When chef Joel McCulla from Zulu’s Restaurant in Coffs Harbour asked me to be a party to the creation of a new dish there is was an overwhelming mixture of feelings on my behalf. Naturally I was honoured and excited, there was a huge amount of curiosity, but I have to say there was an aspect of apprehension.
There is no doubting that Joel is an excellent chef with a talent for creating amazing food but there is another side to this chef, his alter ego is that of a mad scientist, with perhaps a slight sadistic slant. My thoughts went to the various Heston style dishes we have eaten as a guest in the restaurant, I wondered how he would shock the senses with this new dish.
I jumped at the invitation without so much as a second thought. Even when Joel started talking about the menu idea I have to say my mind had already skipped ahead to the story I would write. I barely took in the title “Mouse Burger with Squeaky Fries.” I did wonder in passing how he would create a burger that resembled a mouse and what squeaky fries could mean, but that was the extent of my ponderings, I was committed to the adventure.
After a few emails to arrange a date for this experiment it started to become apparent that the mouse burger was not just an unusually small burger, or a burger which looked like a mouse, but was a burger made from mice!
To say that I immediately regretted my enthusiasm is not an understatement. I honestly didn’t know whether Joel was seriously going to make me eat a rodent or whether this was all part of his sick sense of humour. Perhaps it would be an eleventh hour trick, and once I tried it he would announce that it was some regular form of meat??
When I arrived in the kitchen Joel was hard at work preparing the making for what looked like a very regular burger. I was anxious to have my mind put at ease so I ask him some questions about the various components of the dish which were busy bubbling away on the hotplate.
Mentally I had come to terms with the possibility that I may be eating a totally unacceptable form of meat. I kept reminding myself that Andrew Zimmerman had eaten far worse on his show “Bizarre Foods” and he had survived to date. I did however hope that this rationalising would not be necessary.
Sitting on a plate were three cute little knot rolls which Joel explained he had baked earlier. On the gas was a delicious smelling stock, I asked him what he was using to make the stock he named off the vegetables and herbs with the final ingredient being the carcasses left over from filleting five mice! There it was, we were eating mice, there was no longer any question!
Joel explained that the mice he was using in the dish were not caught locally, but were actually bred for consumption. My moment of relief was short lived however, as he went on to explain that these mice had been destined to be pet food for someone’s snake! Apparently this was however positive because it meant they were bred in captivity and killed without chemicals. Joel seemed to be confident in the safety aspect of eating the mice, and I was very confident that if anyone could make a mouse taste good it would be this chef so I was prepared to put my concerns aside and continue on with this adventure.
Step one in making a mouse burger. Once you have acquired the mice you must first gut, skin and fillet the rodents. Thankfully I wasn’t a part of this process as Joel had kindly completed that step prior to my arrival.
Next the rodents were very finely diced into a minced meat. I was quite impressed with Joel’s knife skills and before very long there was a little pinch bowl of very moist sticky looking minced meat.
Next Joel finely diced some ecshalot and added it to the mice mince with some secret seasoning.
The mince was then formed into a miniature burger and allowed to stand in the fridge to take shape. It is surprising that five mice condense down to just one miniature patties. He commented that the dish could never actually go on the menu as he had costed this entree sized burger at around $90 due to the preparation time involved in dealing with such a small animal.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that perhaps that wasn’t the only reason why it wouldn’t make the menu.
Watching the burger take shape I was beginning to gain confidence in the flavours and meal that would be presented. Joel prepared a delicious white chocolate & lime aioli using the most fragrant cocoa butter. He firstly added whole garlic cloves to the butter and allowed them to infused whilst the butter was heated in the oven. The cocoa butter was them used with the lime to form the aioli
Next the mouse stock was strained and further reduced to form a demi glaze for serving with the burger. We both sampled the sauce and found that it was really tasty, rather a lot like oxtail soup. What a relief, it wasn’t the least bit rodenty but it still had a real meaty full flavour, quite delicious!
The tails which had formed part of the stock were reserved for the final presentation. Joel’s plan was to fry off the tails in the hope that they would achieve a crisp finish.
I have to say that I knew I would have to draw the line at munching on the mice’s tail. Perhaps I may have been able to be convinced? We will never know because once Joel described the tail as kind of chewy and cartilagey the mental struggle was over for me, no mice tails.
A burger is not a burger without onion rings and salad, so Joel set to work preparing the burger fillings. Everything was cut with absolute precision for these “mini mouse” burgers.
Joel shredded the capsicum and trimmed the lettuce so that it would fit neatly on the little buns. The buns were first smeared with the lime aioli and then the salad was added.
Whilst the burger patty was being grilled Joel went to work to prepare the squeaky fries. These were to be made from squeaky cheese ie: Haloumi cut in slices to resemble thick cut chips. The haloumi was seasoned and fried ready for serving.
The meal was coming together nicely and it was looking rather delicious. Periodically I would be shocked back into the reality by the sight of a tail but for the most part I kept forgetting that this very regular looking burger was anything but the norm.
The bun was topped with the “Pièce de résistance” five little mice made into one miniature meat patty. The onion rings aka fried eschalots were added to the top and the burger was ready for service.
Now I know that it is usually a case of ladies before gentlemen, but in this case there was no way I was taking a mouthful until Joel had done so first. I may have been committed to the experiment, but self preservation meant that I still wanted to see the chef eat first.
I had visions of being a child again and being tricked into eating something gross, only to have that peer say “haha, I didn’t really eat mine”
It was no trick however! Joel cut the burger in half and took the first mouthful. He looked thoughtfully and nodded. I took my first tentative bite. I chew and enjoyed the flavours. The meat was very moist, and had a tender melt in your mouth texture. I hate to be the one to compare mouse to wagyu but the complete lack of chewniess in the meat took my mind to this style of meat.
The lime aioli gave the burger a really nice creamy, musky citrus kick and the salad gave the whole thing fresh crunch. Regardless of the lovely flavour I still found that I was having trouble swallowing. There was a growing lump in my throat which was threatening to stop me swallowing my mouthful. I continued to chew and with some force I swallowed… and the world didn’t stop. I had eaten a mouse!
Joel went ahead and had a second bite, so I did the same. I have to say that I enjoyed that mouthful more. I was no longer concerned about whether I would be able swallow the meal, and I already knew that the flavour was good. Joel had done an amazing job at working with the flavours and turning it into something very unique and tasty.
The really naughty aspect of this story for me is about the squeaky fries. Even in the somber atmosphere of devouring our mouse burger both Joel and I had to let out a totally wicked laugh as we bit into the haloumi and there was an audible squeek! It was as if the mice were saying one last goodbye. It was a little evil to get such a giggle out of the experience but it just made the meal more than just the smell, taste, texture it add a fiendish new dimension.
So I guess my question to you my dear readers is… how far would you dabble into the range of “Bizarre Food”? Where would you draw the line for the sake of a story?