.
I have always been a firm believer that when it comes to food, you should try everything once, as far as my food principles go, this is something I will never budge on. So after an enjoyable afternoons stroll around a friend’s farmland wielding a 12-bore, I happened upon a squirrel. Actually it was the second one I had seen, the first I saw from a distance and rather sensibly made off faster than shit off a shovel. Too bad for the second squirrel…
The first thing I noticed was, that actually squirrels are rather unattractive up close. They have yellow hamster-like front teeth, this one had balls too, obviously a male. But I was surprised that they are not all that pleasant. The ones in Battersea park are much nicer than these aren’t they?
The second thing is that they are a bastard to peel. It was quite a job to get the skin off even with my amazing little Kuhn Rikon super sharp blade. Eventually it yielded and after removing head, tail, hands and feet you are left with quite a dainty little morsel of meat.
The method by which I decided to cook my first squirrel was so ridiculously caveman it was great. A spit roast. After a bit of nip and tuck and some careful whittling of some branches of hazel I was all set. The essential flavourings were extremely important, I would have liked a bit of seasoning, but I felt I wanted to really find the true taste of this untouched meat. All I used where a sprig of rosemary, some wild garlic leaves and some butter stuffed in the chest cavity. The final ingredient if you like, was wood.
The mighty English Oak was to be the star of the show. If we’re not making cricket bats or furniture out of it we use it for smoking our meat and fish. The yanks enjoy their hickory and mesquite, we like Oak. I found some dead branches up a tree that took some careful clambering and split them down into manageable sizes.
Once the fire had reduced to a good set of embers, the squirrel was mounted on the spit and gently basted with my remaining butter. This gave me a chance to sit and think about what I was about to eat. Once I had overcome the initial excitement, I wondered what it was going to taste like…chicken? Rabbit? Pheasant? Pork? It turned out to be rabbit, maybe rather well done rabbit but I dint want to take any chances. It also looked a bit like rabbit on the spit too…uncanny.
So what did I learn from this? I did learn that squirrel is a meat that is extremely underrated. After my first cautious bite, slowly chewing and letting the full flavour hit me, the oak had given the meat a beautiful smoky flavour, the eyes widened and it wasn’t long until all that was left was a pile of picked bones. In taste it is very similar to rabbit but there is something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps I should try rat and I may make the distinction. Squirrel is so worthwhile eating that you should try everywhere to get your hands on them, if you have a gun and land available to shoot on, then what are you waiting for? I don’t know what is next on the menu, I have heard Badger is an interesting meat, but I couldn’t possible shoot one, might get in trouble. I have got some squirrel remains left over, I could sit out until after dark and wait for a predator or two saunter over and have a sniff…I wonder Fox tastes like?