As I’ve mentioned on lots of previous occasions in this column, one of the most important things for us is both where and how we source our ingredients for the menus we serve in the restaurant.
In reality it is probably the most important thing that I do as a chef and it’s surprisingly difficult. The easy part, if you can call it that, is coming up with the dish, but finding the right ingredients that meet your exacting standards to give you that creative starting point takes time.
So, when one of our suppliers got in touch to let me know that they had an excess of a new ingredient that we’ve never used before I was intrigued. Indeed, even more so when I discovered that it also happened to be from Cumbria, is widely available and is a by-product of specific land management processes across the county. I really couldn’t believe my luck that a product with local provenance existed that we hadn’t used before.
That product was grey squirrel, and I wasn’t prepared for people’s reactions when we included it in the snack section of the menu. Most chefs will agree there are certain ingredients that act as a trigger for people when they are included in a menu. Put oysters on and suddenly you discover there are lots of people with shellfish allergies. Alongside that there also seem to be lots of people who claim they can’t eat offal, but oddly they seem quite happy to eat a trace amount when we’ve got duck liver on the menu. Squirrel though seems to have elicited a completely different reaction.
We’ve served rabbit for years as a starter, and then more recently as snack, so I assumed replacing it with squirrel wouldn’t be a particularly big deal, in many ways it actually isn’t for most people and that’s largely because people haven’t tried it before. It’s fair to say that some of the reactions people have had have been a little dramatic, to the point where my brother Craig appeared on national daytime TV to discuss us using it in our menus, and it even made column inches in several national newspapers!
Fundamentally though, the most important thing about using grey squirrel is that like any ingredient if you treat it with care and respect and cook it correctly it’s delicious, which is why it features in our menu. It’s not there to elicit a reaction of any form of shock value.
I’ll explain a bit more… I’m certainly not the first chef to use the ingredient and I won’t be the last, including the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstal, Ivan Tisdall-Downes, Kevin Tickle, and Paul Wedgwood.
Grey squirrels are a non-native invasive species, introduced by the Victorians to Hanbury Park, Cheshire in 1876, where they flourished, colonising from Cheshire right up into Stirlingshire within the space of 25 years, by contrast our native reds have lived in these islands for over 10,000 years and are on the verge of extinction, largely exacerbated by the arrival of greys, habitat loss and disease.
To illustrate some of the issues Greys have two litters each year, with a doe giving birth on average to between three and six kits each time. Reds by comparison, half the size of their American cousins, generally have between one and three kits per litter. Already we can begin to see where a bit of an issue might emerge. So much so it’s got to the point where there are now roughly 66 greys to every individual native red in the UK.
Many well-to-do landowners keen to impress their friends enthusiastically introduced grey squirrels to their estates and in doing so, into our countryside, the result was a population explosion, with an estimated 2.7 million grey squirrels in the UK today.
Conversely through the loss of habitat, competition for food sources and exposure to squirrel pox, (which greys carry), there are now less than 140,000 red squirrels across the entire United Kingdom according to the Wildlife Trusts figures.
They also love to strip bark from pretty much any native broadleaf tree species, which presents significant problems from a woodland management point of view, especially when their main victims include oak, sycamore, beech, chestnut, birch and willow. They tend to love to have a go at trees between 10 and 40 years old. Stripping the bark allows disease, fungus and other pests to take hold and ultimately either significantly damage the tree or often kill it. As you can imagine, that possesses a significant threat to whole sections of our native populations of flora and fauna which have an interdependency with those tree species.
Which I would imagine goes some way to explain why grey squirrels are recognised as being in the top 100 worst invasive pest species in the world by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Consequently, the grey population needs to be managed, which is why since 1945 they’ve been pro-actively culled as part of land and forestry management programmes across the country to significantly reduce their numbers and prevent encroachment on the habitats inhabited by reds.
The result of that process is a plentiful supply of wild, free range, protein rich, lean edible meat, which is also low in food miles and as ethical as you can possibly get, which from our point of view is ideal, because we wholeheartedly disagree with any form of factory farming. Which as I mentioned at the start of the article is one of the reasons, I take the time and effort to do my due diligence and thoroughly research the suppliers, farmers and growers we source our produce from.
Thankfully, game dealers up and down the country have cottoned on and increasingly grey squirrel meat is finding its way to the consumer – ultimately if that hadn’t happened it would otherwise have ended up being disposed of, which in my opinion would be a crying shame.
4 Squirrels oven ready
2 carrots peeled and cut into 0.5-inch cubes
1 onion peeled and cut into 0.5-inch cubes
2 sticks of celery washed and cut into 0.5-inch cubes
1 bulb of garlic cut in half.
20g fresh thyme
250ml white wine
2 litre white chicken stock
1 tablespoon of wholegrain mustard
50g bunch of curly parsley
Put a heavy casserole dish on a medium hob and bring up to heat, add a generous splash of oil to the dish, season the squirrel with salt and add to the pan allow the squirrel to colour until they are a light golden colour. Remove from the pan and set aside. Pour away the hot oil.
Add the butter to the casserole dish and once it begins to foam add the carrot, celery and onion. Cook on a medium heat until softened and they begin to colour. Add the white wine to the pan and turn the heat up to full. When the wine has reduced to a glaze, pour in the chicken stock. Add the squirrels, garlic and thyme, bring the stock up to a simmer and place a lid on the dish. Place in a pre-heated oven at 140°C for 90 minutes or until the meat can be easily removed from the bones.
When the Squirrel is cooked, remove from the pan and return the stock to the heat and reduce on a high heat until you have about 100g left. Then strain the stock through a sieve and set aside.
Pick all the meat from the bones and place in a mixing bowl, finely chop the parsley and add to the meat along with the reduced braising stock and mustard. Adjust seasoning with salt
15g fresh yeast
250g strong bread flour
150g soft butter
Make sure the water is at room temperature then add the yeast, sugar, and mix. Put the flour and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer (one suitable for bread making). On a low speed pour the yeast mix into the flour, then add the eggs one at a time, then finally add the soft butter. When mixed remove the dough and place in a clean bowl. Cover with cling film and place in the fridge for a minimum of 6 hour.
Assembly of Squirrel Doughnuts:
Roll the braised squirrel into balls weighing 10g each. With floured hands roll the brioche dough into 20g balls then flatten each to form a disc. Add the squirrel to the centre of each and then gently mould the dough around it so that it is completely wrapped in the dough, then roll in your hands until smooth.
Place each ball onto a sheet of greaseproof paper and when you have made the desired number cover them with lightly oiled cling film and leave at room temperature to double in size.
At this point you can bake them in the oven or cook them in a fryer at 160°C moving them around constantly until they are evenly golden in colour and cooked through.
At the restaurant we serve them with pickled carrot and piccalilli puree.