Sunday, August 07, 2011
Gastropub Chef Gets Hate Mail For Putting Rook On The Menu
Restaurants are always dreaming up new ways to lure customers and make their menus stand out from competitors. Whether it’s outlandish ice creams starry-eyed chefs churn out in their shiny new Pacojets, or iPods playing the sound of hunting horns as you eat your venison hotpot, or dipping your toes in a bucket of sand and seawater while eating juniper-smoked whelks, or getting rice chucked at you like confetti as you tuck into your wild garlic oil risotto, or just that old trick of using mysterious meats.
It’s happened before with ostrich and crocodile (the latter sparking “and make it snappy” gags to long-suffering waiters), and when that became a bit long in the tooth, restaurants wanting a few column inches started using squirrel, which got a bit of press attention a couple of years back, and then recently it became the so-called recession chic of using tripe and testacles, as showcased by the likes of Tom Kitchin, Scotland’s youngest Michelin-starred chef.
But the Taverners, a gastropub in Godshill, Isle of Wight, that makes a big thing of its local produce, low food miles, and “hand peeled, hand cut and triple-cooked” chips, must be regretting its choice of putting rook salad on the menu after it started getting hate mail from bird-lovers and a petition was set up to boycott the restaurant.
On Friday, police cautioned an unnamed 45-year-old man who admitted shooting 30 fledgling rooks and selling them to an unnamed butcher, who then flogged them to the restaurant.
All wild birds – except wood pigeons - are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, meaning it is illegal to sell them for human consumption. It doesn’t matter that rooks can be controlled under special circumstances if you’ve got a licence issued by Natural England - they can be thrown away, but they can’t be sold for any culinary use.
“From my perspective we bought it completely innocently from the butcher,” said head chef and owner Roger Serjent, 40, who has since taken his pan-fried pink rooks with roasted beetroot and hazelnut dressing off the menu.
“Afterwards we found out it was not legal. I had a lot of hate mail over it so I just want it to go away now,” he added, refusing to comment further.
Never one to shy away from controversy when there’s a bit of publicity to be had, Gordon Ramsay found himself in hot water too when he shot six rooks, and pan-fried their breasts for a salad during filming of his dreadful F Word show four years ago.
During the episode, Ramsay described rooks as a “real pest” who damage crops and steal birds’ eggs. He added: “I think it is about time something like this found its way back on to traditional British menus.”
But not according to Inspector Terry Clawson, from Hampshire police’s Isle of Wight Safer Neighbourhoods programme, who said police treated such cases seriously.
You can understand officers feeling like they’ve got to get involved, especially when hate mail’s flying about, but four and 20 rooks served in a salad is hardly busting an international smuggling ring in endangered meats. Think of all the people driving at 33mph they could have caught in that time.
The man arrested faced a maximum £5,000 fine and a jail sentence of up to six months for each bird shot – so if it was up to Heather Mills, would have got 15 years in jail (about 40 times what an MP serves these days for fiddling expenses).
But after two months of police inquiries, they just gave him a caution and told him not to do it again, while they were even more lenient with Serjent and the butcher, who they refused to name.
They just wrote stiff letters warning them not to sell rooks any more, which does make you wonder why they bothered to take action in the first place, when presumably there are far more pressing matters to attend to like youths loitering on bowling lawns, tramps peeing in bus shelters, and tracing the owners of missing jumpers.
I have sympathy for the chef. When I was back in the UK, an old boy in the house next to me used to bring me the occasional pheasant when he’d been out beating. And one day he arrived with a plastic bag full of rook fledglings (they have to be shot when they just come out of the nest and before they fly, otherwise they quickly become tough) that he’d got somewhere through his murky rural contacts (perhaps even the Ooh Arr Ay or the Farmer Bin Ladens).
It’s probably because I’m getting squeamish in my old age, but I looked into the bag and saw the purple carcasses plastered with black feathers and it turned my stomach.
He kept pressing me to make a rook pie, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat them – something I found myself equally unable to do yesterday when I had a revolting meal of deep-fried frog at a Khmer restaurant in Siem Reap – so I put them in the freezer and decided to deal with them later, and banished the thought of those satanic, black feathers.
A month went by, with me ducking past my gnarly old neighbour’s house in case he inquired about the rooks as he ferreted around with his squirrel traps, and then eventually I handed them back and admitted defeat.
“Call yourself a chef?” I remember him chuckling.
He licked his lips as he looked in the bag, and got his wife to cook them up in a stew with dumplings, and brought me some round, which I made excuses about eating.
As I say, I have sympathy with the chef. Like him, I had no idea rooks were protected – all I knew about them from the farmers down the pub were how much of a nuisance they were to their crops, and where had all the songbirds gone?
It’s strange to think that those pints I used to buy the old boy in exchange for the birds probably constituted a financial transaction, and therefore an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. And that’s regardless of whether they were shot under licence, which of course they were.