First catch your squirrel
Mr Nutkins has made his way on to the menu of one London restaurant. So, asks Michael Bateman, why can't we have horseburgers and real hot dogs?
Sunday 10 March 2002
Squirrel is on the menu at St John, a restaurant near London's Smithfield market, and it's delicious – like tender wild rabbit, braised with bacon and dried porcini mushrooms, musky flavours to echo its woodland habitat. But some might prefer to steer clear – because it borders on taboo.
To some, squirrels are thought of as rats with bushy tails; to others the rodent in the garden or park is almost a pet. Put those groups together and you get a good number who find the meat stomach-churning.
What is and isn't OK to eat is in our minds now as the World Cup in Korea approaches, and fans face the prospect of dogmeat. The sport's governing body, Fifa, wants it banned near stadiums, but many Koreans don't accept that the meat should be taboo. Professor Yong-Geun Ann, a nutritionist at South Korea's Chungchong College, insists it is not only tasty but healthy too – lower in cholesterol that pork, chicken and beef, and more digestible.
I asked Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who once cooked a human placenta on television, to give me his thought on food taboos. He was quick to establish that he could never eat meat if cruelty had been involved. This is a hot topic with dogmeat – dogs are often kept and slaughtered in the most inhumane manner, hung or beaten. What about eating other cute, furry friends? "I deplore sentimentality," he says. He loves squirrel meat. And things that creep and crawl? Apparently there are folk out there who eat woodlice – in fritters – so why not? People seem squeamish about eating land insects, but not similar sea creatures, he adds.
Some taboos are important. The trade in bushmeat, for example, is illegal because it threatens extinction of many of Africa's apes. But even the more illogical taboos are adhered to, even by serious gourmands – like the diners at London's Club Gascon. Fois gras, the liver of geese enlarged by overfeeding with maize, is considered cruel by many, but it's a favourite with the clientele at the exquisite French restaurant. Still, chef Pascal Aussignac knows he could not dare to put horsemeat on the menu. "But I love it, it's my big passion," he says. "It's tender and soft and cuts like butter. When I was a child in La Rochelle, it was very popular, more so than steak. It tastes like venison but less gamey." But even his South African girlfriend is repelled by it. The strictest taboos, it seems, are reserved for animals we might keep as pets.
As for me, I'll stick with wood squirrel. Fergus Henderson, chef at St John's, started cooking it after his mother saw the critters in her local Wiltshire butcher. And that's where it's best to find it – by asking your local game butcher, especially in the countryside. He may be able to get some, or put you in touch with a farmer with a good shot. Try Henderson's recipe, for the less sentimental among us.
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Man bites dog
It is thought that 10 per cent of people in Korea eat dogmeat, mainly as poshintang, a brothy stew. A million dogs are bred for the table each year and 6,000 restaurants have them on the menu. It's thought of as a centuries-old part of the culture, but opponents, such as the Korea Animal Protection Society, say dogmeat became common after the Korean war, during widespread starvation. Technically the meat is illegal, but recently there were moves to reclassify dogs as livestock.
Off the hoof
In France, horsemeat is often cooked like steak, peppered or with a bearnaise sauce. Despite accepting frogs' legs and snails, the UK has not taken to the introduction of horsemeat. In 2000, Le Tigre et la Grenouille, a French restaurant in London's Bethnal Green, put it on the menu, only to provoke angry headlines such as this: "This is Sophie, a beautiful four-year-old horse whose only problem is that she cannot run fast enough for her French owners. Her fate? A dinner plate in a chic London restaurant."
In the Philippines, balut is made by keeping new-laid, fertilised duck eggs warm for around 16 days, while the embryo develops inside. Then it is eaten, including the unhatched chick. It's certainly no rarity – the country's street vendors serve it from dawn until midnight.
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In his book, A Cook's Tour, Anthony Bourdain visits a Saigon restaurant specialising in snake. The chef kills a 4ft cobra at his table, handing him the still-beating heart to swallow like an oyster. It tasted of nothing much, apparently, though a glass of serpent's blood mixed with wine was "like the juice from rare roast beef", and a glass of green bile was "bitter, sour, evil".
Seal flipper pie – a traditional dish of Newfoundland, Canada – has hit the silver screen in The Shipping News. The flippers are fatty, but once soaked in water and baking soda, the fat turns white and is removed. Then it's cooked with pork and turned into a pie. Not popular with environmentalists.
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