27
Sep 02

In Search Of Squirrel

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Adventures In Eating, Part One

It was possibly the tastiest piece of meat I’d ever eaten. Seasoned, seared on all sides, and roasted in the oven for 25 minutes. After resting for a further 15 mins it was carved, a nutty brown on the outside and a juicy, tender pink in the middle. Once in the mouth the meat had a taste not unlike beef, but it was sweeter, and yet gamier at the same time. The accompanying gravy was glossy and a deep brown. This was my first taste of horse, and it was fantastic.

I had previously been a vegetarian for about eight years, initially through a combination of girlfriend pressure and that most dangerous of all sentiments – student idealism. Unfortunately throughout those years I started to become more interested in cooking and eating good food, with this came the nagging suspicion that, by not eating meat, I was missing out on some fantastic delights that I hadn’t eaten before I turned veggie.
I had been eating fish for a while and knew that it was only a matter of time before I gave in. It finally happened on New Year’s morning 2002, and the foodstuff that pushed me over the edge? Yes, it was full English breakfast – bacon, eggs, sausage, beans and toast. It was marvelous, all the fantastic flavours I remembered of old, only even better. Absence must have made my heart grow very fond of cured and spiced pork products.

So that was it, my cravings for meat had won – roasted belly pork, tender and succulent with its attendant crispy skin; roasted chickens, unadulterated apart from a lemon in the cavity; the Spanish Chorizo sausage, oozing its spicy red oil. Descriptions like this had had me salivating for a long while – finally I got the chance to try them all, and by god did I enjoy them.

This was like having a whole new world of tastes and textures to explore, but right at the back of my mind was still a nagging doubt that I was missing out on things. The average punter seems to get by with a very limited range of meats – chicken, pork chops, the ubiquitous sausages and bacon, an occasional roast on a Sunday. This wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to try everything, to find for myself what was good, what would excite me, It was thinking about this while planning a trip to France that led the aforementioned horse to come trotting into my head.

The French love their horse, indeed whole aisles of their hypermarkets are dedicated to it. They know a thing or two about food over there so why shouldn’t I try it? Just because a foodstuff isn’t sold over here doesn’t make it bad or wrong, no matter what social mores dictate.

We bought un tranche de cheval from the hypermarket, cut in the French style, i.e. trussed up in string with a strip of fat attached to each side. Raw, the meat seemed unusually bloody, and the smell was verging on the metallic. (possibly due to the very high levels of iron that horsemeat contains) You can probably tell from the first paragraph how much my dining companions and I enjoyed it. What a discovery we’d made! But for some reason this made me all the more intrigued to try other foodstuffs that, while not wrong or reprehensible, were considered to be slightly ‘unusual’. It wasn’t even for the novelty factor (or maybe only a little bit). Once again that nagging feeling was back. There were more experiences out there that could be just as revelatory as the horse, I just needed to find them. But what was it to be? I considered all the ‘novelty’ meats like alligator and kangaroo but something put me off them. The fact that they were so easily available for one thing, you can go to any number of restaurants in London and try them, plus they were what I suppose you would call exotics, from distant shores, whereas I wanted to try things from a little closer to home.

My inspiration arrived soon after, from two sources within a very short space of time. I was talking to my friend JD about my little project and he remembered a piece he had read by Julian Barnes in the Guardian Review section. In it he describes a conversation with a game butcher about what meats they can provide him with. Obviously the list is the usual game fare such as partridge, pheasant and venison, but something catches his attention: the last type of meat on their list is squirrel, whole or filleted. He asks the butcher the difference, only to be told that most people prefer to buy it in fillets, as whole ‘it looks just like a squirrel, only with no fur’ YIKES! So of course Julian buys some, but never gets round to cooking it. For shame!

This is where my inspiration comes in. Squirrel, a natural, indigenous creature, nothing fancy at all, but how would I find some? Of course a good journalist would have a contact number or address for the supplier at the end of the article, but no such luck. So I had to set out on my own.

My first stop was Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s biblically proportioned River Cottage Cookbook a how-to manual for the self sufficient. An incredibly useful book that I thought must have some leads for me, and indeed it did, two: Yorkshire Game couldn’t help, they could provide me with all sorts of venison, rabbit, pigeon, or hare….but no squirrel. The other was a shop in Kingston called The Game Larder – listed in the book as supplying squirrel, but unfortunately they never answered the phone, and since then I’ve been told that they have closed down. So then, a blank drawn there, but hey, I’ve got the whole internet at my disposal, it must be easy to find someone to sell me squirrel, right?

Not so, unfortunately. I contacted an organization called The Guild of Fine Foods, who I found by googling ‘squirrel recipes’. Unfortunately they couldn’t help either. Their representative who emailed me back gave me two options, the first was a company called Osgrow (www.osgrow.com) which looked promising – a company specialising in unusual meats. Yes, they could supply me with eland (a type of antelope). Yes, they could supply me with rattlesnake, or bison. But Squirrel? No, sorry. The other suggestion from the Guild themselves was to get an air rifle and ‘pop one off’ myself. I did contemplate this, but the thought of what a Walthamstow squirrel may well be eating put me off somewhat.

My next stop was at a message board I subscribe to, initially a request for information on squirrel came up with a blank, but then I found a response from a former gamekeeper’s assistant from Devon who used to shoot the rodents on an estate and sell the victims at a whopping £15 per pound in the estate shop and sell out every day! Unfortunately this and the fact that squirrel are a bugger to skin was all the country gentleman could impart. It seemed that the purchase of squirrel in this country was a darn site harder than I had ever imagined that it would be.

So there I was, back to square one. Does anyone have Julian Barnes’ email address?

To Be Continued…

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