In the summer of 1833, Charles Darwin was nearly two years into the Beagle voyage and exploring northern Patagonia when locals told him about a very rare, flightless bird. For the next few months, he searched tirelessly for the creature until the Beagle sailed on. Arriving at the next port, the great naturalist was digesting his dinner one evening when he realised he had just eaten the very animal he had been seeking – and promptly preserved the head, neck, legs, wings and some feathers.
In truth, Darwin's interest in the origin of species had always been rivalled by his curiosity about their flavour. While still at university, he and some friends formed the Glutton Club, which met once a week to eat animals "unknown to human palate". They tried bittern, hawk and barn owl before giving up, as the owl tasted indescribably awful. On the Beagle voyage, he also ate ostrich, armadillo and agouti – a rodent which looks like a large rat.
Darwin's scientific contribution – unseating God as the acknowledged creator of life on earth – is of course well known, but what of his culinary legacy? He was right about natural selection. Did he also have something to teach us about the delights of eating unusual meats? In a spirit of scientific enquiry, I decide to celebrate his bicentenary by performing a small experiment – the revival of the Glutton Club.
Procuring a brace – or bloat – of gluttons is easy. However, finding something suitably exotic for us to eat proves a little harder. Darwin has long been one of controversy's closest friends, and here, too, he makes life difficult. Bittern is out of the question – this wading bird is so rare that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds celebrated last year when they counted 75 breeding males in the entire country. Barn owl and hawk are off the menu for similar reasons. However, there is one Darwin-endorsed delicacy that does seem to be within our grasp: the ostrich.
"What we had for dinner today would sound very odd in England – ostrich dumpling and armadillos," Darwin recorded in his Beagle diary on 18 September 1832. The ostrich, he wrote "would never be recognised as a bird but rather as beef".
Ostrich meat isn't too hard to come by in the UK. Several companies sell it online, either importing their produce from farms in southern Africa or rearing their own. Rachel Godwin, who runs one such company, Alternative Meats, with her business partner Jeanette Edgar, says our appetite for it is growing steadily. "It's less fatty than almost all other meats, including chicken," she says. "And it's much tastier – all you need to do is fry it in some olive oil. We sell hundreds of kilos every week to restaurants and pubs." Because of the quantities involved, she imports her meat from overseas, making sure it meets international standards safeguarding the survival of species.
She sends me and the Gluttons some steaks and I fry them on a griddle pan for a few minutes on each side. They taste heavenly – like beef only racier. The Glutton Club can't eat fast enough. There is only one problem – as one of the Gluttons points out. Strictly speaking, Darwin and friends didn't eat ostrich but its smaller South American cousin, the rhea.
Tracking down this flightless sprinter, and getting it into my cooking pot, proves a much harder task. The Rhea and Emu Association doesn't know of anyone who bred rheas for their meat in the UK any more. I receive a call from a very charming farmer in Abergavenny, who tantalisingly tells me that rhea meat "is among the most tender you are likely to experience". But he, too, has given up the rhea-rearing business. Then, just as all seems lost, David Wellock calls me from Hurries Farm, near Malham, in North Yorkshire.
"I've got 40 rheas, and they produce about the lowest cholesterol meat you can find," he told me. "Our best sellers are probably the rhea burgers, which we make with dried apricots." However, he's all sold out at the moment, and in any case he doesn't do mail order. If you want to try rhea, you'll just have to go and stay in his campsite in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
The availability of home-grown exotic meats is growing. Many farmers, like David Wellock, have tried to diversify into unusual meats, with varying degrees of success. As a result, it is now possible to buy British-reared water buffalo, wild boar and Wagyu cattle (which produce the much drooled-after kobe beef). This meat doesn't come cheap, but it has the advantage of being very low on food miles, and very strong on flavour.
Rachel Godwin (who is a much better guide to the world of unusual meats than Charles Darwin is) sells many of these home-grown products, as well as many flown in from overseas including zebra, crocodile, camel, kangaroo and wildebeest. These foreign imports tend to be cheaper, but are necessarily harder on the planet.
Godwin suggests the Gluttons try something bona fide British. Her and Edgar's real passion is for unusual indigenous British meats. "We want to bring back foods which have been lost from our national diet – birds such as teal and woodcock, meats such as mutton and veal. These products are out there, but they're not easy to get hold of," says Godwin.
Indeed, the variety of meats eaten in the UK used to be much wider before we fell into an industrialised rut with beef, pork, lamb and chicken. "In the medieval period, great birds – herons, cranes and stringy peacocks – were an important part of feast menus," says Kate Colquhoun, author of Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking and The Thrifty Cookbook. "Small birds such as curlew, woodcock, sparrow and linnet were also served, often cooked with their guts and served on toasts to sop up the juices – much as we serve grouse today."
Godwin sends us some teal, a small dabbling duck, which is one of the most unusual British meats. There are no dedicated teal shoots in the country, but it is sometimes bagged on duck shoots. The bird I get is tiny, about the size of my fist, and following Rachel's instructions, I roast it in a hot oven for half an hour. It receives a rapturous response. It was delicious, rich, ducky and tender. "But it's so small," says one Glutton. "A few mouthfuls and it's all gone. It makes you feel a bit guilty."
Alternative meats are absolutely, jaw-droolingly wonderful. But they do tend to come with a distinct aftertaste of 21st-century guilt. What is a contemporary glutton to do? Godwin recommends mutton. It may not be exotic, but it is now rarely eaten in the UK and eating it does help out British farmers.
She sends me Herdwick mutton, which is definitely not mutton dressed as lamb, but rather mutton resplendent after a life spent eating the grasses and heathers of the Lake District. It is gorgeous. Not comforting so much as come-hither. Yum. It seems Darwin was right about one thing – mutton can ease a troubled mind. As the Beagle set out on its epic five-year voyage, he tucked into a lunch of mutton chops and champagne, which he enjoyed so much that he felt a "total absence of sentiment...on leaving England."
Try these Britain's alternative meats
Widely considered to produce the best beef in the world, Japanese Wagyu cattle are now being reared on the Llyn Peninsula, north Wales. The famous flavour is produced by feeding the cows welsh beer, massaging them regularly and letting them eat lots of grass.
Originally from Asia, the water buffalo is now farmed in Britain. Traditionally, the animal has been prized primarily for its milk – the best raw material for mozzarella – but its meat is now being marketed as an alternative to beef.
Wild boar was native to Britain until it was hunted to extinction. Now it has been reintroduced from Eastern Europe, and is farmed free range so the animals can forage.
One of the most popular meats in the world, goat is seldom eaten in the UK. However, a few farmers have started to sell it online. The meat's flavour is somewhere between that of lamb and beef, and it can be roasted, casseroled or curried.
There's a wide range of game available in the UK, including wild rabbit, wood pigeon, guinea fowl and wild mallard, and much of it can be ordered online. Woodcock has been a fixture at British feasts since medieval times and is best cooked whole.
www.alternativemeats.co.uk; www.wildmeat.co.uk (for game); www.chestnutmeats.co.uk (for goat); www.graigfarm.co.uk (for wild boar)