Eating on the wild side with a dish of braised squirrel
It's the whiskers that do it for me. That, and the way the little paws are tucked under the chin. I've lost my appetite, and chef Andy Richardson hasn't even taken his sharp knife to its furry flesh yet.
The squirrel, until very recently running around the Dorset countryside, is lying in a plastic box under the kitchen lamps. Motionless. A tender-hearted member of staff at River Cottage Canteen, walking past, gives it a sidelong glance. "Poor little thing," she murmurs.
Oh dear. She's deviated from the River Cottage script a bit – as have I, and I've only been here for five minutes.
River Cottage's founder, the prolific food writer, TV presenter and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, makes a point of championing underrated wild food, and grey squirrels very much fall into that category.
These rapacious little "tree-rats" as they are not-so-affectionately known, are so detested by conservationists for driving their prettier red squirrel cousins towards extinction that they are officially classified as vermin.
Grey squirrels are not flavour of the month with farmers and growers either, because they like nothing better than a meal of tender new shoots. So their reputation means they are fair game for ending up in the pot.
All this, though, doesn't stop this particular squirrel from looking a bit, well, victim-like, as Andy Richardson, second-in-command in the River Cottage Canteen kitchens, transfers it to his chopping block. As a chef who is used to butchering wild animals with their fur coats still on, more usually rabbit and deer, he's not about to get flustered about jointing a squirrel.
These particular squirrels were shot at Park Farm, the River Cottage HQ on the Devon-Dorset border, by a trained marksman with the right paperwork who regularly supplies squirrel for the cookery school there.
As he removes the shot, which proves that this animal was, well, shot, he stresses the importance of buying squirrel from a reputable source.
"They are not readily available, you can't go into the butcher's and buy a squirrel," he says. "You also need to be careful because people put out poison for them, so you have to be quite careful about where you get them from."
Squirrels are herbivores, so munch on nuts and fruit. Which might explain the pretty pungent aroma given off when Andy starts to peel back the furry skin of the animal. It is gamey, full on and a bit of a shock if, like me, you are used to the sanitised way that meat is presented in supermarkets. I've obviously gone a bit quiet, because Andy asks me if I'm a vegetarian. "No," I reply. Not yet, anyway.
With a few deft cuts of the knife, animal which a few minutes before was lying with its little whiskers in the air is now a pile of neat hind leg, foreleg and saddle joints.
Preparing squirrel is quite an involved task, for the modest amount of meat yielded. But, of course, squirrel has not been picked by the River Cottage chefs for its ease of preparation.
"We have had some people saying that the menu here is too safe," says Andy. Putting braised squirrel on the menu seems a good way of silencing such critics.
Andy has adapted a recipe for braised rabbit from Hugh's Meat book, using squirrel in its place.
The squirrel joints are marinated with red wine and juniper berries for 24 hours, both to tenderise the meat and to give it flavour. They are then cooked very slowly with root vegetables and onions in red wine and tinned Italian tomatoes until the meat is tender.
Andy brings out a pot from the oven containing some he's made earlier. The aroma is savoury, with just a hint of something strange, a gamey, rich scent which is hard to define. Squirrel. While squirrel's appearance on the menu this week is for one evening only, there are plans for it to return later in the year, when the squirrels have grown plump on a summer's worth of fruit and nuts.
"You're meant to eat squirrel in the late summer or autumn, because that's when they are at their heaviest," says Andy.
He's keen for me to have a taste. He plates it with spicy couscous, parsnip crisps and the flatbread the chefs make here every day.
I lift my fork with not a little trepidation. Our photographer Steve likes it, comparing it to eating pheasant. Andy says it has a taste like "strong brown chicken meat".
So what's my verdict? I'll be honest. I think that while the sauce is delicious, as are its accompaniments, and the meat is very tender, the taste of our furry friend is a little strange.
"But would you think that if you didn't know it was squirrel?" asks Steve. He might just have a point. It was the whiskers that did it, and those little paws...