An Ode to Eating Squirrel
BY Gill Meller
Our pretty red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) used to be a common sight in the UK, that was until the introduction of the much larger, non-native, grey squirrel at the end of the 19th century. Today there’s only an estimated 10,000 – 15,000 red squirrels left in the UK, but over 2.5 million greys.
Grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are now widely established and although many people enjoy their presence, they pose a real threat to our trees and wildlife in general. As a result, their numbers are managed. Organisations such as the Forestry Commission carry out massive culls to control their swelling population, but unfortunately far too much of their meat is wasted, which is a real shame, because it’s absolutely delicious.
Considering we live in a world where the industrialization of meat production for food has become one of the greatest sustainability concerns of our time. And where two thirds of the meat we consume comes from intensive factory farming systems, systems that are not only inhumane, but depend on large quantities of precious resources, such as grain-based feed, water, energy and medication. It would make sense, one might think, to eat more squirrel. I can’t think of many animals that lead such active, natural and healthy lives. They can be found in woodlands and parks and can be eaten all year round, although I find they are best in the autumn.
Eating squirrel is, at last, gaining popularity in the UK with those in the know. You can find the meat oven ready in some butchers, farm shops and from specialist game retailers. On the whole, it is a delicate textured, subtle flavoured meat, that I would liken to good chicken or rabbit. It needs no hanging unlike most game, and as a result doesn’t carry that characteristic strong flavour some people find over powering.
A young squirrel won’t need to be braised or stewed. They can be fried or roasted quickly. The meat will be perfectly tender and juicy. In my recent cookbook ‘Gather’ I’ve included a recipe for roasting squirrel with garlic, pumpkin and sage in the high heat of the oven. It’s a wonderful combination of textures and flavours. There’s also a breakfast rosti. Grated potato and diced squirrel are seasoned and cooked gently in a heavy based pan set over a low heat. I add rosemary, which compliments the dish beautifully. I serve the crisp rosti with fried eggs as a brunch dish and it always goes down well.
Older animals respond really well to low, gentle cooking. One of the most popular slow cooked dishes I make is a squirrel ragù with fresh pasta. It’s rich with tomato, smoked bacon and bay, and really takes some beating. Another brilliant way to use a smaller squirrel is to prepare squirrel and pork rillettes, a twist on the classic French terrine, usually made with pork belly alone. It makes for an intriguing starter with good toast and pickled cucumber. I have a version of this recipe in my website - gillmeller.com
What’s brilliant about any recipe including squirrel, is you can switch it out for equal quantities of rabbit, pheasant or chicken instead. They all respond in a similar way.
If sustainable, ethical food is something that interests you, then I would encourage you to look out for squirrel and join in on promoting its revival to the plate. You should be able to get hold of it through specialist online game dealers. It’s relatively cheap, it’s healthy and nutritious and, to top it all off, it’s completely wild. A win, win ingredient in my book.
Crispy Squirrel with Cauliflower & Capers
I cook this delicate meat with onions, carrots, celery and herbs, very gently, until it’s fork-tender and the meat is falling away from the bone. Then I fry it hard, in shards, with garlic, rosemary and pungent salty capers so that it crisps and caramelises around the edges – a seriously wicked treatment for this hugely underrated wild meat.
1 oven-ready squirrel (about 250g/9oz, jointed on the bone), or 4 pheasant or 2 chicken thighs on the bone, or 1 small rabbit
(jointed) 2 onions
1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
1 celery stick, roughly chopped
2 bay leaves
2 thyme sprigs
1 small knob of butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1⁄2 head of cauliflower (about 400g/14oz), outer leaves removed
2 rosemary sprigs
3–4 teaspoons small capers
1 garlic clove, peeled and very thinly sliced
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 slices of good-quality rustic bread, toasted, to serve
Place the squirrel (or pheasant, chicken or rabbit) into a small– medium pan so that the pieces of meat fit snugly in a single layer. Roughly chop 1 onion and add it to the pan with the carrot, celery, bay leaves and thyme sprigs. Cover with water. Place the pan on a high heat and bring to a simmer. Turn down the heat to low and cook, uncovered, for 11⁄2–2 hours, skimming the cooking liquor occasionally, until the squirrel meat is falling off the bone. Once the meat is ready, strain the cooking liquid into a bowl and reserve. Discard the vegetables and set the squirrel meat aside to cool.
Finely chop the remaining onion. Melt the butter with half the oil in a medium pan over a medium heat. When it’s bubbling, add the onion. Cook gently for 4–5 minutes, until the onion is soft but not coloured. Meanwhile, roughly slice the cauliflower, first trimming and discarding any rough stem. When the onions are softened, add the cauliflower to the pan. Pour over 150ml (5fl oz) of the reserved cooking liquid and place a lid on the pan. Cook for 4–5 minutes, or until the cauliflower is just tender. Transfer to a blender, and blitz to a smooth, velvety purée. Season, then keep warm.
Flake the squirrel meat off the bone, trying to keep it in larger chunks and shards. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a medium frying pan over a high heat, and add the squirrel, chicken or game meat. Fry for 3–4 minutes, until the pieces are starting to crisp around the edges. Tear over the rosemary, add the capers and garlic, stir, and season. Fry for 3–4 minutes, tossing regularly, until the meat is caramelised, then remove from the heat.
Place one slice of toast on each plate, drizzle over some olive oil and spoon the puréed cauliflower over each slice. Top with the squirrel mixture and serve straight away.
Gill Meller has been Head Chef at The River Cottage for 11 years, working closely with the team, teaching at the cookery school, as well as appearing in the television series alongside Hugh. Gill is an accomplished food writer and his cookbook Gather was released to critical acclaim, winning Fortnum and Mason’s award for Best Debut Food Book in 2017. For more information please visit his website at www.gillmeller.com.