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The solution to the grey squirrel crisis? Pastry, a roux sauce, mushrooms and hazelnuts

An organised cull of grey squirrels could also be a culinary opportunity.

Prince Charles is among those repeating their calls for an organised cull of grey squirrels in Britain as a way of helping the declining native red squirrel.

Despite being larger and stronger than their red cousins, living in denser numbers and out-competing red squirrels for the same food, it is predominantly the virulent squirrelpox disease that greys carry that has driven red squirrel populations from all but a few areas in northern England and Scotland. A recent paper on conservation management by Andy White at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and colleagues uses red and grey squirrels as a case study, arguing for better control in cases of invasive species whose effects are disease-driven.

Another useful study by Pia Schuchert at the University of Newcastle and colleagues examines grey squirrel control over 13 years between 1998 and 2010, and finds that typically they were effective in bringing down grey squirrel numbers, and also lowering the numbers that carried squirrelpox.

With Prince Charles keen on organic food and support for local butchers growing, no doubt he’d approve of putting this squirrel bounty to some culinary use. As we did, at the sixth annual squirrel cook-off in the Six Bells pub, near Cambridge, with 23 dishes of grey squirrel snacks. The dishes reflected the very different directions of the cooks: curried Bollywood squirrel, squirrel in filo pastry, squirrel pie, squirrel eggs in a nest, and the winning dish of squirrel sausages.

Using legally trapped or shot grey squirrels as food has been in vogue for a few years now, a trend picked up back in 2008 when the Guardian newspaper proposed squirrel as “the ultimate ethical meal”.

Being a food science and nutrition lecturer who is involved in and teaches food culture, I am not averse to eating a whole range of different animals for food, if humanely killed. Grey squirrels have the advantage of being low in fat, low in food miles – an estimated five million in Britain and counting, available almost everywhere – and obviously entirely free range.

As a culinary experiment last year a friend presented me with two squirrels which I skinned and gutted and cooked in two different ways. The first was as a red wine, juniper berry and mushroom casserole, which friends pronounced to be too strong and gamey. This was perhaps due to using the male squirrel – the female used for the favoured dish of squirrel flamed with brandy and then lightly cooked with cream and hazelnuts, was milder, like a slightly gamey chicken.

So being presented with two skinned and cleaned squirrels in a plastic bag to prepare and cook was not too daunting. To remove any taint a light brine was used and then a marinade of ginger flavoured cider, casseroling with garlic, more cider and thyme. The meat was then removed and added to a roux sauce with mushrooms, cream and hazelnuts, chilled and then used to fill 40 small croustades. It may not have won, but only three were left at the end of the judging and tasting.

But are squirrels any healthier than, say, chicken? The US Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database provides the nutritional content of a very wide range of foods, including various game meats. According to the records, per 100g the squirrel has more protein (31g) and less fat (5g) than roasted chicken (29g and 9g), stewed chicken (27g and 7g), or venison (26g and 8g). In fact only rabbit, at 33g and 3.5g, provides a more protein-rich and low-fat meal.

However, low-fat and high-protein comes with its own drawbacks – the syndrome known as “rabbit starvation” experienced by hunter-gatherers and subsistence dwellers of northern latitudes, and recorded by Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Steffanson, stems from a diet with insufficient fat; rabbit meat alone is simply too lean.

So with all the greys living on the estates at Prince Charles' disposal and the professional chefs employed by his Duchy Original brand, I’m keen to see the day that royalty-approved squirrel snacks make their first appearance. Certainly, judging by the varied approaches taken by those in the Six Bells there’s plenty of options out there.

The ConversationSusan Bailey does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Philip Lancaster's War Passion draws on beautiful material – but lacks feeling

With a lot of commemorative art to compete with, the premiere of Lancaster's new piece could have used, well, more passion.

In a letter home from the front, dated May 1917, Wilfred Owen wrote, “Christ is literally in no-man’s-land.” He was referring to the prevalence of Catholic iconography in rural France and commenting that even the statues he saw everywhere were not immune to war wounds. In the opening of his poem “At a Calvary Near the Ancre”, he took this imagery and wrote of a roadside statue of the crucified Christ: “In this war He too lost a limb . . .” Decades later, the poem became one of nine set to music by Benjamin Britten for his War Requiem, cementing the connection between the suffering Christ and the losses of the First World War.

It is this parallel that Philip Lancaster has sought to explore in War Passion, his new work for chamber choir, ensemble and soloists which premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester on 24 July. Lancaster, like Britten, has used the poetry of the First World War, interspersed with other, often religious texts. His selections range across a number of poets who died in or survived the war, including Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon, Julian Grenfell, Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves.

The choice of texts is intriguing, as several of the poets from whose work he borrows were openly atheist or anti-Church at the time of the war. For instance, the last entry in Edward Thomas’s war diary, written shortly before he was killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917, was: “I never quite understood what was meant by God.” You wonder what he and others of similar mind might have made of the inclusion of their work in a Passion.

The piece is intended, on one level, as a narration of Christ’s Passion according to the Gospel of Mark, and also as a commentary on the parallels between the sacrifice of Jesus and that of the soldiers. The opening contains some of the best music in the work:
a merging, intertwining dialogue between two cellos that sets a sombre, eerie mood.

A lot of the effect of this section was lost in performance, however, once the full orchestra and chorus got going. The sound of the former was so overpowering that the words of Grenfell’s “Into Battle” (the first poem of the sequence to be used) were mostly inaudible. This remained true throughout the 67 minutes of the piece as the narrator and other characters, as well as the chorus, were all but drowned out by the ensemble, a situation that was not helped by the blurry acoustics of Cirencester Parish Church. For a piece that relies so heavily on the interaction of different texts, this was a problem.

An exception to this was the soprano aria fashioned from Isaac Rosenberg’s “The Tower of Skulls” for the Golgotha section of the Passion, in which the soloist Anna Gillingham made full use of her higher notes to bring a piercing, unearthly quality to the “gleaming horror” of the poet’s vision of “layers of piled-up skulls”. The chorale-like chorus setting of parts of “The Death Bed” by Sassoon also came across well. In general, the music was unremarkable – self-consciously contemporary and percussive with lots of dissonance and rhythmic shifts, but lacking the harmonic underpinning or depth of feeling that would make it particularly memorable.

The various First World War centenaries that are being celebrated at the moment have provided us with an awful lot of war-related cultural output – from exhibitions to plays and everything in between. To stand out in this crowd, a new offering has to give us a fresh perspective on what are commonly known events and images. The parallel of the suffering of Christ with that of the soldiers on the Western Front is well worn almost to the point of cliché, as evidenced by Wilfred Owen’s use of it. Even the war memorial outside the church where the War Passion was premiered is topped with a carving of the crucifixion.

Alongside Lancaster’s Passion, the St ­Cecilia Singers gave us Herbert Howells’s Requiem. Howells wrote this relatively short, unaccompanied work in the 1930s, partly in response to the death of his nine-year-old son, Michael, from polio, but it wasn’t performed until the early 1980s, just before the composer died.

This was an atmospheric performance, though it was slightly marred by the perennial problems of amateur choirs: falling pitch, poor diction and quavery tenors. But the two hushed settings of the Latin text “Requiem aeternam dona eis” were admirably focused, and more evocative than ­everything else on the programme.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue