A scrabble of squirrels in the office ceiling (scrabble is my newly minted collective noun for these pesky critters) led to reflections on their edibility. Dormice and, possibly, hamsters can be fattened up for Christmas, so why not squirrels?
Squirrels belong to a family of small or medium-sized rodents called the Sciuridae. It includes tree squirrels, ground squirrels, chipmunks, marmots (including woodchucks), flying squirrels, and prairie dogs. Squirrels are indigenous to the Americas, Eurasia, and Africa and have been introduced to Australia. Squirrels originated some 40 million years ago and among living species are most closely related to the mountain beaver and dormouse. And, yes, they are edible, as any backwoodsman knows.
The word squirrel comes from the Anglo-Norman esquirel via the Old French escurel and the Latin word sciurus. This was itself borrowed from the Ancient Greek skiouros, which means shadow-tailed. From which I deduce that the Greeks had a problem with squirrels in their Attica.
In England several shops sell squirrel meat for the pot (or oven). The grey squirrel, the prolific American cousin of Britain’s endangered red variety, is leaping off the shelves faster than hunters can shoot them, with butchers gamely struggling to keep up with demand. At Ridley’s in Corbridge, Northumberland, squirrels have been selling like wildfire since 2008. “I wasn’t sure at first,” owner David Ridley said, “and wondered would people really eat it. Now I take every squirrel I can get my hands on. I’ve had days when I have managed to get 60 and they’ve all sold straight away.” Ridley likened the taste to a cross between duck and lamb. “It’s moist and sweet because, basically, its diet has been berries and nuts,” he said (“The ultimate ethical meal: a grey squirrel”, by Caroline Davies in The Guardian 11 May 2008).
One recipe cautions that squirrels have scent glands in the small of the back and under the forelegs and thighs which must first be removed without cutting into them. The fat on the squirrel is usually very spare and most people do not object to its flavour. Squirrels can be successfully cooked using all good recipes for chicken, except that fat should be added. Young, tender squirrels can be fried, broiled, and roasted; older squirrels need to be simmered, fricasseed, or braised. Good squirrel meat is medium red in colour and has a slightly gamey taste. Only the oldest and toughest squirrels need parboiling.
One squirrel dish is Brunswick stew, a traditional dish popular in the American South. In some parts (particularly the Carolinas) it is known as “hash” and served over rice. The recipe for Brunswick stew varies but it is usually tomato-based and contains lima or butter beans, corn, okra, and other vegetables, and one or more types of meat. Most recipes claiming authenticity call for squirrel or rabbit meat. It would be an unusual course for Christmas Dinner (and a little parsimonious), but something to try out at a church rummage and bake. And that reminds me.
A Presbyterian, a Methodist and a Catholic church in a small country town were all overrun by squirrels. The Presbyterians called a meeting to decide what to do. After much prayer and deliberation they determined that the squirrels were predestined to be there and they shouldn’t interfere with the Divine Will. The Methodists got together and decided that they should not harm any of God’s creatures, so they humanely trapped the squirrels and set them free a few miles outside town. Three days later, the squirrels were back. It was only the Catholics who were able to come up with an effective solution: they baptized the squirrels and now only see them at Christmas and Easter.