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…