Just a tick after 9 a.m. Tuesday last I succeeded first time out at something my dog Bonko has been working at with unavailing passion for the greater part of his adult life: I sank my teeth angrily into the succulent hind leg of a common squirrel. All right, all right—to be fair to the dog, I should concede that unlike his dream rodent, mine was not dancing in the branches above, its demeanour mocking—rather it was inert. Okay, it was deceased, skinned, drawn, quartered and cooked à point.
My squirrel breakfast actually consisted of only a single hind leg, perched in a come-hither pose on top of a slice of boudin noir and another of seared foie gras. Beneath that there was a disc of intensely flavoured, butter-drenched gingerbread adrift in a pool of puréed persimmon. A second slice of boudin capped the pretty tower, a little diced braised pork belly had been scattered about, and for the final flourish, a generous drizzle of rich duck jus infused with wild winter green tea.
There are no doubt those purists who prefer their squirrels presented with less culinary fuss. But for me its accompanying acts were not a distraction but a laudable enhancement. For starters the flavours all fit together beautifully; just as important, take note that the squirrel leg in question tipped the scales (if you can call it that) at just 11 grams.
Size aside, it was a fine leg: the flesh of the thigh in particular was juicy and richly flavoured. It struck mild, pleasant gamey notes and could easily have passed for some sort of wild fowl. The meat was lean but tender, if a little stringy in the shank or lower drumstick or whatever you are supposed to call it. “The right leg is usually a little tougher because they have to lift it all the time to pee,” said chef Marc Thuet, who had earlier that day eaten the left one, a trial run for the dish he had just prepared for me.
He had done so at my urging. The idea had come to me one recent morning while I was gazing out my office window, exhausted from another sleepless night spent consumed with guilt over my carbon footprint—namely, my hopeless addiction to foodstuffs from afar like Tasmanian sea trout, Kobe beef and Rowntree’s Fruit Gums. Suddenly I fixated on the tree outside, where three squirrels were frolicking uselessly, bothering my dog. Low in fat and cholesterol, but high in protein, selenium and vitamin B6, these squirrels were the obvious trump card of locavore one-upmanship: never mind the 100-mile diet, they were available at 100 feet!
Actually, it happened like this: I was enjoying a martini at Thuet’s restaurant, Conviction, when in walked a Laval, Que.-based trapper, hunter and forager named François Kowalski, and we got to chatting. That day Kowalski was peddling wild mushrooms, but his catalogue runs to scallops, wild winter tea, you name it. Inevitably, squirrels came up. Unfortunately the only frying squirrels he recommends are from deepest, darkest northern Quebec, separatist country, where nowadays—unlike their city brethren—the pure laine squirrels are largely hibernating out of harm’s way. So regrettably the only sample Kowalski could come up with was a single pair of hind legs.
Now, my friend Thuet is a man of pretty obvious appetite. If you were truly hungry and all that you had to eat was a single, 22 gram set of gigots d’écureuil, he is probably the last person on earth with whom you would risk sharing them.
But when it came to choosing someone to cook them he was the obvious first choice. For Thuet has always had an enviable way with game. He went about preparing my squirrel with the same sort of care with which he long ago learned to approach grouse at London’s Dorchester Hotel under the tutelage of Anton Mosimann, from whose repertoire he plucked that buttery gingerbread inserted beneath the squirrel.
“It’s sick how good it is, uh? It’s a little gamey, a little bitter—it’s like wild quail!” Thuet exclaimed as I ate mine, his passion as always in evidence. “I think I could do well with that as an appetizer!”
“Maybe,” I said. Certainly his dish would fly in the U.K., where earlier this year the potato chip giant Walkers introduced “Cajun Squirrel” flavoured crisps, cooks can order squirrels (fresh or frozen) online from www.squirreldirect.com, and even the great Heston Blumenthal prepared one for his latest television series. But hereabouts I just don’t think we’re ready—well, not except for my dog Bonko, who whiles away his afternoons watching reruns of Squirrels Gone Wild, daydreaming about squirrel-in-a-can.