Bushy-tailed serendipity rules. There I was, digging out my copy of Robert Owen Brown’s Crispy Squirrel, Vimto Trifle to check out what, as ghost writer, I’d written about the origin of Eccles cakes – for a review of a new biography of 18th century cookery writer/force of nature Elizabeth Raffald – and realising the book is a decade old this year. I still remember the legal worries we had about Vimto challenging the use of their brand name and my own stickler qualms that really it should not be ‘Crispy’ but ‘Crisp’.
In the same week I spotted on social media one of those weary local newspaper clickbait forays – ‘The Manchester restaurant serving up WLD SQUIRREL to adventurous diners’. The story claimed: “For many, it was seen as a culinary step too far, with some urging the restaurant to ‘please leave the squirrels alone’. Others said they drew the line at ‘creamy rodent stew’, but there were also a fair few who were keen to give it a taste.”
The admirable Street Urchin in Ancoats weren’t exactly skinning endangered red squirrels for the pot, just taking a sustainable approach to the over-abundant grey variety, duplicating pretty much (with interesting twists) Rob’s Southern-fried recipe that put the crispy into deep-fried rodent parts. See below.
Street Urchin chef/patron Kevin Choudhary at Street Urchin has subtly modified his take on buttermilk fried rabbit since the press exposure, partnering it with home-made black pudding, puy lentils, wild garlic and pickled blackberry salad.
Earthy flavours there to echo squirrels’ woodland habitat. 20 years ago Fergus Henderson gave it his own ‘nose to bushy tail’ treatment, braising it with bacon and porcini. That was at his St John restaurant alongside London’s Smithfield Market, which I’m sure didn’t trade in squirrel meat.
The best place to buy it (as recommended in Crispy Squirrel) is the Wild Meat Company in Woodbridge, Suffolk, though I‘ve just checked with their website and it’s fur-on only at the moment, not the ‘oven ready’. Rachel Choudhary tells me squirrel is available from their supplier, the Cartmel Valley Game. Her husband Kevin once worked for Robert Owen Brown, who in turn is an acolyte of Fergus Henderson. From little acorns, as they say.
Whatever your source, do bear in mind it tis one whole squirrel per person. The only substantial fleshy bit is the haunch. Otherwise, it tastes like a subtler version of rabbit with the same low carbon footprint and available the year round.
The Wild Meat Company suggest an alternative recipe to make the most out of this lean beast – roasting it with squash sage or hazelnuts. Or maybe give it the ragu treatment.
Still there remains a taboo feel to squirrel. Like badger hams, horse meat or Mexican mole (oh, no, that’s something quite different). Mountain folk in America’s Deep South are not so squeamish, even if the racoon (different family from the squirrel) apparently makes better eating.
Not that everyone subscribes. US President Calvin Coolidge was sent a raccoon from Mississippi to be served at the 1926 White House Thanksgiving dinner. Rescued from that rocky fate, Rebecca was kept as a pet by First Lady Grace Coolidge.