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?

No comments:

Post a Comment