There were many, many reasons why I thought Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, was just a little bit strange when I visited the city a few years ago.
There was the fact that everyone - and I mean 99% of the adult population when I say this - wore black.
There was the fact that one of the city's main tourist attractions was a perpetually burning hillside. Yup, it felt like I had gone back to biblical times.
Then there were bars where you could dress up in old Soviet army uniforms while you sipped on the local vodka.
And finally, there was the tiny little fact that a resident Azeri told us he regularly ate bear meat.
People ate bears? That was news to me! But more interestingly was the fact that he described the taste of the bear as "normal".
Now, "normal" is a flavour I would usually use to describe, oh I don't know, chicken perhaps? Maybe white fish. I know people who consider lamb to taste decidedly non-normal. Oily, "fishy" fish and shellfish often tend not to pass the normality taste test for many people I know. So this was not a description I would have attributed to a big, wild, furry omnivore - who, to be very honest, until that moment I had thought more as a creature who might eat me than one I would consider eating.
In fact, a few years ago when I was wandering through some woodlands in Romania, that last thought was definitely at the fore of my mind!
I sadly never got a chance to taste bear meat in Baku, or Romania, or any other place where bear is considered fair game (couldn't resist the pun!).
Well, until yesterday.
Thanks to a tin of Bear Pate that made its way to me all the from Finland, I am happy to testify that bear meat does indeed taste "normal". (Now, that may be because the bear meat constituted only 20% of the pate mix, pork seemingly being the dominant ingredient.)
But hey! until I eat bear steak - which is apparently a wild game delicacy in certain parts of the States, Canada and of course Central Asia and Northern Europe - I guess that will just have to do.
Three things to remember when eating bear meat:
1. You should hope the bear has recently been snacking more on berries than fish (and hopefully not anything else!) as fish-eating bear meat tends to taste nasty.
2. Apparently young bear meat is more tender than old bear meat - not too different from most other animals. But it turns out that Spring bear meat is better than Autumn bear meat for two reasons - One, in Spring, most bears have been eating only vegetation and have not had enough time to eat other animals and carrion, so their meat is relatively fresher-tasting. (As compared to bear meat obtained in Autumn after it has eaten a lot of other stuff you probably wouldn't be comfortable eating yourself.) The second reason why Spring bear meat is better is because it is relatively lean as the bear has just come out of hibernation and used up its fat stores. By Autumn most bears have already developed a hardy layer of insulating fat.
3. And finally, bears eat other animals. And are notorious for harbouring a number of parasites such as Trichinella (also found in pigs) which can cause fatal infections. So if you plan on eating wild game rather than processed bear meat that has come out of a tin, make sure it's well done!
What's the oddest meat you've ever eaten?
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