Wednesday, 14 April 2010

On decapitating my dinner...

Until I turned 26 I'd been mostly vegetarian for 13 years. I abstained from fish until I was about 18, and once I became a pescetarian I still avoided meat until I was converted by a roast duck breast in orange sauce. A delicious one. I don't regret spending so long without meat, nor do I feel guilty about consuming it now. The meat industry-sponsored lie that vegetarianism is unhealthy has no factual basis at all, while militant vegetarianism is both fatally unrealistic and often equally bereft of meaningful first-hand information.

One challenge that vegetarians often ask of carnivores is whether they would be prepared to kill their own dinner. Since I started eating meat again, and perhaps because I came to it later in life, I've tried to educate myself about the processes of livestock rearing, slaughter and butchery so that I can make well-informed decisions about meat consumption that favour humane and sustainable methods. I'm still hugely ignorant of the butcher's art, so I want to know exactly where certain cuts come from, what happens to the leftover parts of slaughtered animals, and which methods of killing are best for all parties. Inevitably, this includes exposing myself to a bit of gore. Through exposure I've become more educated and less squeamish, and it seemed an appropriate next step to participate in a killing, to not only witness but become participant in the delivery of death that gives us meat.

I don't believe that every person who eats meet should necessarily have to kill their dinner, mainly because this is unrealistic. It's akin to demanding that vegetarians only earn the right to eat vegetables once they've grown their own. However, few would dispute that growing your own provides a lot of educational and gastronomic value, prompting consumers to appreciate the risks, inconsistencies and economics of food production, not to mention almost always providing optimal freshness and nutrition. The same values are imparted through participating in livestock slaughter, with the added benefit of providing a real insight into the ethics of meat production. Depending on others to slaughter and prepare meat assumes a degree of trust, and where free range and organic produce is concerned, we may rely too readily on certification systems whose stamps of approval rub salve on our doubts. It is entirely possible to raise certifiably free-range, organic chickens using highly mechanised, industrial methods. These meat products may meet official welfare standards (often agreed after consultation with industry lobbyists) but would they meet your personal ones? There's no better way to find out than taking part in a slaughter yourself. As I said, I'm not so extreme as to say that anyone unwilling to do this is unworthy of the right to eat meat, but it should least bring them to question why they would ingest something about which they have such little intimate knowledge. What, truthfully, does passing the dirty work onto someone else actually bring the consumer? If the answer is willful ignorance of uncomfortable facts, then I think it is right to challenge their consumption choices because these decisions have real impacts on the environment, rural economy and animal welfare.

I was offered a chance to help with the slaughter of five chickens on my second day at Cascina dei Frutasè. Simone, Bruno's elder son, had to choose five of the fattest of their couple dozen chickens and kill them for use in the family's restaurant, with leftovers eaten in the house. I'd built up the event to signify something important, some rite of passage that would leave me forever changed. In actual fact it was over quickly, five chickens squawking and pecking one minute, all dead about half an hour later. I wasn't profoundly changed by it, so can't offer any reflective wisdom. It's just a mundane farm task, one that nobody really likes but is essential in a food economy that places a high value on top-quality meat. First they're alive, then they're dead. The best I can offer is to explain how it happens:

Simone brings me into the coop and casts about for the largest birds. They're given plenty of space to cluck around outdoors, but all are kept inside while the best ones are chosen. There's a slight sense of panic as Simone and I move around, and the chickens do appear to express fear, especially when Simone shoots his arm out to grab a chosen bird by the legs. The captured chicken is quickly turned upside down, where it goes into a strange kind of repose as Simone carries it out of the coop by its feet. Possibly frozen with fear, or maybe just confused, it remains completely still, wings folded tightly, while Simone fixes a little noose around its feet. I carry the bird by the string and we go outside, to a mesh fence where several hooks await. The bird is hooked onto the fence by the string around its feet, and Simone shows me how to hold its wings. It will jerk and panic, he warns, and its wings need to be held tight to prevent it from spraying blood or injuring itself further in its last seconds. We lift the wings up and I hold them together where the joint meets the shoulder. I instantly recognise this part of its anatomy – it feels exactly like a naked chicken wing you'd prepare to cook: a large joint, thin layer of skin and tender meat beneath. I don't know why but this is the strangest moment of the whole experience, my hands recognising a consumer product while my eyes see a living animal. Simone takes a very sharp knife, used exclusively for slaughter, and explains that he needs to slit a vein in its throat, not an artery, or else the blood will spray and squirt. He begins sawing into the red skin of the chicken's neck while the bird remains silent and still, as if it knows there's no point in resisting. Success is marked by the sound of a sizeable tear into the skin, followed by the steady flow of blood onto the concrete block below. It comes fast enough to give the chicken a quick death but, as Simone had hoped, flows smoothly rather than splutters. Its fight or flight responses kick into gear and it tries to flap its wings. I hold it steady, hating that I'm winning such an unbalanced fight but conscious that its fate will be worse, its death more gruesome and prolonged, if I allow it to flap away, hanging upside down with its throat cut. I look more directly at it before it dies and see it mechanically opening and closing its mouth, trying to take breaths that will never come. Its body swells and deflates, still searching for air, still employing its instinct to keep living, until it all stops, forever.

The whole process, from capturing the chicken in the coop to taking it off the slaughter hook, hasn't lasted more than a couple minutes. There's no doubt that those last moments of its life are awful, having been lifted from relative freedom to captivity and dispatched by a knife to the throat. I can't pretend that I can sense animal emotion, so I won't offer anything as glib as a reassurance that it led a happy life. I have no idea what chicken happiness would look like. What I can offer is an invitation to look into the condition of birds in high-density factory farms if you find what I've written above, or these photos, upsetting. What I can infer about animal emotion would hold that the freedom to walk in open space, eat a mixed diet and experience regular sunlight is something that Bruno's chickens are naturally inclined toward. Factory farming gives animals a death which is probably no more or less traumatic, but subjects them to a traumatic life.

I understand why the up-close reality of animal slaughter is upsetting. It asks us to confront death and our complicity in causing it. As meat eaters we are complicit in death on an enormous scale, and though I wouldn't expect everyone to kill an animal to prove their worth as a carnivore, I would insist that our choices about meat are considered with these factors in mind. If they make you uncomfortable then you may want to rethink those choices, because the more distance you put between yourself and the source of your meat, the uglier the processes which bring it to your table are.

All photos were taken by me, just after the slaughter and during their preparation for butchering.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Farewell to my farming buddy

Laura's health hasn't always been the greatest while we've been in Italy, and on a recent trip back to Glasgow she decided to stay behind and get some treatments done. She's made a big improvement in many respects, so it's proving to be a good choice. She's also been offered a job in Glasgow, meaning she won't be faced with perpetual unemployment after returning from my fieldwork. Again, it makes sense for her to stay. So it looks like I'll be going back and forth between Scotland and Italy a little more than originally intended, and hopefully Laura will get a chance to come and visit me a couple times over the summer. The trick would be for me to find a WWOOF host between a beach and an airport...

Sensible as it all sounds, I'll miss having a buddy to do this with, especially as Laura was proving a dab hand with the slop bucket and manure shovel. But she's convinced that cleaning a chicken coop is a job best experienced only once. After that it just becomes routine.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Cascina dei Frutasé - Maximum diversity in a small rural space

Long time no update...

Don't worry, loyal readers, I haven't given up on the blog. I've just been doing a lot of work-related travelling lately and haven't managed to get much written.

My fears of gulag-style labour in blizzard conditions turned out to be unfounded; in fact we got the first real scent of spring in Cumiana, Piedmont, about 30km from Turin and 60km from the French border, where Laura and I spent a week in March doing WWOOF volunteering with the Zaro family: Bruno, Milena, Simone and Matteo.

A common but vital strategy for back-to-the-land migration involves the diversification of economic activities. I've seen this put into practice in various ways, but Bruno's family offers the must successful example that I've been able to document so far. Bruno and Milena both lived and worked in Turin until the start of the 1990s, when they decided to uproot to the local countryside. Both were tired of the time restrictions imposed by their regimented work cycles, and put faith in the idea that a rural relocation would offer greater personal freedom.

The donkeys of Cascina dei Frutasé: Ettore, Fillipo, Chan and Bierba

They began growing wheat, spelt and lesser-known grains traditional to the Alps, milling the cereals themselves and baking bread for retail at the farmers' markets of Pinerolo and Turin. This was their primary activity for about 10 years until they purchased Cascina dei Frutasé, a former fruit orchard that had fallen into neglect. Here they began to diversify their operations, designing terraces for growing leafy plants such as lettuce, cabbage, radicchio and valerian, as well as onions, garlic and other vegetables. At the top of the hill on which their house sits is a vegetable patch (known in Italy as an orto), where Laura helped plant this year's crop of onions and peas.

She can't train her husband, but Laura sure can train a hedge

Few of these vegetables find their way to local markets, however, as most get used by the family and in the restaurant they built as part of the house. Only open on weekends, the family prepares (with just a little outside help) a fixed-price menu, usually consisting of salad, antipasti, pasta or rice, meat, cheese and desert. They aim to offer mostly organic meals, with as much as possible grown on the property. On the Saturday night that Laura and I stayed there we were treated to the same food given to paying customers, all of which demonstrated the best of rich Piemontese cuisine. I think we ate something like a ridiculous 10 courses (all of them small, but we still had to call it quits before Milena started making crepes for us) but I remember being particularly blown away by the gallantina of rabbit and a warm local tomino topped with chestnut honey. Tomini are small rounds of cheese, usually drizzled with a light sauce or strong honey. The one Milena served was produced by a friend of theirs, and had a similar if less stringy texture to fresh mozzarella. Like mozzarella it had a very thin skin, and when punctured it oozed a soft, gooey interior. Simplicity and indulgence, perfectly harmonised.

One of Bruno's synergistic growing experiments

We're still a long way from covering the full scale of Cascina Frutase's operations. They keep donkeys, 2 horses and a mule (used primarily for summer trekking in the local hills, as well as a little farm work), and about 50 hens for eggs and 50 chickens reared for meat. There are two polytunnels for growing fruit and veg, clusters of fruit trees whose annual bounty is transformed into jams and marmalades and various mounds built for 'synergistic' agriculture, where Bruno is currently experimenting with wheat, spinach and onions.

Rising dough in the bakery / workshop

A workshop sits next to the house where grain is milled and dough produced for the 80 loaves of bread that are baked every week in a traditional wood-fired bread oven. There are three types of bread – wheat, spelt and another Piemontese grain – all hand-produced and looking very much the traditional artisan loaf. A lot of work goes into the baking, but it seems to result in a good payoff.

Bruno and Simone, preparing the loaves

On Friday afternoons Simone takes the bread to Turin, where an organic food shop buys about 20 loaves and a GAS group (a self-organised buying collective, more on which some other time...) takes a similar amount. The remaining loaves go to markets in Turin and Pinerolo, where Bruno also sells his eggs, preserves, and occasionally any excess fruit or vegetables. As I've been told repeatedly by several farmers in Italy, though, the money is in trasformazione – processing the raw materials into a more consumer-friendly package, such as jams, spreads or baked goods.

Some finished rounds, minutes out of the oven

Sunday farmers' market in Turin

Finally, the family uses what spare space they have to offer bed and breakfast hospitality.

The Zaros have all these bases covered in a more comprehensive way than I've seen at any other farm. They still operate with a spirit of experimentation and optimism, but have also found a formula which allows them to extract maximum value from a small piece of land. My next WWOOFing dispatch will show what can be achieved on an even smaller patch of ground, and within a densely populated area.

Some products from Cascina dei Frutasé