Snappy snacks: Why settle for chicken when you could graze on ostrich, crocodile or water buffalo?

Exotic meats may sound a bit strange – but they're deeply delicious

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

Kobe Beef

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.

Water buffalo

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

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.; (for game); (for goat); (for wild boar)

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
A boy holds a chick during the Russian National Agricultural Exhibition Golden Autumn 2014 in Moscow on October 9, 2014.
Life and Style
love + sex
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle v United 1 player ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot