Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Lambs to the Slaughter

The thing about lamb is that, from a PR perspective, it's poorly named. There’s just no getting away from the fact that what you’re eating is, y’know, lamb. Pork is at least not the same word as Pig (or, worse, piglet); beef is not quite the same as saying cow. But lamb? Nope, lamb is lamb. No two ways about it. If anything, calling it lamb makes it sound worse than it actually is. By the time you get round to eating them, lambs are pretty big and, aesthetically at least, have more in common with their lumpen grown-up parents than with the fluffy leaping idiots who prance around the fields in spring, oblivious to their impending doom.

I grew up on a glut of family holidays to Snowdonia and other such mountainous locales. Very occasionally it was sunny, but for the most part my childhood memories have a gloomy backdrop of horizontal rain, grey clouds and boggy ground. Don't get me wrong, I loved it, but it was a bit macabre. On top of which, it was a rare walk that didn’t see us passing some bones or the dismembered jaw of a desiccated sheep. “Dinner!” my parents would blithely announce and we stepped round yet another woolly corpse, “we’ll pick it up on the way back.” The most gruesome of these was probably a suicidal sheep lying dead with its stomach spilling out at the foot of the aptly named Devil’s Kitchen, its eyes being calmly pecked out by some opportunistic crows. Unsurprisingly I passed on the traditional new year’s eve offering of haggis that night.

When I was 8, my dad, in an act of great heroism rescued a small black lamb that was mewing its pitiful head off from a precarious perch on the North Ridge of Tryfan; its old ma dead on the cliffs below. Not to be put off our plans for the day by mere paternal heroics, we continued up the mountain with the lamb sat contentedly in my dad’s rucksack, bleating occasionally, and happily peeing all over my mum’s waterproofs. I think at some point we contrived to feed it Lime Juice from a bottle which it seemed very pleased with. Summit achieved and having got it down safely, the lamb was deposited with the cafe that nestles in the Ogwen valley below Tryfan. I’m assured the lamb was given to a grateful farmer the following morning, not just gobbled up that night, but doubtless it was on a plate before too long.

Shortly thereafter we went to the Lake District and stayed in a cottage that came complete with resident lamb. I think it had been a runt of some sort, or maybe it was motherless altogether but, whatever the reason, my sister and I were tasked with feeding said lamb each evening. We would warm the milk, test its temperature with our elbows, boil the bottle to sterilise it, and then stand outside in the mud while the lamb, shortly to be named Greedy, suckled eagerly at his feed. All very rustic idyll, baring the fact that after all our tender care, Greedy was probably dead within the year and feeding somebody else.

The result of all this was that I had an inherent horror at the thought of dead sheep, and viewed lambs as creatures to be rescued and nurtured, not fed on. So eating lamb again came with not a little baggage. My first post-veggie lamb was cooked for me by some friends up in Leeds a few days after Easter Sunday. With due disregard for religious symbolism, the lamb was swiftly slaughtered and served up on a plate piled high with roast potatoes, green beans and a tasty sauce. Delicious, and a particularly lovely evening spent with red wine, good company and my first taste of Texas Hold’em. Happily the lamb bore no resemblance either to the grim carcasses of my nightmares, or to the happy leaping things in the fields and, apart from a slight confusion about whether the fat was something to be eaten (urgh!) or to be cut gingerly away and left discarded at the side of the plate, it was fairly un-traumatic.

My second lamb came in the form of a slow-cooked lamb shank in a rich stew, cooked by the brilliant Victoria Glass. I should have had the nous to guess that shank meant leg – shanks pony anyone? – but my ignorance when it came to meat was pretty boundless. Wielding my knife and fork with all the dexterity of an overeager toddler I tucked in. Again, delicious. Tender, tasty, melt-in-the-mouth meat, so I was surprised when my knife struck against something hard that, try as I might, I just couldn't cut through. Horror, horror! It was bone! I was utterly perplexed as to how to negotiate the bone and needed the considerable guidance of a hysterically laughing Vic to finish my meal. No one warned me that eating meat would require a whole new skill set. Hey ho. You learn something new every day.

Last Christmas I was up in Wales again with family and friends. There was a frankly silly quantity of snow on the ground, and we had set off to brave some ice-climbing on the Black Ladders. On the way in we passed a sheep that had fallen over and whose wool had become frozen to the ground so it couldn’t stand up. Taking advantage of its imprisonment, the birds had already plucked out one of its eyes and there was blood on its face. Fortunately one of our climbing companions is a sheep farmer, so we lifted the thing up, de-iced its coat and averted our eyes from the hole in its head. On our way back that evening, we passed it pottering gamely around the field, apparently oblivious to its gaping wound. That evening we ate a tasty lamb pie. Turns out it's possible to want to nurture and protect lambs and to want to eat them at the same time. Who knew?

Friday, 9 July 2010

Nom Nom Nom Awards 2010

Duck! No, really. Duck. I think things might be thrown. My good friend Victoria Glass and I will be taking to the kitchen this Sunday as finalists in the Nom Nom Nom Awards 2010. So, no World Cup Final fun for us, but we will be cooking duck for the first time in my life, which will be equally if not more exciting and will have the saving grace of definitely not coming down to penalties. Actually, I don’t know. Having never cooked duck before, who am I to say that penalties don’t come into the process somewhere along the line? Fortunately it will not be for the first time in Vic’s life – that would be insane.

You can find out more about the competition here: and follow our progress here:

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Dead Things Taste Nice

When I was nine, we watched a video at school about farming. I think I must have been a particularly stupid infant because before that moment I had never realised the meat on my plate was the product of an animal being slaughtered. Poor pigs! I thought. Poor lambs! Oh, god, I thought, I’ve eaten lambs… Poor cows! And so, confronted by Spaghetti Bolognese that evening, and the dawning horror that those small chewy bits were in fact minced up Daisy, I coolly announced that I wasn’t going to eat meat any more, and didn’t. All credit to my parents, they didn’t really blink. They only insisted that I continue to eat fish for a few years and, given that I had also declared an passive embargo on all fruit (I had noticed the seeds in a banana one day and concluded that all fruit had bugs in it), I think they had a point.

My parents have always been fairly top-to-tail in their approach to meat; blithely chowing down on stuffed lambs hearts from the local butcher; eating pan-fried coxcombs from some Italian chickens in Asti, and smacking their lips at garlic smeared snails in a particularly culinary-conscious French Alpine hut. Nevertheless my vegetarianism was generously indulged and my parents learnt the words for vegetables, omelette and cheese in a variety of different languages to keep me fed on family holidays. At Christmas, the oven’s capacity was tested to the full as we simultaneously roasted a Turkey and attempted Toad-in-the-Hole with Vegetarian Sausages. My poor mum, cooking me a separate batch of roast parsnips and potatoes cooked in oil or white flora rather than nestled round the meat.

A few years after my ban on all meat, I naively asked for scampi at a little restaurant by the sea in Italy. You know, the little balls of white stuff covered in breadcrumbs that come with tartar sauce? Hmmm, not so much. Out comes a fully-be-shelled crustacean, complete with claws, eyes, whiskers and a mocking segment of lemon on the plate. No more sea-food for me then. Poor old my parents.

When asked why I was vegetarian I would reply that I thought it was possible to live without killing things, and that I objected to the way we went about farming. I also felt that if I was going to eat something I ought to have it in me to kill it, and I knew I didn’t. Maybe I have become more barbaric with the passage of time, but I think now I could cheerfully knock off the odd animal if it was then going to provide me with a tasty meal. I came to the conclusion two years ago that purchasing ethically farmed meat would be a more-proactive way of supporting ethical farming than just not eating meat at all. If I’m honest, this conclusion was partly motivated by a desire to occasionally eat the same meal as my meat-devoted-co-habiting-then-boyfriend (aka ex) who had been gently trying to make me carnivorous for the length of our relationship.

So I took the plunge at a friend’s house and tucked into a (very small) slice of organic, outdoor-reared roast pork. The then-boyfriend was very happy, my friend was very happy - “A vegetarian and a jew eating pork at my table!” He cried with glee – I on the other hand felt a little bit queasy. Not that it wasn’t delicious. It was. Oh boy, it really was – holy hell but pork is great. It’s just that 18 years of self-indoctrination was a little hard to shift. Nevertheless, after a year’s hiatus during which I returned with a vengeance to my trusty veggie fare, I ventured tentatively back to the flesh, and thus began a deeply seductive and faintly illicit love affair. Oh my god but it tastes so good, doesn’t it? All that flavour!

I am a pretty good cook if the food is vegetarian and I love my food. I read recipe books in bed for pleasure (no, not that sort of pleasure – food is seductive, yes, but not raunchy. Oh, you think it is, do you? Excellent, let’s discuss that another time...) But I was almost completely ignorant of how to cook meat. I was also pretty ignorant of what actually constituted ethical farming. So, I decided to embark on a culinary adventure of discovery: learning how to cook meat; learning what I like, what I love and what I find frankly disgusting; and finding out what constitutes ethical, “happy” meat. Here are my findings…