Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Ethical meat

Some friends invited us to their house for lunch a little while back. I knew what kind of food to expect there: in Crete, meat is the norm when preparing a meal for guests, our friends like barbecue, and they also like to prepare a lot of food, which often turns out to be too much and is left over and not eaten. I always feel sorry for the animals involved in such food preparation practices because I also know that our friends often tell us that they "don't do leftovers", which I suppose means that they end up chucking out food (usually by feeding it to their pets: they also give us doggy bags to take home, if that is any consolation).

Our latest meat purchase came on Sunday - 9.5kg of free-range lamb, sold to us at 5/kg. The meat pictured here is from half a sheep (ie one side); the animal weighed close to 20 kilos. The cost per kilo is very low compared to store prices. But there are many many reasons for buying meat in this way; it is not all about the price.

Well, I wasn't far wrong in terms of what I expected at the lunch party (there were 10 diners). There were barbecued pork steaks (one for each person, plus a couple of extras, for good measure) and  barbecued chicken (two hens), barbecued pork sausages, barbecued lamb chops and even a barbecued lamb's head. The lamb got in there because they had also cooked a lamb roast in the oven, together with roast potatoes; literally no one touched either, possibly because our host decided to fry some potatoes as well: 'για τα παιδιά,' she insisted (for the children) - her own ones are beefy teenagers. That meal could have served 20 guests, together with the green and tomato salads they served, which disappeared as fast as the bowl was set down on the table.

After removing as much fat as possible (you can see it in the pot), I divided it into portions, which I placed in plastic bags, ready to put it into the freezer. Some portions are bigger than others - some will make one family meal, while others will make enough for two meals (hence, no need to cook the next day.)

Our hosts were only trying to please their guests, presenting the best of the best that they could possibly afford, and it seems that they could afford a lot: meat is not a cheap commodity these days. But the whole idea of excess during a crisis simply fuels my belief that it is not an economic one - it is an identity crisis, or as my husband put it the other day when we were discussing it, a crisis of values.

I personally abhor this kind of cooking to excess; we only cook what we know we are going to eat, particularly when it comes to meat - I have made it a firm habit never to cook too much, because when there are too many meat leftovers, it simply means that we will end up eating many portions of meat over the week. We limit our meat consumption for health reasons, but I also like to keep in mind the ethical issues involved in eating meat. 

Ribs are a good choice for barbecuing - but not if they are as free-range as this meat (you are better off slow-cooking this as an oven roast with potatoes).

In Greece, I think it is true to say that ethics are not an issue at all in Greek people's minds. Greeks don't view the eating of meat as an ethical issue, and neither do they understand the concept of ethical meat. To their credit though, I can say that Greeks do have some understanding of the different kinds of meat available on the market, and what meals they are used for; that is a good foundation for their (eventual) understanding of the issue of ethical meat (when the issue eventually becomes one in Greece).   

From what I know, my hosts do not buy non-Greek meat, even though it's cheaper. The belief that Greek food is better than non-Greek food is still quite prevalent. This is of course a good thing for the economy, with added benefits for Greek identity; but it remains a subconscious belief - Greeks have not quite grasped the idea of building confidence through their own home-grown values, despite the foreign market's great interest in Greek food. (It seems to me that they are still looking at the outside world to shape their identity, identifying who they want to be rather than understanding who they really are. Greece has the potential to be great - it's all about the confidence shown in her by the Greeks themselves.)  

Tail - after the horse meat scandal broke out, I have a politically incorrect sense of superiority when I cook with meat whose body part I can immediately recognise on sight.

The meat we ate at my friends' place was not necessarily grown under ethical conditions: for a start, the chickens were from their own coop, a small, rather restricted caged area. But they were three or so months old whereas most mass-produced chicken on the market is slaughtered at 6 weeks old, so one could say that they had a reasonably long life before they became food. Pork is always a sore issue in terms of the ethics involved in raising it in Greece - pork is one of the most popular (and cheap) meats all over the country, and there is such over-consumption of it (at least in Hania), that we even import great quantities of it (a lot of supermarket pork these days comes from Holland and Belgium - it is cheaper than Greek pork). 

Lamb sold in Crete is, most of the time, Greek. The taste of Greek lamb is unique, because it is nearly always free-range, not necessarily organic, but definitely fed on a lot of natural food. Sheep and goats are often seen grazing on roadsides, so it's not hard to understand why the taste is so good. But lamb (and even more so goat) is more expensive than pork, which is why it is not as popular as pork. (Beef is the most expensive meat in Crete and it mainly comes from mainland Greece.)

Lamb's legs - if you can tell which one is the front leg, and which one the hind, you're doing well.

We had a bit of a discussion about lamb while we were eating. One host asked us where we buy it from. We explained that these days, we always buy it straight from the producer. It is of course cheaper to buy meat in this way, but we have a totally different reason for buying straight from the producer (which will become apparent as you read along). My husband mentioned the person he bought meat from the last time we purchased it. Our host said that he had also bought lamb from the same producer, but he didn't like it: "It was rather tough and sinewy," he said. That is a sign of free-range meat, I thought. The animal hasn't been cooped up in a restricted area; it's been allowed to roam freely in an open space, making the meat tougher. The more natural food that it eats also makes the meat taste better, having been scented by the wild herbs and foliage of the Cretan (and generally the Greek) countryside. Just as importantly, the animal had a reasonably long life (about 12 months) before it became someone's dinner, and it was slaughtered in the way that animals have been slaughtered for many centuries - it died in the area where it was born, away from the eyes and ears of other members of its species. It was led to its death without having experienced the concept before it eventually died.

"How did you cook it?" I asked him. It was immediately obvious to me what the problem was that my host found with the meat he bought from the farmer. When we buy this kind of meat, we cook it for a long time. Often, I boil it (to remove fat - the stock makes an excellent pilafi, so even that liquid is re-used), and then I place it in the pot or the oven (according to the chosen recipe), and it continues to cook till it falls off the bone, having soaked up the herbs and spices I added to it.  

Every part of an animal is useful. This time, we only got one kidney (which came with the half-side that we bought); the other innards (including the head, guts and stomach) were not sold to us because another customer wanted them. As I was cutting the meat into portions, some of it came off in shreds - I will use these bits to make things like spring rolls, etc where only a little meat is needed.

"On the barbecue, lamb chops, just like these ones" he replied, pointing to the rather charcoaled meat in the serving platter (they often burn it accidentally; the pork chops were cooked better because - if I may say so - my husband cooked them). How long do barbecued lamb chops need to cook? About 15-20 minutes in total, I suppose. It's been a long time since I barbecued lamb chops (we do mainly pork chops, and just lately, even that has felt like a hassle to me because you end up feeling rather hot, tired, smelly and sweaty). So our host was trying to cook meat in a quarter of an hour, from an animal that had had a year of life in rumination. He was right in saying that the meat didn't taste good - when meat is cooked in the wrong way, when the cook does not take into account the method that was used to raise the animal, then for sure, the meat will not taste good. The only way to cook such meat is slowly

I didn't enjoy my meal on that day at my hosts' home for this reason. It isn't at all the case that I think too much - my husband didn't enjoy the meal much either, but for different reasons to mine. Whereas I was thinking about all the wrong choices my hosts were making, he was thinking "I've eaten better barbecued meat than this." (See what I mean about the subconsciousness factor involved in Greek identity? He's taking for granted what I regard as a marketable aspect.)

Mind you, we didn't need another lamb's head - I have one sitting in the freezer at the moment. What gets up my nose about the Western civilised world's abhorrence to images such as this one is the price they are prepared to pay to eat this at a high class restaurant: top-to-tail restaurant food is very expensive in Western countries, whereas in Greece, it is the norm for taverna food. A lamb's head costs just 1 euro these days at the supermarket.

Maybe I shouldn't think too much. But I'm still glad that I cook the way I do, and I prefer the food choices that I make, and that I choose slow-cook taverna meals when we go out for dinner. It's so much healthier and so much more sustainable than anything I eat elsewhere.

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