A Weighty Issue #2 - The Meaty Question
This blog will feature many things that interest me or that I'm involved in. I've also chosen to use it to share my personal lockdown weight loss journey. My first post on the subject seems to have gone down quite well. So here's Part 2.
I'm going to be talking about my approach to the emotive subject of meat. Veggie and vegan chums may want to look away now.
I'll start by saying that I am a meat eater. But I'm a picky meat eater. And an informed and ethical meat eater. Much of my attitude towards meat stems from my childhood.
It's fair to say that a great deal of the protein I was served up as a child came fresh and direct from the land or the sea. Growing up in Cornwall, and coming from a family of shooters and fishermen, my diet regularly featured game. I ate rabbit, pigeon, woodcock and pheasant, and I enjoyed freshly caught fish like mackerel, pollock, and gurnard, along with prawns and crab. Some of my earliest memories involve hunting for delicious winkles in rock pools. And many of the oldest photos I have of my late father show him proudly displaying what he'd bagged or hooked for lunch.
That's me in the final photo with my dad and grandad Fred and looking slightly bemused about holding a dead woodcock or snipe (snipe are very difficult birds to shoot because they have an erratic flight pattern, so now you know where the word 'sniper' - meaning a crack shot - comes from).
I grew up in a house where it was normal to see dead animals hanging in the cold store or being gutted and skinned for the pot. And when I was old enough to hold a gun I was given a single bore four ten fowling piece and allowed to go shooting with my elders. I eventually moved up to the classic twelve bore. And, in turn, I learned to hunt animals, kill them cleanly and quickly, and prepare them for eating.
This was a very sustainable and healthy way to feed the family. Game tends to be low in fat and cholesterol. None of my family were chubby. We kept bantams for eggs and grew a lot of our own veg. Occasionally we bought from local farms and we weren't above foraging for wild herbs, fruits and safe-to-eat mushrooms. We were, in essence, living the lifestyle that is now promoted by people like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on his River Cottage TV shows. And, of course, this is how people lived in this country for thousands of years before food production became industrialised.
My relocation to London in 1980 was, therefore, something of a culture shock. First of all, there was my exposure to new cuisines like Indian and Greek and proper non-takeaway Chinese that had all been denied me in rural Cornwall. But, on the negative side, there was the realisation that the meats I'd grown up with, and to some degree regarded as 'paupers' food', were considered posh nosh in the city. I couldn't believe the price of pheasant or lobster. And mention of eating rabbit or grey squirrel led invariably to looks of shock and sometimes disgust that I'd even contemplate such a thing. I felt like a complete yokel.
I got a similar reaction when mentioning offal. I grew up very much in the tradition of 'waste not want not'. I've always believed that if an animal is to be killed so that we can eat it, it should be given the best life possible, then despatched in the most humane, quick and painless way. I also believe that you should respect the animal by using every part of it that you can. If you can make a chicken last for eight meals rather than one, that's seven other chickens that haven't had to die for your table.
Therefore, I'd grown up loving things like kidneys and liver, haggis and pigs' trotters, ox tail soup and black pudding. But even back in the early 1980s, the tide was turning against offal and now, here in 2021, I can't even get liver in my local Co-Op. 'There's no call for it', they tell me. 'The young people won't even look at it.' It's such a shame as, again, it's low in fat, low in cholesterol, packed with vitamins and minerals and very tasty. Thankfully, I am hugely spoiled by having three exceptional award-winning family butchers within minutes of my house - Halls of Hazlemere, R S Troutt's and J P Gleeson's.
All three feature a great range of local produce, game and home made items like sausages and burgers. The staff are knowledgeable and they are family-run businesses so the money I spend there goes back into the community rather than into some giant corporation bank vault (I'm not on a percentage, by the way).
All of which leads me to my current weight loss journey and my decisions about meat.
It's a fact that I was eating too much. The Department of Health advises that you should eat no more than 70g per day and probably less. To put that into perspective, a Full English breakfast with two sausages and two rashers of bacon is equivalent to 130g of meat. Red meat in particular is a problem as there is strong evidence that over-indulgence increases the risk of developing cancers in the digestive system, particularly the bowel. Plus, while vegetables may make your body produce a lot of gas, it's the meat that adds the odour.
Then there are the cows to think about.
There is also the impact on the environment to consider. Livestock emissions make up anywhere between 14.5 and 18 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions (beef farming is responsible for nearly half of that figure). Meanwhile, all of the cars, trains, ships, trains and lorries added together account for around 14 percent. And, while both cows and cars create CO2, livestock farming produces much more methane in the form of burps and farts - and methane is 23 times more potent when it comes to warming the planet.
Take the humble chicken for example. A whole large chicken from ASDA will cost you £3.75 (it's about the same in most supermarkets). That's a pretty low price. And to keep it cheap, the farmer has to intensify their stock. So, despite the 'Red Tractor Assured' symbol and the fact that the label says 'reared to high welfare standards in natural light', these birds will have been grown indoors by being fed meal that puts weight on them quickly. It's notable that the front page of the Red Tractor website has a background photo showing how intensively these birds are farmed.
Birds that are reared organically grow much more slowly and in a natural environment in which they are free to roam and supplement their feed with foraging. This, naturally, reduces the farmer's profit margin - slim as it already is - so the chicken costs more. Again, to use ASDA as a benchmark, a large organic chicken will cost you £11. That's nearly three times more. But quality always costs more. That's a fact of life. A Rolls Royce is going to be better in almost every way than a Ford Focus. And an organic bird is going to taste much better, and have had a much better life, than an intensively shed-reared bird.
Not everyone can afford to spend over a tenner on a chicken and many families have no choice but to plump for cheaper alternatives. It's another fact of life that the more money you have, the better you can afford to eat. It's criminal. But, you can eat better on a budget if you use a little imagination and if you have the time. You can make that £11 chicken last a lot longer by adopting a 'nose to tail' ethos:
Waste nothing. Use everything.
I'm in a household of just two people and a single chicken will easily provide us with EIGHT meals, maybe ten. That means that our organic £11 chicken has earned its keep, costing us as little as £1.10 per portion.
We might start by traditionally roasting the bird and either having it for Sunday lunch or as an accompaniment for a baked potato and some salad. All we use for this first meal is the breast meat and, it being a large chicken, one breast feeds two easily. To eat healthily, your meat portion should never exceed a quarter of your plate. The other three quarters should be veg or pulses.
The other breast is then cubed and used in a curry, or a tagine, or eaten cold with a salad (with maybe some warm smoked bacon too). A personal favourite is to make a warming stew with chorizo and chickpeas (or butter beans) in a rich tomato sauce. To make it even cheaper, use a tin of baked beans but drain off the sauce (to be used in another dish) and wash the beans.
Finally, the bones are boiled up in a pot, with all of the meat juices that were released during cooking the roast, plus some stock vegetables and herbs. I now have a base for soups, risottos or anything else I fancy. And you'll be amazed how much chicken is still left on the carcase at this stage. There will be plenty enough for the meal and the stock tastes deliciously of chicken.