Le Cordon Bleurgh

Keen to do his bit for the planet, Damien McCrystal forages alternative meats from the hedgerows and skies for his open-minded guests

By Damien McCrystal

February 14 2023

There are some things that most people just won’t eat. If you have a terror of rats, as most Europeans do – because they live in cities and towns where aggressive, incontinent rats invade their homes – then a reluctance to eat that meat is understandable. But for a lot of wildlife, this makes no sense. There’s not much difference in flavour between various types of bird, just as there isn’t between different mammals. And, with the exception of pets, most people don’t come into close contact with either.

At a guess, once we turned from hunters to farmers, we lost our appetite for wild creatures because they were harder to catch and kill. The advent of the motor car could have reintroduced more primitive food through cooking roadkill, but cars appeared around the same time that food hygiene and refrigeration began to make their mark, so the squished remains of birds, bunnies and badgers were left to the crows.

It seems a waste, particularly if you don’t like the thought of mass-reared, artificially-fattened, drug and hormone-fed zombie meats at the supermarket. That’s why I fill a few freezers with the stuff most other people shrink from in disgust. (Except rats.) Eating sustainable wildlife, particularly invasive creatures like grey squirrels, is good for the planet and may help us from burning to a crisp, if you believe we’re heading that way. For the authentic experience, we should impale such creatures on sticks and rotate them above a campfire until they
are cooked-through and charred. But to enjoy them, less Palaeolithic cooking techniques are advised.

I taught myself how to cook vermin and roadkill out of curiosity, and there are plenty of websites and recipe books to help the uninitiated, such as Ernest Matthew Mickler’s White Trash Cooking and BR Peterson’s Original Roadkill Cookbook.

For my last such dinner, I served an interesting array of food: game bird hearts and livers; roe deer heart and liver; one jay; two magpies; two squirrels and a roadkill badger. We started with pumpkin and pheasant-stock soup: I simmered the one in the other, added seasoning, then blended and considered adding some chopped mouse meat for texture, but on searching the traps only one was found and it was a bit smelly. A shame, as it would have been nice to present an a-mouse bouche.

The deer and game-bird offal dishes were also dead easy. To make two patés, I chopped the meat coarsely, fried it in butter and sweated onions, added herbs and a splash of brandy, then put everything into the food processor, leaving enough time to cool before serving.

Now came the jay, and given its small size, croquettes seemed the perfect vehicle, as well as being simple. First, I sweated some finely-chopped onions in butter in a pan, then added finely-diced jay breast with a little salt and pepper, stirring for even cooking. Next I boiled a medium-sized potato and mashed it with the jay, onions, butter, grated parmesan and half a beaten egg. Divided into six pieces and moulded into croquettes, I chilled them in the fridge. Shortly before serving, I rolled them in flour, dipped them in the other half of the beaten egg (with a teaspoon of milk whisked in) and finally in breadcrumbs, flattening the croquettes slightly and frying in a shallow mixture of butter and light olive oil until both sides were golden brown.

“Mag” pies with red wine and herbs in a shortcrust pastry, decorated with beak
“Mag” pies with red wine and herbs in a shortcrust pastry, decorated with beak

Grey squirrel was next. They have very tough skins, particularly if they are old, so skinning them requires a sharp knife and strong thumbs. I skin just the back half (chopping off the rear feet first to make skinning easier), because the haunches are the only bits with enough meat to make it worthwhile. De-boning, cutting into small pieces (but not so small as to lose the meaty texture) and dusting with flower was the work of moments. To support the main act, I gently fried julienned carrots, celery and potatoes in butter with a splash of white wine until soft, added curry powder, mixed herbs and then the floured chopped squirrel. The whole lot went into a small covered casserole dish in a medium oven for an hour. Note: this can be cooked on the hob, but squirrel stinks a bit when it’s cooking whereas the oven absorbs the smell very well and makes family breakdown less likely.

For the next dish – “mag” pies – I greased a six-hole muffin tin and lined it with shortcrust pastry, then stiffened it in the fridge. The magpie mix was made in much the same way as the squirrel, but using red wine and fresh herbs as well as peas. After popping a pastry lid on the pies (topped with beaks), I gave them an eggwash and cooked them in a medium oven for 25-35 minutes.

The survivalist’s pantry – hedgerow meats, roadkill and random field finds
The survivalist’s pantry – hedgerow meats, roadkill and random field finds

The badger was easy to butcher as I had been given one already skinned and gutted. Raw, it smelt remarkably like dry-aged beef. I made three hams – a large one from the haunches and two smaller ones from a mixture of shoulder and saddle. I rolled, tied, and encased them in elasticated netting and soaked them for a week in brine with bay leaves and peppercorns. Then I soaked them briefly in fresh water, wrapped them in cellophane and popped them in the freezer.

For dinner, I simmered one of the smaller ones for 45 minutes, left it to cool for ten minutes, then carved it into thin slices, served with mustard. The verdict? My guests enjoyed comparing the different flavours of the two patés, deciding that the game-bird offal was richer. The pumpkin and pheasant-stock soup was considered very tasty and all the better for not containing mouse. The jay croquettes were delicious, they said, and they were puzzled that they had never heard of anyone eating jay before. The squirrel curry’s mild taste was a surprise – everyone expected something very gamey – and the “mag” pies were voted “rich and tasty”. The badger ham, however, drew mixed reviews.The texture was similar to pork ham – drier but not too dry – and salted beef or lamb. “Fascinating,” said one guest, after a pause. “The overall flavour is delicious, but there is an extra note that is not altogether welcome.” He was right. I wondered if it was a bit of bovine TB, or the remnants of a farmer’s gassing. On reflection, I think that extra note was freezer burn.