If you’re interested in food – especially in the slow food movement, you may well have read John Barlow’s excellent book “Everything but the squeal” – which is an account of a year in Spain during which he attempted to track down and eat the whole of the animal as expressed in the wide range of Spanish pork cooking. The title says it all; it’s a not for the faint hearted guide to not wasting a single scrap of a living creature after it has been slaughtered for our benefit.
Vegetarians and Vegans may, by this time, have decided to abandon this post but I’d argue that wastefulness afflicts us all. As a meat eater I entirely accept that I bear a moral profound responsibility for my choices and one of the ways I try to live that out is to eat meat less and then usually the cheapest cuts and make sure that they are sourced from farmers with high welfare standards. In fact, that point alone means that we could never afford the kind of daft offer that Waitrose came up with this weekend, inviting us to celebrate Coronation Weekend with a rib of beef joint costing £185.00.
Meat eating is a kind of in your face introduction to the earthiness of food and the biggest problem for our culture is that we are not (generally speaking) cooks and so prefer any engagement with meat to be as fast and painless as possible -which in turn obliges us to eat the leanest and most expensive cuts. Coupled with that is our fear and aesthetic loathing of raw meat because it shouts mortality at us and finally because we have no time left after our neo capitalist culture has eaten up any fragment of it there’s none left either for cooking or – tragically – for eating together.
So let’s take a look at sheep meat. These days we all know about sheep because of the glut of TV programmes in which we can easily see half a dozen lambs born before Sunday supper. Ah …. baby lambs we coo. In the spring we are bidden by the supermarkets to eat Spring lamb for Easter just as we are bidden to eat turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Our culture demands that we eat meat as frequently as possible whilst not counting the cost in suffering and methane production in the industrial fattening units. Boning a piece of pork belly is a meticulous operation that brings us irrevocably to the moral issue of meat eating. We can’t face eating tripe these days, nor chitterlings nor any of the 80% of the animal that we are far too sophisticated and fastidious to eat. “Stuff a heart? – I’d rather starve!”
So the meat industry – and that includes the restaurants as well, needs to find a way around our aversions and we came across a particularly egregious example here in Cornwall this week. To begin at the beginning, sheep meat comes in various forms. Spring lamb is the youngest and possibly the least flavoursome of the trio, but almost anyone can chuck a piece on the BBQ and make something of it. The next stage is the one to two year old lamb which is called hogget and if you can find it, is lovely. The third stage is mutton which is meat from a sheep that has had lambs but is no longer productive. It could be almost any age depending on when successive pregnancies have worn it (or rather its teeth) out. The trouble is, mutton has a bad rep because it’s the quintessential slow food and so – unless the chef or cook knows what they’re doing it can be as tough as old boots and taste like cardboard. So how do we get around this insuperable obstacle? The answer, of course, is to promote mutton for its real strengths and train chefs and cooks to deal with it properly. Naturally that’s never going to happen because it costs money. So the PR poets barge in with a cunning plan. “Let’s” – they say – “call it Cull Yow! – nobody knows wtf it is but it sounds pretty ethnic “
Obviously they’ve been watching too much TV because ‘Yow’ – anywhere in the country except Cumbria which is entirely populated by warrior models who cut hay in miniskirts – means ‘yew’ – everywhere else. So it’s a slam dunk win for the industry. Distancing from the real name of the meat which is really ‘dead old sheep’ we now have the entirely virtuous name “Cull Yow” – local; slow food and entirely life enhancing.
I don’t mind a great mutton revival – for reasons I’ve already explained -but I do loathe the sheer dishonesty of putting mutton on the menu at an up and coming gastro pub as if it were some hitherto undiscovered delicacy. We’re actually booked in for lunch there next week as a holiday treat and I will report back on whether the mutton was any good!