Wednesday, 29 April 2009

10. The Fat of the Land

A month into our new life as faux small-holders in which the farmer does the dirty work while we scold the pigs for nicking each other’s beetroot leftovers and chat to the sheep about the imminent arrival of the ram, and Ellie has turned vegan. It was bound to happen; she’s 13. How else is she going to rebel? She’s not going to smoke while she and her sister comb the duck house for signs of sneaky cigarette butts, and the likelihood of us finding vodka bottles among the popcorn and Friends DVDs under her bed is tiny while she’s still pasting the latest Government statistics of middle class drinking on the fridge door. I write about food so of course she’s going to try to survive on crisps.

So it was with some trepidation that I drove Loulou, already a vegetarian thanks to her sister’s mighty influence, to watch chefs from The Tin Drums, the string of Brighton restaurants owned by our friends Dave and Vicky Radtke, carving up their Saddleback pigs which Loulou had known since they were four weeks old.

Since moving to the countryside last May, Climate Change, Peak Oil and the recession have been the main inspiration for Dave and Vicky whose restaurants are having an identity make-over after they swapped the eco-home they built in Preston Park for a farmhouse and three acres in the middle of nowhere to provide as much food for the Tin Drums as the land will allow. Their pigs, two for the restaurants’ pots and one for their own, have spent the last six months ploughing and naturally fertilising the land for the vegetables that will now take their place, and chickens run freely, laying just enough eggs for the family’s Saturday brunch. With the rest of the ingredients for the restaurants procured from a network of small producers within a five mile radius and the kitchen's cooking oil providing the bio-fuel for Dave’s daily commute, it’s an eco-dream that they can put on the plates of their clientele back in the big city.

Loulou has been slowly digesting their food philosophy since the piglets arrived, sweet and squeaky last autumn but is still not quite convinced about the “happy meat” story. Had I mentioned, therefore, that we were off to witness the miraculous alchemy of piglet to pork which we would almost certainly be invited to share around their kitchen table within the next week, her memory may well have spun back to the rather more bloody Matanza pig festival we witnessed some years ago in Andalucia. Best to keep quiet, I decided.

I’m very jealous of the Radtkes. And no, it’s not because Vicky’s commitment to Bloomsbury-style hedonism is legendary and yet she still looks like a cross between a slim Nigella and Jenny Agutter circa 1982. It’s not even because they really do the small-holding thing while we’re busy suspending reality with our more Johnny Morris interpretation of life on the farm. It’s because their children have utterly bought into the lifestyle while mine spend their afternoons planning protest marches to the local abattoir. Their boys, aged seven and ten, love their chickens and their pigs, but when their time comes, their response is rather more down to earth than my vegan and vegetarian children’s would be. Even when the frantic squawking of their chickens alerted me to the murder of a young cockerel by one of our terrier pups last week, it was met with acceptance and even a lick of the lips. As I retrieved the still warm, still whole body, imagining how our kids would react if a friend's dogs had killed one of our brood, Louis, the elder of the two peered at the body nestling in my arms. “Ah, Philip”, he said calmly. Monty ran in to check on the news. “Is he dead, Mummy?” he asked, gingerly patting him. “Can we pluck him?”

So I wasn’t surprised to find Monty and Louis studying the Tin Drum chefs’ knife skills as their former playmate held back for the family’s dinner table was sliced into enough charcuterie, hams and chops to keep them in supplies for the next few months.
Vicky busied herself with the leeks and carrots that would accompany the head for a stock as she told us proudly of the dignity of the pigs’ departure on the Monday morning. She had been determined not to cause any distress to the pigs (or to Dave and herself) and to let them saunter into the trailer in their own time – however long it took. No herding, no cajoling as they rolled and basked in the spring sunshine before strolling up the ramp to sniff at the fruits smeared on a plank among the straw. Once in, it was a ten-minute ride to the abattoir before pottering from the van into a holding pen of more straw. Then it was over, in seconds. The kids listened intently to her story, the boys finding further confirmation that their parents are just as committed to humane animal husbandry as they are in avoiding the unnecessary shot of adrenaline that toughens the pork served in their restaurants. I watched Loulou’s brow furrow and wondered what she would tell Ellie about her day.

As I presented a roast tenderloin from one of the deliberately unnamed pigs, delicately rubbed with home-grown sage and thyme for our Mother’s Day feast the next day, Loulou was more silent than usual. She is clearly confused about where she stands on the meat issue now; she may still refuse to eat the stuff, but her sister has taken to eating cardboard which just doesn’t have the same panache as her previous foray into activism. Dave and Vicky are nice people, and Monty and Louis don’t appear to have psychopathic tendancies. The narrative of their carefully raised, well fed, caringly dispatched pigs has unravelled a new thought process in the inner foodie hard-wired into her DNA.

I may be wrong, but I smell change ahead…

Monday, 2 February 2009

9. More Than We Can Chew

Ellie’s life is closing in on her. Everyone she knows is eating their pets. And I have to admit I’m beginning to lose my own appetite for meat.

It’s a long road from Brighton to Planet Countryside. When we moved from the buzz of the seaside to the lazy plains of Bloomsburyshire three years ago, my plan to leave Sainsbury’s to the townies and go local was little more than a social experiment. Since then my shopping philosophy has gone through politics and health and out the other side until, inspired by the adventures of our fellow city resisters who moved from Preston Park to pig farming down the road, we are perched on the verge of small-holding ourselves.

By the time you read this, we will have moved from our community of snow-balling school-bunkers with its veg plots and poly tunnel, horses, chickens and co-housing philosophy and will be knee deep in pig poo. After dipping our toes in country life, we’re going in. Deep.

Well, deepish. The house we’re moving to is not only a cycle ride away but is part of a 21 acre estate with sheep, pigs and chickens roaming freely like something out of a Disney story. The boundaries were supposed to be set in stone - three acres for us and 18 for the vendor’s animals, but when I looked past the duck pond to the fields next door a vision of my childhood, my parents’ and grandparents’ and a fantasy I could impose upon my own children’s pulled suddenly into sharp focus. A quick word with the farmer, and the deal was done.

Co-farming, we shall call it. He pays the bills and sells the meat and we feed, coo, clean and gambol with the animals. The kids’ lives will be transformed; it will have taken three years to pull them away from the TV to paddle in streams and make dens in the woods, but perhaps Wii will finally become something that we clean out of the chicken coop, and Friends will refer to our (almost) own lambs and piglets.

The sniff of a life in farming started for us here in this community of 22 families who moved from London and Brighton with a vague interest in self sufficiency and co-owning a lot of animals. It’s been fun spending the last three years feeding the chickens and gathering up the eggs on our chicken day, sitting in meetings discussing whether to get goats or llamas to chomp through our 25 acres in the interest of both Peak Oil and Climate Change. And I dare say when food security leaps off the pages of the Guardian and into its back yard, the community will realise its true Good Life potential. In fact, as we move the last of our boxes out, they will be voting on the idea of raising chickens for eating for the first time.

For Ellie, that means it’s time to go. The country air has permeated her soul, but not quite as I might have imagined; where once she might have been thrilled to hear that baby chicks would be reared under hot lamps outside her mate Zoe’s house, her activist’s face is set. “They’re going to eat them, aren’t they?” And she stomps off to pack another box.

I have tried to tell her about the pigs in the new place. And the sheep. Happily, she and her sister are still so excited about the colour of their new bedrooms and the 35 year-old horse in the garden that they have managed to put the reality of our new life on hold. Grandpa, tickled by the idea of our vegetarian daughter facing the truth of the land, couldn’t resist when we last went to visit. “This time next year” he said as he looked out at the first snowdrops peeking from beneath their wintry carpet, “you’ll be slapping on your rubber gloves for the lambing”. As the children looked at me to explain his crude impersonation of a country mid-wife, I quickly spun the conversation back to the story of Granny’s chicks.
“My father hatched them in my bedroom”, she explained. “They were our Christmas treat.”
“Ah, how sweet,” said Loulou, wide-eyed at the thought of her ten-year-old granny playing with a clutch of fluffy chicks in her doll’s house, before cuddling up with them in bed. Ellie’s eyes narrowed.
“You ate them, didn’t you?”
“Of course,” laughed Granny. “They tasted so much better than the ones from the market”.

Even Dave and Vicky, our newly countrified pals from Brighton who seemed so kind, so warm, are thumbing through their recipe books as spring calmly and certainly beckons their pigs to the abattoir. Luckily, Mother Nature, with a sweep of her magic wand, manages to turn the cutest of piglets into huge, snorting and slightly alarming beasts just before slaughter but even so, I'm beginning to worry about how I’m going to manage with the happy meat story when they’re my own. When Vicky’s escaped pigs tried to climb inside her car the other night, I knew that they weren’t trying to eat her as she suspected, but that they were heading straight for the key to the larder. These are some of the most intelligent animals in the world and they know that if Vicky is late for dinner, the world really could be over. The fact that it will be in a couple of months is, I increasingly find, not worth thinking about.

As we pile the last sofa into the back of the car, I frantically redefine my foodie philosophy. The way I see it is that our local butcher needs our business and it is our solemn duty to support all those local farmers by plying our trade in the proper manner. And while our chickens lay plentifully, their lives are not in danger. It’s a good eighteen months or so until we have to face the future of our lambs. They’re not even born yet, for God’s sake. No, as we head into a brave new world of small-holding, we’ll take it literally, holding small, sweet, squeaky things, bottle feeding the lambs and playing chess with the pigs.

What’s wrong with bee-keeping anyway?

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

8. Let Them Eat Cake

Memory is a funny old thing. Not only do I remember the train-shaped cake my mother lovingly crafted for my (then) eight-year-old brother, but my memory of it is so charged that I dreamed of making one for my son one day. When I became the mother of girls, my memory morphed into daydreams and I longed for them to be big enough to gasp at the pink turrets on top of the fairy castle that I alone would carve from whatever I found around the house. The fact that I can’t even draw a turret (or a fairy) didn’t spoil my fantasies and when the day came that Ellie, already sewn into a pink tutu, turned four, I rolled my sleeves up and my ready-made icing out onto the kitchen table with a smug grin shaped from genes of a super-mother.

When I asked my mother about the train-cake, she had no memory of it. My father, who can remember every tiniest detail of his life, looked blank. My mother told me that my brother had also denied any knowledge.

I was rocked. If this super-mother memory was a fantasy from the first, then what else wasn’t real? I didn’t dare ask about the lullabies or the long journey take-a turn story-telling that I think I inherited. What about the talking toys? The Johnny Morris-voiced puppy? There was a chance, I realised, that I had made my whole childhood up.

I dusted myself down and frantically rattled through the pieces of my children’s past to see what might fit. I chanced upon the moment last year when LouLou revealed herself to be the sum of our family parts (or what I thought they were then). I had taken her to see Georgia Bing, author of the Molly Moon books, at the Brighton Festival and she was mesmerised (that’s an in-joke for Molly Moon fans). She leant across to me and whispered in my ear; “When I grow up, I’m growing to write children’s stories like Georgia Bing and Grandpa.” While I blushed with pride, she leant over again and, with eyes still burning into her new heroine, added “or become a professional cake maker”.

So when her tenth birthday approached in October, I promised her a proper cake, thinking more of building tiers and turrets like I had done when she was little rather than hiring in some help. But LouLou wasn’t looking for just a cake; she was looking for a mentor and set about scouring the autumn food festivals for someone who would fit the bill.

At Chiddingly, she found her. Emerging from the cake tent beaming, she led me silently by the hand to Lizzy Harman and her Little Village Cake Company stall, featuring a stunning rose-covered wedding cake, and proclaimed her journey had come to an end.

I blanched at the price and took Lizzy aside.

A few weeks later, LouLou’s birthday arrived and we piled her in the car with big sister and sleepover chum and drove her to a kitchen in the country for her secret birthday treat. She didn’t immediately recognise Lizzy who sat her down amid colouring agents and peacock feathers, but as the penny dropped, her excitement grew and they set to work.

There’s something wonderfully timeless about making cakes, and three hours disappeared in a haze of petal-making, bowl-licking, icing-colouring bliss. The girls busied themselves with cutting out daisies and polka dots while the kitchen filled with the sweet smell of warm cake until magically, the squidgy yellow mess was transformed into a smoothly iced hat-cake.
The table was cleared for the finale. Polka dots spotted the yellow icing and tiny cupcakes, topped with delicate daisies, circled the brim of her birthday bonnet.

LouLou’s smile was something out of Alice in Wonderland, and when Lizzy asked her to place the peacock feather in the centre of the hat-cake, I knew that it didn’t matter anymore whether or not my mother really had made a train-cake. LouLou will tell her children wonderful home-made stories and make them cakes laden with flowers and feathers when she grows up. She will very probably never remember the fairy castle that I made when she was almost one but I don’t care; she will remember the peacock-cake as having something to do with me. And as her memory and her daydreams collide, it will probably be me that made it for her tenth birthday, and me that becomes the super-mum whose mantle she will one day inherit. The fact that my cakes turn out like biscuits and my turrets are made of loo rolls need never be part of the story she grows up to tell.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Chapter 7. Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens

I’ve got a confession. I killed a chicken.

Now, I know that millions of people do this every day. Children do it at Indian picnics after lugging the birds along with all the other local, seasonal goodies to a family do in some beauty spot in the Himalayas, but my meat was murdered by a townie in a panic rather than a kid in touch with his food.

I had always wanted to live with chickens. In fact, when we were pondering the pros and cons of moving out of Brighton into a community of 22 families in the middle of nowhere, it was the chicken club that clinched the deal. My mother’s tales of popping out the back to get some eggs from Hetty and Betty for tea had been a soundtrack to my childhood memories of Grandad’s fruit and vegetable garden where runner beans would snake up smart lines of canes beyond the rows of potatoes, lettuce, beetroot, onions and radishes and the bushes of redcurrants and gooseberries with the smell of Felinfoel Ale wafting over the garden wall from the brewery next door.

Years later, as I watched my own kids skip down supermarket aisles of featherless, skinless, soul-less shrink-wrapped fowl, I dreamed of my Grandad’s chickens and of giving my girls a basket of corn to scatter among our own free-range girls and marvelling at the deep gold of the yolks compared to the pale yellows of their battery cousins. Even Ellie, my vegetarian animal activist eats eggs. I couldn’t fail.

The moment when the kids first lifted the lid on that egg box to find Hetty XXXVII looking at us with a mix of pride and suspicion and scooped her up to find a clutch of freshly laid eggs, I felt that my job as a mother was done. I was Barbara Good and this was the life. As the years rolled by, our waste was reduced to virtually nothing as the 20 hens devoured our leftover pasta and peelings, speeding towards us like something out of Looney Tunes to see what was in the pot. Unfortunately we weren’t the only ones to become misty-eyed at the sight of a free-roaming chicken and, in similarly cartoon style, Foxy Loxy ran off with all but two.

So when Poppy, our newly rescued Springer scampered off into woods last Saturday morning and returned with Hetty in her mouth, proudly dropping her at my feet, I was appalled. Hetty had flown the coop, leaving Betty alone behind the electric fence. My mind was spinning. Poppy’s soft retrieving mouth is not designed to kill, but at 7.30 in the morning, someone might see us with a chicken and think the worst. I put her back in the coop, madly thinking that it would look like Foxy-Loxy had decided he was full. She looked at me like someone from Rotherham looks at a London TV researcher and I picked her up again to inspect the flesh wound, furtively scanning the meadow for any witnesses. I would have to put her out of her misery. A quick twist of her neck spun me out about the fragility of life before the next dilemma flooded my hazy brain. Surely I couldn’t eat her? Surely I should eat her? Readers, the shocked expressions of the people to whom I have related the end of this story prevent me from doing it again here.

One of those expressions came from Linda Turvey at Hen Heaven, a rescue farm for end-of-lay hens and a handful of cockerels which well-meaning townies have given to their newly rural mates before checking the packaging, if you know what I mean.

The kids were clucking over Matilda and her chicks, Milly,Tilly and Lily and Peter the shoulder-perching cockerel as Linda showed us around the 500 or so chickens that live out their days with her. “People don’t think” she muttered, as she told us how she had spent the last 40 years clearing up the mess left by shallow consumers and city folk playing farmer. “I got Avril and her husband George after a family moved out of their manor house to go back to the city leaving the elderly cat and the chickens. The estate agent rang me and said that if I couldn’t have them, they’d be put down.”

At Hen Heaven, ex-battery birds, de-beaked and often featherless after stress-pecking by their fellow hens join back-garden and small-holding hens to roam in total freedom around the farm, often laying well into their dotage under the TLC of their devoted Linda. “This old speckled hen was replaced when she stopped laying and was then badly pecked by the new hen”, she told us, picking up the old dear’s still-warm egg. “I gave her some limestone grit as soon as she got here and she’s been laying for the past five years”. Lucky really as apart from donations, eggs provide the only income at Hen Heaven. “I could have given that one to those people who came this morning from Ealing” she chuckled, looking remarkably similar to the Old Speckledy. “I do wish people would ring before they come, especially at this time of year when they don’t lay as much”.

While we were chuckling, I told her the story of Poppy and the chicken. Her face fell and the place became eerily silent. Ellie was standing beside Linda now, their vegetarian solidarity failing to see the funny side. “A bit of arnica on the wound and some rescue remedy would have had her right as rain in no time,” she told me as she showed me to the gate. “Yeah Mum,” sneered Ellie and sulked all the way home.

I thought of Hetty in that wheelie bin and wondered if I could have eaten her. I managed to pluck, roast and eat the roadkill partridge, so what was the difference? As I walked Poppy and the pups that evening past the lonely chicken coop, I sat down and watched Betty casually scratching at the ground and I knew the answer. I can take the girl out of the town and play at self sufficiency, but I’ll be back to get my local, free-range organic chicken from the local butcher. At least until the oil runs out.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Chapter 6. I Scream, You Scream...

“Assoc-i-ation. Are you ready? If so, let’s go!” “Ice Cream” … “yummy”… “tummy”… “eat”… “strawberry”… “sundae” …“treat”… The kids are rhythmically batting words in the back of the car as we drive through a Sussex summer afternoon to the local dairy farm to watch ice cream being made.
Estelle, our French teenage visitor is baffled by yet another English eccentricity and, fluency aside, can’t find enough words about ice cream to join in. In her world, dinner is a defrosted plate of haute-cuisine, heated on the hoof by a working mother bemoaning an absent father (in this case, the President of Monaco) followed by a supermarket crème brulee. It doesn’t evoke pictures and smells like ours does, mixed as it is with a spicy dash of obsession, denial and childhood memory. To her, ice-cream is, ben, ice cream. Licked on the beach in Monte Carlo it doesn’t have quite the same je ne sais quoi as a Mr Whippy at Black Rock.

For me, ice cream is an even richer blend, infused with my mother’s tales of South Wales in the 1940’s. As we queued at the Sidoli ice cream van on our annual family summer camping trip to The Gower, she would tell me about the coffee shops of her youth, the smell of espresso and steamed milk. And I would swoon as a swarthy young Welsh-Italian helping his dad out for the summer handed me my vanilla cornet, catching my eye for a brief but everlasting moment.

Around 370,000 Italians came to South Wales from the Bardi area of Italy during the mass immigration to the Welsh Coalfields between 1851 and 1911. As a result, the coffee shops of Swansea and Llanelli were unlikely pockets of sophistication in a Britain still dunking its biscuits in a nice brew. As I shyly licked my cornet, I imagined my 16-year-old-mother, tiny-waisted in post-austerity voluminous skirt and sling backs, sharing a sundae with a group of giggling teenagers to a Mantovani soundtrack. I/my mother was Sophia Loren and ice cream was the epitome of sex appeal.

“Creamy”... “cows”… “dairy”…” Luke’s farm”… the stream of consciousness in the back seat is fast-tracking me now past the cinema usherettes and the Dayvilles ice cream parlour of my own teenage years to the local source right on our doorstep. LouLou’s class mate, Luke delivers our milk twice a week, directly from his parents’ herd of 150 extensively-farmed cows at Downsview. It’s not organic but the grass the cows graze upon is pesticide-free after its initial seeds are blasted, and the only anti-biotics the girls get are for the inevitable mastitis all of us milk-producing mammals have to endure. Apparently cabbage leaves don’t work. The milk smells of cows and grass and fresh summer rain and is, according to LouLou, the best milk in the world.

We arrive at the “factory”, a super-sterile little room behind the dairy where Kate, one of the mums from school, is carefully separating by hand five dozen eggs from Barcombe for the 10 litre batch of ice cream she’s making this morning. The girls are openly dribbling now as she shows them the mix of cream, egg yolks and sugar before whisking it with something that looks like my dad’s hedge cutter and pouring it into the freezing/stirring machine.
“How long will it be before it’s ready”, Ellie asks as politely as is possible when your salivary glands are open full throttle, and blanches when Kate replies twenty minutes.

The ice-cream is finally ready to be squeezed into Downsview Farm pots and handed to the quivering children. Even Estelle is drooling now. And it is heavenly, tasting as it does of cows and grass and fresh summer rain.

As we drive home, I ask Estelle whether she ever goes across to Italy just for an ice cream and all three of them look at each other, raising left cheek and widening eyes in that way that kids do when words are beyond them. Even the English ones. It’s ok; she still thinks of ice cream as Magnum White. And my kids’ associations with ice-cream are hot summer days in Britain and cows. They know nothing of Italy, coffee and sex appeal, and for now, that’s fine by me.

It’s a long way from Ringmer to Bardi, and Kate, the mum-from-school and little Luke Farnes are a far cry from the sexy Italian boys from my mother’s childhood. But at less than one food mile from our house, it ticks my box. When the oil runs out and buying locally and seasonally is the only option, I’ll pop over to Luke’s farm for a couple of pots and settle under the oak tree with my girls, ipod scrolled down to Mantovani and dream of Italy.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Chapter 5: Just Kidding

“Tell me what you know about cheese, girls,” I cheerily ask my daughters as we head out to the Golden Cross Goats Cheese dairy. “It gives you nightmares?” suggests LouLou. “It smells,” says Ellie.

It’s two years since we left the supermarkets of Brighton for the butchers and fishing boats of rural Sussex, and I have carted the kids around most local farms to meet the meat keeping these verdant Downs neat and tidy. But with Ellie now a confirmed vegetarian and LouLou pulled equally by the lure of the animal activism of her big sister and the smell of a beef burger, I’m not quite sure what I’ve achieved.

I always thought that giving my children a little of my foodie childhood might inspire a lifelong love of the stuff. But I was used to the pigs’ trotters simmering gently on the hob as my father told us about the spit-roasted buffalo at the fairytale banquet of the Sultan of Perak and the monkey brains served live at the night-markets of my Malay early years. When Ellie makes her excuses at Sunday lunch these days, he looks crestfallen.

So I’m giving in. If this little experiment is about getting the kids to appreciate good food, then let them eat ice-cream (1 food mile) and goats’ cheese (3.3). After the pig farm, I owe it to Ellie to show her fluffy goats with years of frolicking ahead of them and no-one eying up their back end. I just won’t tell her about what happens to the boys.

Kevin and Alison Blunt have been making cheese at Golden Cross for the last twenty years and have come a long way since the bucket and ten goats they had back then. Pan-fried on a bed of local leaves, slightly spiced with a balsamic dressing, or, even better, soaking up the pink of a local beetroot, Golden Cross goats’ cheese is what a Sussex summer has come to taste like for me.

As we drive down the windy country lanes, I tell the tale of Grandpa and his home-made cheese, how he let the milk sour over a couple of days before stuffing the curd into Granny’s stocking and adding some garlic and olives until the mixture settled. I falter as I remember the ending, and quickly shift the story to his mother’s more successful efforts. The kids are too quick. “What happened to Grandpa’s cheese?” they demand, and as much as I energetically point out the enormous mansions and sweeping drives along our route, swearing that they belong to Robbie Williams and Madonna, their steely gaze is burning into my back. “Ok, so he ended up in hospital”, I finally admit.

I’m about to introduce them to cheese making and to Kevin Blunt who will tell them that it is bacteria that makes milk into cheese. They won’t differentiate between the hairy spores they regularly find in the back of my fridge (and what probably landed Grandpa in hospital) and the benign germs that have made the Blunts famous. How am I going to get them to taste the stuff now?

The girls inspect Kevin’s every move as he wipes the goats’ teats before attaching the pumping cups to their aching udders. Happily, as he takes them to see the curds and whey, Kevin dons a set of germ-free whites and insists that they too stuff their hair into nets, bag themselves in plastic and cover their shoes in sterile bags before they so much as sniff the air.

Kevin is bombarding my children with so much information that they can barely take it all in. While I had gone for the Little Miss Muffet route, he’s talking cheese starter, vegetarian rennet and penicillium mould, inadvertently muffling the message that this is bacteria city, that the only way milk can become cheese is something not far off what Grandpa did.

A tour of the eleven day process, through separating trays and drying rooms leads us to the tasting trays, and I stand back, one eye closed and watch as my children taste, savour, pause, taste some more and…. “I like it!” beams LouLou while Ellie politely nibbles an edge before putting it in her pocket. Apparently it smells of the little sweeties gambolling outside.

As we drive home, we pass a field full of young goats almost ready to give birth themselves, and the girls tell me that this has been the best of all the food trips. As this year of Food and Farming reaches midsummer, I am only just warming up. I dream of that goats’ cheese in the bottom of my handbag and our next trip and its booty. Hmm; Ridgeview Champagne is not that far away…

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Chapter 4. This Little Piggy Went to Market

An email popped up on my screen a few months back inviting our local school to host a Local Sussex Breakfast. All that egg, bacon and sausages subsidised by a government initiative to encourage local food procurement in the public sector, it couldn’t fail I thought as I forwarded it onto the Dinner Lady.

I hadn’t realised that an email could do a sharp intake of breath. It wasn’t so much the caterer’s inability to source locally, she said; it was more that the fat content in an ‘unapproved’ sausage could bust the weekly ration. “But, but…” I tried. Surely a school food caterer would know that the meat content of a local sausage made by the local butcher would be at least 85%. “It’s the new nutritional standards,” sighed the Dinner Lady, as if Jamie Oliver had personally torn up the invitation.

I first made sausages with Mauro Bregoli, a gregarious Italian chef from the Old Manor House in Romsey, who famously smoked his own bresaola, made his own cotechino sausage and slaughtered his extensively farmed pigs, each of whom he named and petted, in a mobile abattoir. “The stress of the journey to the regular abattoir is not good for the pig or for the meat” he told me.

Although a recovering meat-eater at the time, I found the process of stuffing what was Susie and, I think, Joanna, into the mincing machine rather fascinating. And slicing up a piece of dried Becky, I have to admit, was a sheer delight on the tongue as Mauro poured me a glass of something expensive to go with it.

After my run in with the Dinner Lady, I was determined to share that love of a good pig with my girls and, made a few calls. And so it was, one sunny afternoon, that my girls, along with requisite gaggle of mates arrived at our local pig farm.

Rather handily, as I stuck rigidly to my Disneyesque script about the difference between extensively and intensively farmed pigs, the farmer was the spit of the bloke from Babe. I almost expected to see a plucky little pig herding the sheep across the 200 hectares, bullied by a talking duck and encouraged in a motherly kind of way by a gentle but earthy sheep-dog.

In real life, Plashett Park Farm, where lapwings wheel over traditionally rotated fields and hedgerows provide homes for one of Britain’s rarest mammals, the Bechstein’s bat, could well be drowned by a new reservoir planned by South East Water. It’s a drama which could see the end for the pig farm – and Farmer Peters – within the next year.

But the girls were more concerned about the rather more imminent threat to the sweet little piglets they had already named, and suddenly the second part of our day out was losing its appeal. “Look” I tried, “they wouldn’t be here at all if people didn’t want to eat them”. It’s an argument I’ve used before and four pairs of eyes reminded me that it didn’t wash.

By the time we got to the butcher, I knew that I had lost my eldest. Ellie will one day find out that Carla Lane lives nearby and will very probably move in. She’s an activist at heart and her vegetarianism runs deep into her veins. And yet I still took her into that butcher. And I still made jolly observations about happy meat.

Luckily, her sister has been brought up on a rich mix of Horrid Henry and Grandpa’s real life “stories from nature” and she and her carnivorous little chum had already spotted the slimy string of intestine the butcher was preparing to stuff for our benefit. As the minced pork shot into the sheath, I blanched as Ellie turned green, and I hastily looked around for a bucket. I racked my brain to remember what Mauro had done to make my experience so different.

As I shooed them out with a pile of sausages curled neatly in my bag, our butcher stopped to put the rest of the meat in the cold store. “Ooh, ooh” cried Lecherous LouLou and Salivating Stephie, “can we go in? Pleeeeeasse?” In a move that would have had our Dinner Lady scrabbling for her health and safety rule book, the butcher ushered them in and they gasped at the side of lamb and the little pig trotters gripping the meat hooks. Ellie sat outside, presumably planning a midnight raid on Plashett Park.

As I drove them back through the country lanes, I realised that I’d made a mistake. It’s not that my attempts at introducing my kids to their dinner are a waste of time, it’s just that I’d taken the wrong passengers. My kids didn’t think that sausages were packed with fat and mechanically reclaimed meat in the first place. My kids know that you don’t fry sausages when you can grill, griddle or barbeque them. It’s the Dinner Lady who’s in charge of feeding around 1200 kids in Lewes who needs to meet the meat..