Already distraught at the notion of the badgers being culled en masse because of their perceived role in spreading bovine tuberculosis, the nation is now gagging at the suggestion, from celebrity chef Clarissa Dickson Wright that the innocent, stripy-faced animals should be cooked. And eaten. (Small surprise: the former “Fat Lady” has a new book to promote.)
Since 1992 it has been illegal to kill badgers in Britain – so the only way to get hold of one to eat has been by picking one off the road. But if the government’s full culling programme goes ahead thousands of badgers could be shot this winter. Meat is getting more expensive after the global grain prices spike of this summer. Wild meats like venison, rabbit, pigeon and, yes, badger and hedgehog, are looking rather tastier.
Arthur Boyt thinks Dickson Wright is talking good gastronomic sense. He has been eating badger most of his life: he stewed up a piece of back meat with the animal’s genitals for supper last Thursday. “Dog, especially labrador, is my favourite, but badger makes a pretty good meal.” Boyt, a 73-year-old former civil servant and scientist, does not kill animals. All his free meat comes from the roads around his home on Bodmin Moor.
"I’m against the cull," he said, "but it would be ridiculous not to use the dead badgers. I’ve eaten badger for 55 years and I certainly haven’t got TB. As with all meat you just make sure you cook it long and hot enough to kill any bugs."
A badger will make a meal for two, says Boyt, though his wife Sue is a vegetarian. So he often shares the animal with his son and daughter-in-law, who comes from Papua and is used to eating “maggots and grubs.” Boyt’s favourite part of the animal is the head: “There’s five tastes and textures in there, including the tongue, the eyeballs, the muscle … The salivary glands taste quite different. And of course, the brain. You get that by putting a teaspoon in the hole in the back and rooting around.”
To a modern cook, eating badger might sound like a terrible idea, but people who grew up in rural Britain during the second world war remember eating it and there are historic recipes for it from across Europe.
Badger doesn’t appear in any of the great 18th century British cookbooks, and though Dickson Wright says the animal has always been a staple, it seems to have been a food only for the poor. But in Franceblaireau au sang (badger with blood) is a well-remembered recipe. In Italy and the Balkans rural people have a culture of badger-eating. In Russia badgers have been a food and a folk-medicine, their fat a cure for coughs. The Prussians even bred a dog – the dachshund (badger hound) – to hound the poor beasts out of their setts.
There are tales of West Country pubs serving badger ham as a bar snack (although these might be classed with the stories of fermenting the scrumpy with a dead rat). Boyt’s usual recipe is simpler. He skins and joints the badger, saves the offal and then makes a traditional casserole, adding whatever vegetables are in the house. No wine, though he may drink a glass with the meal. “I’m a down-to-earth chap – I like simplicity. It’s nice meat – why titillate it?”
European recipes for badger often ask you to lay it in running water for several days to get rid of a rank flavour. But Boyt says that’s only necessary for fox. And badger, though it doesn’t need to be hung, can be eaten when it’s “quite green” - that’s assuming the diners aren’t similarly tinged.