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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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Provocations from a modern master: Andrew Marr on David Hockney

A History of Pictures by David Hockney and Martin Gayford gleefully punctures the pretentiousness of the art world.

We live in a picture-drunk world. A medieval artisan would have been aware, at best, of only a few representations of the three-dimensional world – church paintings, perhaps crude carvings in a churchyard, graffiti on walls. For us, pictures are everywhere, on
screens of all shapes and sizes, on hoardings, in books, on the sides of buildings. They move, they pulsate with digital complexity and they sprawl and glare until they tire our eyeballs and bore us senseless.

This is a book that aspires to be nothing less than a history of pictures, taking drawing, photography, film-making, digital art and painting in parallel and tracking the interrelationships and the borrowing that each involves. That is a huge ambition, far too large for any single volume, yet ­David Hockney and Martin Gayford respond with lively expeditions in many directions and a staccato half-conversation that will keep any intelligent person amused and intrigued for its 350 or so pages.

No practitioner of “fine art” has placed himself at the centre of our culture quite as Hockney has. What he says about smoking or porn makes news. His exhibitions attract vast crowds. He is followed by reverential film-makers, avid biographers and snaking queues of ordinary folk who simply love his bright and life-enhancing images. He also intervenes to ask big questions about the nature of picture-making and the relationship between painters and photography, in a way that no other contemporary artist seems to do.

In all this – and in his tireless enthusiasm for new technologies in picture-making, as well as his curiosity about the rich and powerful – he is surely the Walter Sickert of our times. Sickert’s opinions, as well as his readiness to use photographic images to expand his art, allowed him to bestride British public life in the first half of the 20th century, very much as Hockney does today. Sickert, whose early work the public preferred, produced shockingly modern images of Baron Beaverbrook, Churchill and the celebrities of the interwar years. And so, this year, Hockney had his quickly painted acrylic portraits of the art world’s rich and Botoxed powerful, skewered to their chairs, glaring down at us in the “82 Portraits and 1 Still-life” exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Both men were gifted with an almost divine facility; both struggled to overcome it, to produce pictures that could be regarded as properly “modern”.

Here, Hockney is paired with Martin Gayford, the author of excellent books on Hockney, Lucian Freud and many other artists, and a reliable, hugely knowledgeable Tonto on this journey. As they take off to discuss a wide range of subjects – shadows, pre-photography use of cameras and lenses, perspective, cubism, abstraction, film-making, digital art – the differences between them become increasingly sharp.

Hockney, with his strong and now familiar views, brings the perspective of a mark-maker to every subject: “If you’re told to do a drawing using ten lines or a hundred, you’ve got to be a lot more inventive with ten. If you can only use three colours, you have got to make them look whatever colour you want.” Gayford, who sometimes picks up on a Hockney challenge and sometimes ignores it, brings a seemingly bottomless knowledge of the history of art and is always a great looker, whether his subject is a Velázquez or Dada.

There is a certain degree of unintentional comedy here, Hockney repeatedly cantering off with an anecdote or salty personal view and Gayford gamely wrenching us back to the high road, but it’s all enormously good-humoured and entertaining. There is so much pretentious cack talked nowadays about art theory that it’s a relief to find an artist ready to use his experience as a film buff, or his thoughts on the manipulation of photographs in the press, to speak about “high art”.

“Walt Disney was a great American artist,” Hockney writes. “He might be a bit sentimental but what he did was quite an achievement. Who were the most famous stars of the 1930s and 1940s? Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.” And, a page later: “Look at the camels in Adoration of the Magi by Giotto, from the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, painted in the early 14th century. There’s Walt Disney.”

These are the kinds of stuff that would get laughed out of court in the pompous art world. The same goes for this (­Hockney again): “Art doesn’t progress. Some of the best pictures were the first ones. An indiv­idual artist might develop because life does. But art itself doesn’t.” Most academic writers would hedge such starkness but Hockney doesn’t. Again, very Walt Sickert.

So, where do these conversations take us when it comes to the biggest question for contemporary painting: what should a picture look like in 2016? There are so many derivative, unnecessary and tedious pictures all around us, and so much has been done so well for so long, that this is a real poser.

Hockney’s lifelong struggle with being an artist in a photography-dominated culture has rarely lured him away from the duty of representation or, to put it more crudely, drawing. He experimented with Picasso-influenced, semi-abstract pictures but not for long. He used photographic collages to investigate space but, again, not for long. His love of Chinese art and his inquisitive enthusiasm for graphic artists such as Joe Sacco
have allowed him to find ways to put chemical photography firmly back in its box:

People like Mondrian appear heroic, but in the end his pure abstraction was not the future of painting. Neither Matisse nor Picasso ever left the visible world. It was Europeans who needed abstraction, because of photography. The Chinese would have always understood it. But they did not need it . . . Photography came suddenly and late to China.

On almost every page, there is an interesting provocation. I suppose, for Hockney, his answers are what he makes, not what he writes. However, I would hate to end this review without making clear that Gayford brings perspectives and shape here that are hugely useful. This is not David Hockney Bangs On (a book that I would rush out to buy). There is apparently a far bigger book coming shortly, a kind of printed permanent exhibition of Hockney’s art, a book so big that it requires – literally – an easel, and a mortgage. Sickert would have found that very funny. Meanwhile, start here.

Andrew Marr’s books include “A Short Book About Drawing” (Quadrille)

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood