Game is incredibly popular around here, we have the fantastic Game Auction that takes place every Tuesday morning at the Cattle Market. You never really know whats going to make an appearance hanging on the rails – wild boar, deer, hare, woodcock, partridge, squirrel, it’s a real mixed bag. The squirrels normally go for between 50p and £1 depending on the crowd. Yesterday I popped into town to pick up a newspaper and grab a brandy hot chocolate from the guy on the market, next to him was Picks Organic Farm who raise all their own meat and the quality of their beef is absolutely fantastic. I asked if they had any veal sweetbreads at all and was met with the reply: “no, people are still a bit funny about veal… but we’ve got squirrel”. Done, I said, I’ll take the squirrels instead.
Having only had squirrel as part of a mixed game pie before I wasn’t entirely sure about the flavours. I’d heard they took on a nutty flavour due to their diet so thought a nice nutty Amontillado sherry would help bring that out. I had a look online to see if there were any recipes to use as a guide but failed to find any so decided to wing it. I didn’t want the squirrel to be overpowered by any other really strong flavours so kept it all pretty simple and made it up as I went along.
Ingredients (made 2 generously filled pies)
2 local wild grey squirrels, skinned, gutted and cleaned
1 red onion, finely diced
3/4 carrot, finely diced
1 stick celery, finely diced
2 garlic cloves
About 10 mushrooms finely sliced
1 tblsp rapeseed oil ( a good nutty one, I use Chiltern Cold Pressed)
2 thyme sprigs
Large wine glass Amontillado Sherry
Chicken stock (enough to cover the squirrels)
1 beaten egg to glaze
Put your oil in a saucepan then add the onion, carrot and celery and fry gently to soften then add the garlic and a large knob of butter and the mushrooms and continue to cook gently for about a minute before adding the 2 whole squirrels. Allow the squirrels to just brown then add the thyme, sherry, hazelnuts and enough chicken stock to just cover, pop a lid on the saucepan and simmer really gently for about 30mins. I had intended to cook it long and slow as its hard to tell the age of a squirrel and the older ones are tough but after 30 minutes the meat was really tender so decided to remove the squirrels and put to one side to cool.
I then reduced the saucepan contents to intensify and thicken. Whilst this was happening I rolled out my shortcrust pasty, lined 2 small casserole dishes and baked them blind in the oven for 20 mins (filled with tinfoil and rice). The stock was reducing well but it needed a little extra thickening so in went some more butter that I had squished some flour into to make a quick beurre maniè.
Now that the squirrels had cooled I stripped the meat off and added it back into the saucepan and seasoned with some salt and pepper. Once the pastry was ready I gave the insides a quick brush with beaten egg, filled them with the squirrel mixture then brushed around the edges before popping a puff pastry lid on each one, creating a little hole in the centre to let the steam escape and then brushing with more beaten egg. These then went back in the oven for about 15mins until the lids were all puffed up beautifully. Once taken out of the oven I just turned them upside down and they fell out of their little casserole pots.
I had been tasting as I went so I knew that it would be nice but I was still surprised by just how nice it was. The nutty sherry brought out the flavour of the squirrel and allowed it to really shine. The hazelnuts had softened but still had a bit of bite to them which was lovely against the tender meat and crisp pastry. I served the pies with a buttery mash and a dollop of good horseradish sauce on the side. The horseradish worked so well with the pie that next time I might just add the tinniest amount to the pie mix.
There was a mixed reaction from people on Twitter and Facebook in regards to eating squirrel, with the overwhelming majority being hugely enthusiastic and positive about this wild, sustainable meat. Many people shared my view that eating more grey squirrels can only be a good thing to encourage the return of our native red squirrel which has sadly been almost wiped out by the American grey impostor.
I grew up in Hong Kong where we ate things like chicken feet, intestines and trotters with gusto and you picked your seafood from a tank to be whisked away to the kitchen only to return minutes later cooked to perfection and served on a platter. I was asked on Twitter if, seeing as I was happy to eat squirrel, would I also eat cat? Well, no I wouldn’t but apart from the fact that I prefer not to eat my pets, it’s is also because I like my meat to have dined on a vegetarian diet (although I do eat chickens that have been running around fields snaffling slugs and worms). My partner refuses to eat octopus as he says they are far too intelligent to eat, I on the other hand love octopus and eat it with relish. Everyone has their own views over what animals they do or don’t eat and why, and for those who love game I cannot recommend squirrel enough. I for one will be making this dish many times over, and if you do decide to give it a go then please do let me know how you get on. Happy cooking!