It may not be everyone’s first choice of meat, but squirrel is enjoying a return to plates, driven by a desire for more humane and sustainable dining, and by financial concerns as the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis takes hold.
It’s only relatively recently that squirrel became something people considered unpalatable. People have been eating squirrels for thousands of years, ever since they figured out how to catch them. The meat of the squirrel was a major source of protein for settlers on the frontier of North America, exemplified by the Brunswick stew, a slow-cooked squirrel hot pot with vegetables that may have originated with the Native Americans.
Squirrel features in American cookbooks well into the 20th century. James Beard’s 1972 classic American Cookery included recipes for Brunswick stew (two or three squirrels, veal stock, and half a cup of Madeira, along with corn, lima beans, tomatoes, and okra) and squirrel fricassee.
“Squirrel has long been associated with elegant dining as well as the simple food of the trapper and the nomad,” wrote Beard. Indeed there is evidence to suggest that squirrel was a favourite of Britain’s Queen Victoria.
As time passed, eating squirrel meat became less popular, and it became increasingly linked to poor communities eking out a living in isolated rural communities. A number of misunderstood health scares associated with squirrels in the 20th century also turned people off. Add to that the increased characterisation of squirrels in children’s storybooks, and it quickly fell out of favour as food.
Things have changed in recent times, especially in Britain, where the invasive grey squirrel has completely muscled out the smaller native red squirrel from its habitat. The Save Our Squirrels campaign actively encourages people to eat the grey as part of a wider strategy to better manage red squirrel conservation.
Squirrel meat has virtually no carbon footprint and is, therefore, a much more sustainable choice for meat-eaters. Hunters and wild game enthusiasts are well aware of this, and have also been aware of the deliciousness and health benefits of eating the lean meat. But this appreciation is beginning to be felt more widely.
The Michelin-star restaurant St. John has long been a proponent of squirrel on the plate, and has always featured it on its menu. Chef Fergus Henderson, a pioneer of the British nose-to-tail cooking philosophy, has stuck to his guns throughout, despite negative press coverage. Heston Blumenthal has featured squirrel on the menu of The Fat Duck regularly. And all across the UK, squirrel is popping up on restaurant menus such as at chef Kevin Tickle’s Michelin-starred Lake District restaurant The Forest Side.
Earlier this year, chef Ivan Tisdall-Downes gained national coverage for serving grey squirrel at his Native restaurant at Borough Market in London, and because it was proving extremely popular with customers.
Squirrel Lasagna - Native
“Squirrel is one of the most sustainable proteins you can cook really,” Tisdall-Downes told The Sunday Telegraph. “It is almost exactly the same in taste as rabbit. It's tasty, it's not as gamey as rabbit, it's a nice white meat. It's good to cook down slowly and make stews from, and ragus for lasagne. It's very good for you, it's quite lean.
“There are 5 million grey squirrels and only about 150,000 red squirrels at the moment, a record low. Because there aren't really any predators left for the grey squirrels, the population is booming and they are taking over the red squirrel habitat."
There does, however, remain strong opposition to the practice of squirrel eating. Organisations such as PETA, while never condoning the consumption of wild game, recognises that it is a more humane and sustainable option than factory-farmed meat. Yet individuals do feel strongly opposed to the promotion of eating any kind of meat, and are against the promotion of any kind of new meat source when the imperative for the environment and animal welfare calls for a reduction in all meat consumption.
Welsh TV chef Chris Roberts, famous for his cooking over fire, launched an appeal to find 40 grey squirrels for a Christmas feast of squirrel empanadas he was planning. He would have been able to easily locate the meat from butchers in England, but he was looking for local squirrels with no carbon footprint. The chef was subjected to an online backlash and not just from vegan and vegetarian activists.
“The backlash I’ve had is bonkers because I’ve been criticised by people who eat meat,” he said.