I enjoy eating meat.
I've toyed with vegetarianism but it's just not for me. But I also know what a huge impact the production and consumption of meat is having on the environment and how our desire for cheap animal protein blinds us to animal welfare issues. I'm also very conscious of the inequities of a food system that feeds vegetable protein to animals to meet the needs of rich consumers and lets the poor starve for want of a few calories. So our family eats meat once or twice a fortnight and we try and make sure we know exactly how that meat was raised, what it was fed on and how it was slaughtered. Of course the best way to do that is to keep your own animals and so I thought I'd use this post to say a little about my pig-keeping days.
For a few years in the late 90s I lived in a terraced house in Cheltenham Spa. The house was blessed with a long narrow back garden. We grew vegetables and kept chickens to start with but wanted to try something... bigger. More to the point my housemate wanted to start eating meat again but felt that to do this he had to be prepared to take full responsibility for an animal's life.
And so I was given 2 Gloucestershire old spot pigs for my 24th birthday.
They grew quickly - surprisingly quickly - charmed us, and lived off food waste from the local wholefood shop (which I happened to run). They turned our garden over in no time, they even turned next door's garden over a couple of times too. The two of them (despite us agreeing not to name them they ended up being called Breakfast and Dinner) became a talking point on the street. No one complained (even when they escaped) and some of the older residents remembered when quite a few of the households had backyard pigs and how kitchen scraps were pooled to feed them.
After 6 months it was time for the pigs to be slaughtered and butchered and, like anxious parents choosing a primary school, my housemate and I visited several abattoirs before finding one we felt happy with.
Seeing the pigs off in the van was tough, seeing them return in small bags was even harder.
We invited friends and neighbours who'd known the pigs to try the pork, roasting a big joint. Many sitting round the table were nervous about eating meat from animals they'd known, but as the meat was carved tentative diners became enthusiastic eaters: the pork was fantastic, and we ate and shared every bit with respect. Over the next few months we made a point of eating every last scrap - 'nose to tail eating' as Fergus Henderson calls it. We made brawn, rillettes, fried the ears, made more refined pates, set jellies and cooked big roasts. We learned how to really cook and eat meat. We lost any sense of squeamishness about cooking and eating offal and we learned what an honour and a privilege it is to keep and eat your own animal.
And so when the idea of a pig club started doing the rounds in Bungay I was an enthusiastic advocate. A pig club, functioning much like any other CSA where members take financial and practical responsibility for a few pigs, is a great way to give people the kind of introduction to husbandry that I had in Cheltenham, but as part of a wider supportive group. The Bungay club has struggled to find the right piece of land but we're almost there now. Keep an eye on the Sustainable Bungay website for updates on our progress.