Tastes like chicken? (There'll always be an England.)
I'm nobody's idea of a vegan, but I'm not the biggest meat eater in the world. When I do eat meat, maybe once or twice a week, it's pretty pedestrian fare: chicken, turkey, steak, hamburg, pork, bacon. Rabbit's okay, but I wouldn't seek it out. Venison, anyone? No thanks: too gamey. One time I ordered brain by mistake. I was in Paris, and recalled enough of my high school French to recognize the veau was "calf/veal". But I fell down on the cervelle. Cervelle, when it arrived on the table, looked like a big spaghetti bowl full of gum that I had extruded through the gap between my front teeth. It did not taste like chicken. It actually didn't taste like anything. (Mon dieu, you didn't think I was not going to eat it, did you? And admit to that imperious French waiter that I had made a mistake? What do you think I am, fou or something?)
At least in England, the menu is as God intended it: in English.
So while you may be making a mistake by ordering anything, you don't have to know that rognon means kidney. Kidney pie is kidney pie. And mutton, well, mutton's mutton. (Blechh.)
Meat choice has taken a new turn in England these days - a turn that brings to mind Jed Clampett more than it does, say, Henry the VIII.
What's cookin' over there these days, says the NY Times, is squirrel.
And not just any old squirrel.
No, in what us Yanks can only interpret as a bit of a slam, the Brits are focused on gray squirrels, a North American import that is apparently wreaking havoc with the native population of adorable little red squirrels - as in Beatrix Potter's adorable little Squirrel Nutkin. The reds, it seems, are being preyed upon and overwhelmed by their American cousins.
Now, I understand that comparative squirrel cuteness is completely subjective and arbitrary, but I've got to give the cuteness nod here to the Brits. That little red squirrel looks like a completely adorable little bunny rabbit-ish thing. (Those ears!) Our pal, the gray squirrel, while moderately cute, bears a disturbingly close resemblance to a rat on steroids.
Whatever the cuteness merits of various versions of squirrels, there's a movement apaw in England to save the red squirrel by getting rid of the gray squirrel. And in conscientious waste-not-want-not mode, some are taking to actually eating the gray squirrels.
Squirrel cuisine has been tried once before, during World War II, but the British valiantly resisted. Stiff upper lip, perhaps combined with wobbly lower stomach. Or maybe squirrel in that era meant eating red squirrel, and the English may have felt better dead than red.
These days, however, in farmers’ markets, butcher shops, village pubs and elegant restaurants, squirrel is selling as fast as gamekeepers and hunters can bring it in.
“Part of the interest is curiosity and novelty,” said Barry Shaw of Shaw Meats, who sells squirrel meat at the Wirral Farmers Market near Liverpool. “It’s a great conversation starter for dinner parties.”
Well, yes, I can imagine it is quite the conversation starter.
"I say, old chap, just what is in this soup?"
These days, it may well be a squirrel that was either culled because there are too many squirrels to begin with, racing around what is still a small island with some limits to growth, or because the grays are beating the squirrel-ish crap out of the reds when it comes to domination.
The grays take over the reds’ habitat, eat voraciously and harbor a virus named squirrel parapox (harmless to humans) that does not harm grays but can devastate reds. (Reports indicate, though, that the reds are developing resistance.)
Embarrassing as it is to admit it, this sure does sound like the image of the Ugly American, doesn't it? (Parapox aside. Of course there was the matter of smallpox....)
Enter the market for gray squirrel meat. (Forget real food for real people, they've got a pithy motto of their own: “Save a red, eat a gray!”)
Which is now recipe'd in cookbooks, sold in farmers' markets, and cooked up on foodie TV. Someone's even created a version akin to Peking duck.
As with all foods (other than, perhaps, chocolate), some folks love the taste, others don't.
Nichola Fletcher, a food writer and co-owner of a venison farm, held a squirrel tasting for Britain’s Guild of Food Writers, finding “their lovely flavor tasted of the nuts they nibbled.” At a later event, however, she found the flavor disappointing, with “a greasy texture and unpleasant taste,” presumably reflecting these squirrels’ diet.
Other than the obvious problem of rodent revulsion, there are a couple of other issues with eating squirrel. For one, they're hard to skin. And there's not all that much meat on them once skinned. (Remember, these are wild animals, not our pumped up, all white meat chicken, factory farm food stuffs that are approaching the size of an ostrich.)
And you have to make sure not to eat the head, as squirrel brains may carry "the human form of mad cow disease." (Why do I think that no one's going to have to warn me twice about eating squirrel head?)
In any case, the taste of squirrel has been likened to "a slightly oily rabbit." And since rabbit tastes like chicken...
Well, there you have it.