Have you ever stood in your butchers shop or alternatively the butcher’s counter at your local supermarket (where staff don straw boaters and striped aprons in order to convince you that they, and they alone, really did make the sausages that morning), and been overwhelmed by the burden of moral accountability at the point of purchase, or do you accede to guiltily low-priced convenience instead?  And whilst some establishments will dutifully publish the entire blood-line of the skillfully dismembered beast, others turn the sanitised, anonymous, shrink wrapped components into something that might easily baffle a formal identity parade. Given the chirpy, horse-related headlines that pop up occasionally, selecting meat today is as fraught as trying to choose a pie variety from the 19thc window display at Sweeney Todd’s.

Factor in the more recent question as to whether I, as a citizen of our global village, should even be considering meat as my principal sustenance – trying to pickup the raw ingredients for a light supper on my way home can quickly develop into an existential challenge.

On this matter you might find a couple of books well worth a peek, if you haven’t done so already.

It is twenty years or so since I first read Stephen Budiansky’s astonishing and impressive book, The Covenant of the Wild (1994). Re-reading it today and one realises that it has an increasingly crowded field of battle in which to hoist its unorthodox colours.

His premise might best be summarised as an erudite pushback against the swirling contemporary wisdom that grew during the last gasps of the twentieth century, gasps that cited carnivorous human behavior as murder, house pets as the reluctantly enslaved creatures and domestic farm animals as guiltless prisoners. He writes, “…in devising solutions based on a model of nature that is ten thousand years out of date…we believe that all we need to do is leave nature alone, and do no overt harm, and everything will be fine, as if our very existence had not irrevocably altered the ecological balance of the planet”.

More notably, that modern homo-sapiens had become distanced from the raw truths at the heart of nature and can only imagine a paradise on earth where all animal life is heavenly, save for the wicked cruelties and constraints we alone have inflicted on helpless creatures. Think fluffy Pandas and cute Artic Seals (funny, we’ve never found fluffy rats and cute wasps sociologically quite as picturesque). And that in the new found, isolated sophistication of our lives, we have all but forgotten the constant intrusion that the savage rules of nature continue to enact.

Budiansky talks of the comparatively modern contradiction involved in the killing and eating of animals we carefully rear close to home – in direct contrast to the relentless killing and eating of animals that happens every day in the wild.

But as the number of vegetarians and vegans continue to grow, spurred on by the wider understanding of habitat destruction and threatening emissions that modern animal farming causes, many carnivores still stubbornly hold firm to their inalienable right to consume meat as and when they please. Although the concept of non-meat eating can appear counter-intuitive, often at the expense of barren oceans and a dwindling fish supply, meat eaters now have a much more profound remit to consider.

In a country where auction prices for Beatrix Potter books often exceed the average national wage and we  enforce starry-eyed legislation to cull a few badgers, but outlaw random fox-hunting, we nonchalantly continue to slaughter 20,000,000 chickens (yes, that’s twenty million), 300,000 sheep and 200,000 pigs every single week – often oblivious to the unnecessary cruelty their commercially expedient lives must regularly endure.

Paradoxically then that the principal hypothesis of Budiansky’s book is that many wild animals had originally ‘selected’ their proximity to humans, rather than having become victims of dominance.

Given that predatory animals autimatically predate upon many other animals, the attachment to, and protection by, the human species, in Darwinian terms at least, is far better for many species than illness, injury, old age, isolation or hunger in the predatory world beyond. In short, and not without irony, Budiansky posits that animals ‘discovered’ safety alongside human settlements compared with their learnt experience on the plains or in the woodlands. Out there, the Garden of Eden is purely myth and legend so domestication originally proved to be a highly successful evolutionary strategy for both animals and humans alike. And it was in everyone’s interest that all were regularly fed and healthy – not a given when alone in the wild.

However it was the inherent and unnecessary cruelty associated with latter-day rearing of animals for slaughter that caused many vegetarians to leave the room. Pledged ‘improvements’ in animal welfare continues to be little short of scandalous so the idea that animals are, on balance, better placed by our sides, now appears questionable. Hello Brexit.

Toss in the modern dilemmas that our present cheap, meat-led diet makes many of us fat and ill, that most farmland is increasingly becoming a ‘green desert’, poor animal husbandry accounts for most of the world’s pandemics and the ozone layer is looking evermore like an omnipresent colander, a call to arms is clear, even if it has not as yet been universally acknowledged.

So step forward another book on human consumption I happened to re-read around the same time, Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food – An eater’s manifesto (2008), with its profound and non-negotiable strapline; “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. Non-negotiable, unless you have a penchant for crunchy breaded locusts or 3-D printed dinners that is.

Simplistic or simple, your call. But these days there surely has to be a call. One on behalf of the animals and, increasingly, one on behalf of their supposed masters.

So, in the footsteps of countless practical and enlightened folk before me, I have long been looking to make vegetables the starting point of my cooking rather than the also-ran. And when you climb onto the culinary shoulders of France, Italy and Greece, and look further afield to India and China, vegetable cuisine has offered exciting gastronomy for millennia. And as for the hip mantra we think of as daringly contemporary; that of choosing local, fresh and seasonal – how on this earth do we think symbiotic gastronomy ever came into being?

I have selected a recipe by a particularly talented cook here, (David Tanis, a former head chef at Chez Panisse in California) but the general principal is common amongst many cooks and across many countries. The two most important things for a respectable pot of long-cooked greens are that the greens cook for at least an hour, preferably more, until they melt in the mouth, and that the copious broth be assertively seasoned.

Although a proportion of meat is still included (I am clearly not a vegetarian), this is a dish that smugly ticks a few of the more irksome demands we part-time carnivores face today. But beyond the feeling of resounding piety, it is principally a most delicious meal.

From Market Cooking (2017) by David Tanis

25 g butter
2 large onions
Salt and pepper
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp mustard powder
½ tsp crushed red pepper
¼ tsp cayenne
½ tsp pimentón
Smoked ham hock, pork belly (free-range,Tamworth) or bacon slab
1 litre water
2 kg mixed cooking greens such as kale, chard and mustard greens
1 tbsp cider vinegar

In a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium-high heat, melt the butter.

Add the onions, season generously with salt and pepper, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.

Stir in the garlic, tomato paste, mustard powder, crushed red pepper, cayenne, and paprika, and cook for 1 minute.

Add the pork belly or ham hock and water and bring to a boil.

Adding more water will result in more pot liquor, which some people simply can’t get enough of!

Add the greens a handful at a time, pushing them down with a wooden spoon to help them wilt into the liquid.

When all the greens are in the pot, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, partially covered, until the greens are very tender, 1 to 1½ hours.

To finish the pork belly, (as I did) you can remove from the broth and roast for 10 minutes to ensure crackling.

Taste the broth adjust seasoning as needed, then stir in the vinegar.

Serve immediately.

Cooked greens will keep, refrigerated in their liquid, for up to 3 days. Reheat before serving.

Wine thoughts

With it’s inclusion of softly cooked pork and a flurry of vegetables an elegant Cabernet Franc, St-Nicholas-de-Bourgeil, ticks all the delicate but earthy boxes here.