CHARLES Darwin was never exclusively interested in the origin of species as a scientist. As far back as his university days at Cambridge he was a well-known foodie, and was never happier than when wrapping his chops around a cutlet from some unusual animal.
He presided over the Glutton Club, a group of students who met weekly to eat "strange flesh". Bittern and hawk were among their gastronomic adventures, but the pushing of boundaries ground to a halt after the disgusting digestive experience of an old barn owl.
When the young Darwin went on his Beagle voyage and arrived in Patagonia in 1833, he reported eating armadillo and agouti, a large rat-like rodent. The locals also told him tales of a rare flightless bird indigenous to the high plains, and finding the creature became a personal fixation. That bird was the rhea, a smaller relation of the ostrich.
He later wrote in his diary about how horrified he was when, while eating his dinner one night, he was informed that the animal on his plate was the very one he had been looking for.
The story goes that Darwin scurried about collecting up the leftover head, neck, legs, wings and feathers to study and send back to his laboratory. The lesser rhea or rhea darwinii was later named after him.
During the five-year Beagle expedition, Darwin shipped home 1,529 species preserved in spirit and 3,907 labelled skins, bones and other dried specimens. Who knows how many of these creatures he had also tried, roasted on a spit and washed down with local ale?
The RSPB would have something to say these days if anyone tried to capture the extremely rare bittern, a wading bird. Hawks and owls are similarly off the menu, and no-one is offering armadillo steaks by mail order for good reasons. But British farmers are helping us to rediscover our taste for exotic flesh.
Ostrich is on the blackboard of specials in many restaurants. Web suppliers are selling thousands of kilos of it each week, and it's even available in some supermarkets.
It's one of the least fatty meats, rivalled only by the rhea, which contains only one per cent cholesterol and tastes like a cross between venison and fillet steak. Hardly anyone in the UK is farming rhea for their meat, but David Wellock of Hurries Farm, near Otterburn in North Yorkshire diversified from cattle and sheep to also raising rhea 13 years ago, and currently has 40 birds. They can run at up to 30 mph, so catching a runaway is quite a performance.
Each slaughtered animal will give 30-35 kilos of meat, and David and his partner Wendy sell it in fillets or burgers to visitors using the camping and caravan site on the farm.
"We thought about farming ostriches, but for them you need a wild animal licence and they can be aggressive in the mating season," says David.
"The adult rhea is about five foot tall with a 2ft 6in neck, and they are good-natured, although the male can be aggressive when he's incubating the eggs.
"We have to take the eggs and continue the incubation indoors, otherwise the hole he sits on will fill with rain water. We sell all the meat we can produce and could probably sell more. The most popular are the burgers, which are the meat, chopped dried apricot, and little else."
Nothing goes to waste. Eggs that aren't fertilised go into Wendy's cakes to be enjoyed by visitors on farm walks, and the shells are sold to egg crafters.
David sends me some rhea steak fillets. Feeling rather like a member of a latter-day Glutton Club, I follow Wendy's instructions by pan-frying them in a little olive oil with chopped garlic, black pepper, sea salt and red wine, adding my own flourish of a handful of fresh coriander.
The meat is quickly cooked, and we devour it on a bed of soft mash with green veg. The flesh is smooth and tender, and the taste is a bit gamey, but not overpoweringly so. The robust flavour lends itself to simple cooking with few ingredients. We're impressed, and sad that we don't live within convenient distance of Hurries Farm.
One internet importer of unusual meats does decent business in zebra, crocodile, camel, kangaroo and wildebeest, while a fair few farmers are now rearing European water buffalo.
Among them are Paul and Kate Langthorne at Crawford Grange Farm, Brompton, near Northallerton. They originally bought one buffalo to provide milk for their son, Andrew, who has cystic fibrosis and suffers from severe dairy allergies.
The family now has a herd of 300, whose milk is sold for products including mozzarella cheese.
The Langthornes also keep red deer, wapiti (a smaller species of deer), emu, iron age pigs, boer goats, sheep, yak and bison. A best seller is their buffalo burger, but all of their farm products (slaughtered at their own abattoir) are popular at the many farmers' markets where they trade each month.
"Whether it's emu steak, yak or buffalo, there seems to be an appetite for it," says Paul.
"There are a lot of people out there now who are very adventurous with food, and there's always someone asking, 'Have you got anything new?'"
He sends me a couple of buffalo burgers to sample. They taste like the most fabulous lean beef, only even juicier. Also in the package is some old-fashioned diced mutton, meat from three-to-four year-old sheep. Paul sells much of his supply to the Gurkhas at Catterick Garrison.
The very word mutton brings back the aroma of my grandma's country stews and their thick meaty gravy. I duly braise the meat for five hours with root vegetables, a slosh of wine, herbs, stock and a lid of sliced potato.
Delicious, but almost too rich and sturdy for a palette more used to the blandness of mass-produced supermarket meat. Eating flesh that tastes so definitely of what it actually is might take some getting used to.
I have a theory that, by and large, a certain kind of food fan tends to frequent farmers' markets – someone who will joyfully embrace a buffalo burger or yak steak. They provide a market for farmers of unusual breeds, but what about the rest of the population?
"You can boil a cheap chicken's carcass as long as you like to make a stock and you'll still get no flavour at all," says renowned food historian Peter Brears. "People have got used to meat that doesn't taste of anything, and certainly don't like their meat to taste of animal. Instead they take bland meat and do all sorts of things to it with sauces to give it an artificial flavour."
Mr Brears explains that in the days of Empire we took roast turkey, Christmas pudding and spotted dick to all points of the compass, but the traffic went both ways. Hence the inclusion in Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management of such delicacies as curried kangaroo tail, bandicoot stewed in milk, recipes for barracuda and black swan, as well as mention of ingredients like kumquats.
So in Victorian times we were quite adventurous in our tastes. What happened after that to dampen our enthusiasm?
"The First World War, then the General Strike, the Depression
of the 1930s, followed by the Second World War and ensuing rationing massively affected
how people ate for decades afterwards," says Mr Brears.
"People have never really recovered their taste for foods
like offal and chitterlings, and while trends for new meats
might come in through adventurous farmers doing something different, these
old foods that require slower cooking have been well and truly lost."
Okay, so we can't turn back the clock, but maybe the time has come for everyone to take a foodie voyage and experience a "new" species or two.
On Sunday, April 12 and April 19, David Wellock will lead a National Park farm walk at Hurries Farm, Otterburn (on the Otterburn to Airton Road) starting at 2pm and ending around 4pm. Visitors will see new-born lambs, Aberdeen Angus cattle and rhea. Children must be accompanied by an adult. No dogs allowed. Call 01969 652380.
For information about Langthorne Buffalo Products
and other produce from Crawford Grange near
Brompton, Northallerton go
to www. langthornes-buffalo-produce.co.uk or call 01609 776937.