It came as a bit of a surprise to see someone putting ‘sustainable’ and ‘meat’ together in a recent newspaper article. Tim Wilson, a butcher and the founder of the Ginger Pig restaurant in London, explained in the Times that because almost the entire pig could be eaten, it was the ‘ultimate sustainable meat’. Whether or not meat production is environmentally sustainable or ethical is, in itself, one hell of a question. What is clear, though, is that we are not sustainable or particularly ethical meat eaters. A recent study into UK food waste by WRAP found that we throw away 8.3 million tonnes of food a year, 5.8 million tonnes of which was avoidable. Within this, meat and fish account for just seven per cent, but still throws up some eye-watering figures. Pork is the worst offender for avoidable waste levels: we throw away 93,000 tonnes a year, which tots up to £440 million of unnecessarily discarded pork. Even lamb - the most efficiently used at a comparatively minimal 8,000 tonnes avoidably wasted, and widely regarded as being reasonably ethical - accounts for £51 million in the bin. Not, after-all, the most sustainable meat.
It hasn’t always been this way. Meat wasn't traditionally unsustainable or unethical. Without falling prey to nostalgia, our ancestors should be praised for making the most of the less popular cuts of meat - shoulders, necks, jowl - and offal - the innards, from the brains to the kidneys. Everyone, it seems, has a parent or grandparent who enjoyed sheep brawn or goat’s head stew as a dietary staple. A recent BBC article on favourite old foods, for example, listed tripe and chitterlings as some of the foodstuffs that were once cherished but have now waned in popularity. But recent years have seen a minor revival of the unusual cut. The chef Fergus Henderson championed the idea of eating the entire animal as being more respectful to the ‘beast’, as he calls it. Fergus Henderson's cookbook Nose to Tail Eating, published in 2004, became a hit and any ambitious pub worth its salt now has slow roast belly pork on the menu.
But, even if we are beginning to let fewer parts go to waste, does this make eating meat more sustainable or ethical? Hypothetically, yes: if we were more efficient in eating one pig, it would reduce our need for another in a simple equation of supply and demand. Going further, Simon Fairlie, author of the groundbreaking Meat: A Benign Extravagance, argues that meat is intrinsic to the UK’s agricultural tradition. ‘Whether you like it or not,’ he argues, ‘it would be wasteful to not consume meat or dairy. Something I’d like to see happening is people keeping a neighbourhood pig and making bacon.’
While keeping a pig between my flatmates and I probably wouldn’t have met with the approval of our landlady, the idea of nose to tail eating in the spirit of avoiding waste seemed like a good challenge. And a step - perhaps - towards steering our flesh consumption towards sustainable meat. But could I handle it for five days without opting for a more conventional fillet or, worse, cave in to squeamishness? I started slowly, with liver, the most familiar type of offal. With its strangely brown hue, wrapped in a vacuum-packed sheath of blood, liver is immediately recognisable on supermarket shelves. It's also cheap. Very cheap. As would become clear over the week, eating unpopular cuts saves the pennies: my 350g of lamb’s liver was at its sell-by date and had been reduced to a ridiculous 47p. My girlfriend and I decided to try the classic liver and onions. Preparing the meat is the worst part of the dish: before you fry it, you need to rub the liver in flour, which turns almost clay-like when it mixes with the blood, leaving your finger-tips strangely numbed by their blood-flour coating. After that, fry the onions until they begin to caramelise, add the liver and fry for five minutes, then mix in some stock and simmer for 15 minutes. Liver is an acquired taste, its distinctively rich flavour accompanied by an almost gritty crunch, and would work well in small portions. In our case, the amount we had was more than enough for the two of us.
Nose to tail eating
Day two brought a trip to the butchers, the Meat Market on Chapel Road in Angel, Islington. I was hoping to try some pig cheeks but they - as with many unusual cuts - have to be specially requested so I settled for lamb’s heart. The preparation required a little more skill: once the blood has been rinsed away, the top needs to be chopped off and the arteries removed. Making the first incision gave me a curiously emotional pang - unlike other cuts, there’s no mistaking what this is. Braising works best, and I added carrots and leeks to the stew. The result was impressively tasty. Heart has a similar texture to kidney: chewy but, if braised for long enough, breaks apart beautifully.
Buoyed up by the successes of the previous days, I returned to the butcher’s to pick up my pig cheeks. But instead of just preparing those, though, the butcher had cut an entire pig’s head in two, bagging up the halves of face and skull for me. ‘Great!’ I said, drawing on some false bravado as he showed me one half-face. ‘Erm, how do I prepare the cheeks?’ ‘Well, first you’ll have to singe the hairs off…’ he replied. Right. Beginning to feel way out of my depth, I tried a different tack: ‘Could you prepare the brain for me?’ ‘It’s easy - just scoop it out,’ said the butcher, sticking his finger in the browny-grey mush. Hmm. I handed over £3.50 and sheepishly went on my way. My head-in-a-bag provoked laughter and revulsion, in equal parts, from friends. One backed away quickly, declaring ‘that is GROSS!’ ‘I’ve never seen anyone so freaked out by something they’ve deliberately done,’ said another, before mucking in with some amateur butchery.
Once on the chopping board, the initial squeamishness rapidly turned to curiosity. Taking advice from a video online, we shaved, rather than singed, the hairs, carefully guarding our work for fear of alarming passing neighbours. Before long, and with some Google guidance, we’d got some fairly juicy-looking steaks cut from the cheek muscle and the ear, and sliced up the cheeks themselves for the next day. Once the steaks were in the frying pan, we turned to the skull. One website we’d found, nosetotailathome.com, said that in foody circles, ‘as soon as someone lets on that they’ve eaten brains, that’s pretty much the end of the game’, which was enough for us to get scooping. In no time, we had what looked like a flesh-coloured jelly in a colander. We rinsed it (difficult - it runs through the fingers and down the plug-hole with ease) and were about to boil when another look at the website mentioned a common worry for potential brain-munchers: that of ‘catching something’. Some further research threw up references to disease-transmitting protein particles called prions that linger in grey matter, which was enough to convince us to stick with our deliciously juicy ear-steaks (with chips and peas), leaving the brain alone.
Undaunted by my run-in with brain, I was determined to get the pig’s cheeks right, and opted for a classic slow roast, lightly covering them in olive oil and thyme and adding carrots and parsnips. Flash-fryers beware: this is a slow process, but worth the wait. Two-and-a-half hours of medium-heat roasting results in some of the most tender, succulent and gently crispy meat you could hope for. A genuine revelation, this meal alone justified the challenge.
On the final day of the challenge, I met with the king of the unusual cut, Fergus Henderson, at his St. John restaurant in Clerkenwell. He has enjoyed huge acclaim for his nose to tail ethos but doesn’t consider it remotely revolutionary. ‘It was always just the way I cooked, always seemed sensible’ he explains. ‘It annoys me when people say ‘trend’: I see it as the only appropriate way to eat.’ The idea of it being daring to eat offal is, for Henderson, a joke. ‘‘It’s really shocking, guys, yeah!’ he laughs. ‘Of the things I’ve cooked, I generally like to think, it’s not weird, it’s delicious.’ And a favourite cut of meat? ‘Well, pigs’ trotters are a joy.’ Sadly, the day of my visit seemed to be the first since they opened in 1994 that St. John haven’t served their famous roast bone marrow and parsley salad, so I opted for a plate of cold mutton leg and pickled red cabbage instead. What could have been tasteless and stringy had been treated by expert hands: this mutton was rare and flavoursome, and finished all too quickly.
Ultimately, I failed the challenge with the brain-based stumble, added to which, I left many stones unturned: I’m yet to take up Fergus Henderson's trotter recommendation. But despite the brain fiasco, my experience has been a good one: nothing I had was anything less than tasty, and the cheeks were glorious. What seems initially gruesome about these cuts soon seems perfectly normal so if you are happy to accept the essential ethics of meat eating, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t extend your palate. While it does seem difficult to say that it’s being respectful to the animal - £3.50 for a pig’s head is so low as to be almost offensive - it does at least seem respectful to the idea of avoiding wastefulness - and thus eating sustainable meat. On that thought, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to get some trotters.
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