Mary Tutwiler

A squirrel in every pot

by Mary Tutwiler

A new environmental campaign has caught fire in England. And where there’s fire, there’s stew. Squirrel stew to be exact. The gray squirrel, introduced in England from North America over a century ago, is overrunning the habitat of the native red squirrel (think of Beatrix Potter’s beloved red Squirrel Nutkin). Gamekeepers and hunters are taking aim, and chefs have taken the tiny furry interlopers into their three star kitchens.

At least that’s the story the New York Times is telling this morning. It’s reminiscent of Louisiana’s culinary campaign to save the wetlands by eating more nutria. Remember nutria jerky? How many of the Ind’s readers still eat, if they ever did, nutria sauce piquante? Frankly, as a curious diner, I have eaten many “alternative” meats, squirrel and nutria included. I prefer nutria by a long shot. The meat is clean and white, reminiscent of rabbit. Unlike squirrel, nutria is easy to bag. Unlike squirrel, a single nutria will feed a family of five. Unlike squirrel, nutria is easy to skin. And unlike squirrel, nutria is not so cute and cuddly looking, even as a furry web-footed baby.

At a squirrel tasting, the NYT reports, Nichola Fletcher, a British food writer found “their lovely flavor tasted of the nuts they nibbled.” But upon her next encounter with squirrel, she wrote that they had “a greasy texture and unpleasant taste.” Chef Fergus Henderson, of London’s restaurant St. John told the NYT he sometimes prepares his squirrels “to recreate the bosky woods they come from,” braising them with bacon, “pig’s trotter, porcini and whole peeled shallots to recreate the forest floor.” He serves it with wilted watercress “to evoke the treetops.”

Lyrical. I think in these difficult times maybe it’s time for Louisiana to give nutria another try. And we can kill two or three invasive exotics with one dish. Imagine a roast of nutria, stuffed with zebra mussels and apple snails to recreate the deteriorating marshes they come from, smoked over a fire of tree-smothering kudzu and served on a bed of wilted hydrilla, to evoke our weed-choked lakes. Bon appetite.