I took a stroll down to my local shops this morning but the shelves were looking pretty empty. Partly it's due to panic buying by people who equate a few inches of frozen water to a zombie apocalypse, but it's also due to a lack of deliveries. But I'm okay. I have food. And that's because I will eat just about anything.
As you know, I grew up in Cornwall. I had a comfortable childhood although there was never a great deal of money. Food, however, was never an issue. We grew a lot of our own fruit and veg. We had chickens for eggs and ... well, chicken. And my family come from a long line of hunting and fishing types. There were always shotguns and fishing rods in the house. Dad would go walking the dogs most mornings with one or more of us three kids tagging along and would usually come home with something edible; a brace of rabbits or woodpigeons most commonly. And that's what we ate: rabbit, pigeon, woodcock, pheasant, duck ... supplemented by pollack, sea bass, gurnard, crabs, lobsters and any number of flatfish. We picked mussels and winkles at local beaches and used salt to lure razor shells to the surface. At the time I felt like a pauper compared to schoolfriends who boasted of beef and pork and lamb. Now, I realise, I ate bloody well and much more healthily than they did with their pre-packed, water-injected, factory farmed, hormone-pumped supermarket meat.
When we got old enough, Dad introduced me and my two brothers to guns. I started with a single-barrelled 410 shotgun and soon progressed to 12 bores. I was also taught the arcane art of ferreting. My grandad, and a near neighbour and shooting chum of Dad's called Ronnie, kept ferrets and we used them to flush the rabbits out of their warrens. Part of the package of learning to shoot was responsibility. That meant respect for the gun and respect for the animals. It was hammered into me that your finger didn't go to the trigger until you had a clear shot and that you didn't fire unless you were sure of a good hit; by good, I mean that the animal would die instantaneously and humanely. Dad could't abide cruelty (Plus, an animal in pain and distress becomes flushed with adrenalin and other hormones that makes the meat taste bad). On the very rare occasion that a shot didn't kill outright, I was shown how to despatch the animal quickly to cut short any suffering. Then there was the job of preparing the animal to eat. In the case of birds, that meant plucking and 'drawing' (removing the innards). Rabbits, meanwhile, were skinned and 'paunched'; head and feet removed with the skin and the innards taken out. It was important not to tear the rabbits' gut, which was filled with semi-digested grass and other vegetable matter. I did muck it up and few times and I'll remember that smell until the day I die. Not alot smells as bad as the inside of a rabbit.
Me in 1983, aged 22
So why am I 'swinging the lamp' and recounting childhood memories? It because that childhood taught me two things: firstly to treat animals fairly, humanely and without cruelty; and, secondly, to respect the fact that if an animal has died for my benefit I should do it some justice and make the most of all it has to offer. There is nothing more insulting than to waste it. It makes its death pointless. Consequently, I am a great believer in 'nose to tail' cookery; using every part of the beast that I can.
Even a common domestic chicken will give me at least three meals. I insist on free range. Organic is good too but the main issue for me is that the chicken has had as natural a life as possible. Meal one may be a roast using the breast and leg meat. Meal two may be cold cuts or a curry. Meal three involves boiling the carcase for stock - it's amazing how much meat there is left even after two meals - and I'll make a soup or a risotto maybe. The final stage is the carcase going out on my garage flat roof where the local red kites and crows can enjoy a meal too. Very little goes into the green bins for the dustmen. I feel the same with animals too - I try to use everything I can. I am a huge fan of offal and happily guzzle livers and kidneys. I also make terrines with tongues and tails and have even made my own haggis and sausages. For me, it's all meat. What is the difference between eating a leg or a cheek? Look at your own body. It's all the same skin, muscle and bone wherever you look so why discriminate?
To prove my point, a couple of days ago I took delivery of a couple of pigs' heads. Yes, I can hear some of you going all wobbly already. But bear with me. A friend of a friend keeps pigs but he can never utilise the heads as his kids are far to squeamish to consider it. So they get thrown away. 'Not this year!' I said. So I got them home, gave them a clean (the abbatoir had done a good job) and then a shave. Yes, a shave. With a Gilette disposable. Pigs are hairy buggers and the steaming during slaughter doesn't always get every whisker. Next, I boned the heads, removing all of the flesh, fat and skin like a mask. I won't post photos and risk upsetting some of you but there are several informative videos on YouTube. I then removed a fair bit of the fat; it's quite deep on the face which is why pigs' heads are used to make pork scratchings. Did you know that? Trust me, it's not finest belly pork going into those foil packets. Because people won't eat the heads, that's where they go - into a factory. There's a lot of skin on a pig's head and it ll makes wonderful crackling.
We are a hugely wasteful society. I'd rather people became vegetarians than underuse the animals that have died for them. There's no escaping the fact that if you eat meat, you're eating lumps of a dead animal. It's muscle, skin, bones, organs and connective tissue and that's fine, it really is. We have evolved to eat meat and it is a pleasure to do so. I have no more qualms about eating a chicken than a fox does. However, if you eat meat, spare a thought for that animal and make its death worthwhile. Use as much of it as you can. You'll be saving lives. If I can make a chicken last three meals, it means that I will buy one chicken instead of three, so that's two chickens that don't need to die for my benefit. And if I can get four delicious roasts and a brace of terrines (which I have done) out of a couple of pigs' heads that would otherwise have been thrown away, then I've spared a pig.
It's my choice to be a carnivore. But with that choice comes respect for the animals I eat and a desire to see as few of them die for my benefit as possible.
If you fancy learning more about this subject I recommend any of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage books. I also got a lot from Anissa Helou's offal cookbook The Fifth Quarter. The bible, however, is Fergus Henderson's wonderful Nose to Tail Eating: A kind of British Cooking and its sequel.