In recent years, you'll have noticed a rush for food to be deployed as a status symbol, if not in your own circles then certainly on television. We've seen gold-plated burgers, a £150 bacon sandwich, and silly servings of caviar running into tens of thousands of pounds. It's all total nonsense, of course, shimmering bait for stupid rich people, and marketing ammunition for brands that really should know better. And it seems all the more amusing this week, when I discover that the bottom-feeder of a rodent I am supposed to be writing about is in such high demand and short supply that it's off the menu, almost unobtainable, just like those elusive gold-plated burgers.
I'm talking roadkill cuisine at its least glamorous: grey squirrels. The furry, bushy-tailed critters turn out to be one of the most ethical meats you can eat right now, if you can get your hands on one. I was lured into the towering jungle of the City of London to try some squirrel dishes at The Jugged Hare, a swish pub lurking in the shadow of the Barbican, which serves a wide selection of game.
I'm a fearless eater and had accepted the invitation without hesitation. But as the date draws near, I begin to doubt the merits of eating rodents nourished on the detritus of my own street: stale bread, rotting veg, dirty nappies, the dregs of a can of Special Brew…
Head chef Stephen Englefield stems my rising panic. His squirrels have led an enviable existence, bouncing around Yorkshire, scampering from branch to bough unburdened by traffic pollution and vicious dogs. Englefield is planning a week-long squirrel takeover at the pub. He'll rename it The Jugged Squirrel to raise awareness about eating grey squirrels and saving their red cousins – numbers are at an all-time low and experts fear they might be extinct in the UK in 10 years. Meanwhile, grey squirrels proliferate, taking up much-needed habitat as well as being a nuisance to humans.
Englefield has squirrel on the menu whenever he can get some, and sells 30 or 40 a week. They have a light, gamey flavour, he explains, almost nutty (you are what you eat) and go well with all of the typical game accompaniments – berries, quince, winter veg. He tends to braise them whole.
The first course of squirrel croquettes (£9.50) is so good I'm able to forgive the wooden board it's served on. Three conker-sized croquettes sit among a hopscotch of succulent squirrel loin, juicy bacon, bright butternut squash and a thick chutney as sharp as the squirrel is sweet and tender.
Next comes a deep plate of the butteriest brown-butter mash and a braised squirrel – the tiny beast in its entirety, bathed in a generous slick of hazelnut gravy (£17). Englefield recommends getting our hands dirty: my friend crunches his way through the skeleton while I try to lick clean each bone.
It's all delicious. You'd be a fool not to rush down there and order one for yourself. Except that squirrel supply, like summer, is affected by the rainy days we've been having. Apparently, they've all gone into hibernation early, and Steve can't source enough to put on his special squirrel week.Reuse content