Friday, October 22, 2010

Tastes like chicken


World's largest rodent considered a delicacy by Venezuelans

MANTECAL, Venezuela (AP) When Venezuelans' appetite for capybara clashed with the church's ban on eating meat during Lent, a local priest asked the Vatican to give the world's biggest rodent the status of fish. People rejoiced when the Vatican agreed, declaring that capybara isn't meat. More than two centuries later, they still consider the 130-pound capybara a delicacy and pay big bucks to put it on their dinner tables.

"It's the most scrumptious dish that exists," says Freddy Colina, 17, who lives on the southern Great Plains of Venezuela, where a Lent without capybara is like Thanksgiving without turkey in the United States.
Venezuelans think the rest of the world doesn't know what it's missing. Some even want to export capybara, which they call a red-meat lover's dream-come-true: Tender and tasty yet low in fat. They envision people in New York and London eating capybara steaks and capybara hotdogs.

"This is a great solution" for meat-eaters worried about their cholesterol levels, says biologist Saul Gutierrez, who helps raise the animals on Venezuela's most prolific capybara ranch, El Cedral.

Capybara, which looks something like a pig with reddish-brown fur, tastes like pork, too, although with a hint of fishiness. Usually it's heavily salted and served as a shredded meat alongside rice, plantains or spaghetti.
Among its fans is President Hugo Chavez, whose mother says the former paratrooper couldn't get enough of it when he was growing up.

Many Venezuelans are grateful the Roman Catholic Church gave the animal the status of fish allowing its consumption during Lent. But more than a few think the classification is laughable.

"It doesn't even look like a fish. A capybara has hair and four legs," says biologist Emilio Herrera, although he acknowledges the creature does swim.
Capybara meat costs up to $4.50 a pound, a hefty price for Venezuelan workers, many of whom make the minimum wage of $200 a month.

The animal is found from Panama to Argentina and is eaten in several countries. But no one craves it like Venezuelans, mainly those in the southern and central parts of the nation where the animal thrives in grasslands and swamps.  They contend that eating capybara, which is a cousin of the guinea pig, shouldn't make people squeamish.

Capybaras are surprisingly clean despite an unsavory habit or two.Wallowing in mud much of the day helps kill off ticks and fleas, and then the capybaras wash off in clean pond water. Yellow-headed caracara birds spend hours each day picking the bugs off the capybaras' fur and skin, too.

True, capybaras eat their own feces, but so do other animals such as wild rabbits, says Rexford Lord, a capybara expert at Pennsylvania's Indiana University.

Unlike rats, capybaras are picky about what they eat, mainly grass. They have just 1.5 percent fat content in their meat, compared with up to 20 percent for cows. 
Capybaras used to be one of the most common animals in the Great Plains. But many were killed by the Spanish conquistadors, who introduced cows which compete with capybaras for land.

Then a government conservation program that started in the 1960s backfired when corrupt wildlife officials took bribes and allowed overhunting, says Gutierrez, the biologist at the El Cedral ranch. Today barely 100,000 capybaras are left in Venezuela, though the animal is not considered endangered.

Private ranches such as El Cedral in Apure state are trying to boost the population by keeping poachers off their lands. They're succeeding and are even thinking about exporting the animal, though few concrete steps have been taken. They say capybaras are much more profitable to raise than cattle since they produce more offspring, use less grazing pasture and don't need expensive medicines like cows, which are not native to Latin America and often get sick.

Gutierrez acknowledges there will be huge image problem in trying to sell foreigners on the world's largest rodent as a meat source, but is confident it can be done.

"It's only a matter of marketing," he says.


Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book
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CTV "First Look" at Olympic Village condos

These last 2 posts represent a couple of generations: my daughter Shannon Paterson, illustrious reporter for CTV News in Vancouver; and Caitlin Paterson, her daughter, my illustrious granddaughter, performing The Turkey Song from La Traviata.

The Turkey Song