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..