The pretty red squirrel used to be 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 10000 to 15000 red squirrels left in the UK, but over 2.5 million greys.
Grey squirrels 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. Organizations such as the Forestry Commission carry out massive culls to control their swelling population, but unfortunately far too much of the meat is wasted, which is a real shame, because squirrel meat is 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, 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.
Squirrel is, at last, gaining popularity in the UK with those in the know. You can find oven-ready meat at some butchers, farm shops, and from specialist game retailers. On the whole, it is a delicate-textured, subtly-flavored meat that I would liken to good chicken or rabbit. It needs no maturing, unlike most game, and as a result doesn’t carry that characteristic strong flavor some people find overpowering. You can use it in equal quantities in recipes that call for rabbit, pheasant, or chicken. They all respond in a similar way.
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 flavors. 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. 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’m not sure if it’s found favor in the United States again yet. There was a time when it was very highly regarded in America. In fact you could find squirrel recipes in American cookbooks well into the 20th century. James Beard’s Classic American Cookery included recipes for Brunswick stew (a squirrel-based braise) and squirrel fricassee. It was hugely popular within rural communities where hunting and fishing provided the bulk of their protein. The development of more sophisticated hunting methods allowed much bigger game to be taken, and as such the squirrel became a forgotten food.
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. Available all year round, but best eaten in the autumn. You should be able to get hold of it through specialist online game dealers. It’s relatively cheap, it’s nutritious, and to top it all off, it’s completely wild. A win, win ingredient in my book.
For more squirrel recipes, take a look here:
Gather: Everyday Seasonal Food from a Year in Our Landscapes is available wherever books are sold.
Tell us: Have you cooked with squirrel?