I am a diehard omnivore. Meat, fish, shellfish, vegetables, dairy, pulses – I love it all! And, as I’ve mentioned many times before, fresh local produce is abundant here in Northumberland.
Roast chicken is a bit of a family favourite with my lot. Over the years it’s become a symbol of togetherness. When London Daughter was little I always served roast chicken when she returned from time away – and usually still do. There’s nothing finer than a carved platter of succulent chicken, scented subtly with tarragon, surrounded by crisp roasties (maybe even a Yorkshire pud or two), plus mountains of veg of the season and a tangy white wine gravy made with the juice from the bird. The best accompaniment is, of course, the family banter. Oh, and the inevitable squabble over who’s going to get the oysters (apparently the French call these easy-to-miss tasty morsels tucked beneath the thighs, ‘le sot l’y laisse’ or ‘the fool leaves it there’).
And there are leftovers: bones equal stock for soup or risotto; shreds of meat pressed with cold cooked potato, spring onion, ginger and chilli and coated in breadcrumbs make chicken cakes; scraps of meat, thin-cut veg, dried noodles, dollop of Tom Yum paste and, hey presto!, it’s spicy Thai soup; or how about a chicken sarnie with lashings of pepper and mayo? Yep, roast chicken can do a fair few meals (more, perhaps, than a pack of breasts).
When we moved from London to North Northumberland, we became hen owners (for eggs rather than meat). I know people keep hens in coops in tiny town gardens (and, spotted recently, even on the decks of houseboats), but I am still haunted by the memory of a schoolfriend’s father’s battery hen farm. Low-slung sheds were rammed with hens in restrictive cages, their beaks trimmed to stop them damaging each other, necks rubbed featherless as they hoovered up feed from troughs at the base of the cages. I can’t remember where the eggs gathered – although the eggs were the point. I do remember the overpowering smell and noise. A Guantanamo for hens, perhaps.
I’ve always felt that, like humans, animals should be able to get outside as well as have safe, roomy indoor quarters. Of course, such lodgings are more expensive. Take chicken. Today, it’s mass produced on an almost unfathomable scale. According to RSPCA-monitored Freedom Food, around 800 million birds are reared in the UK for meat each year – and, don’t be fooled, ‘high welfare’ supermarket brands are kept indoors, albeit with a tad more space. But let’s not condemn out of hand, research suggests that furnished cages (more space per hen, a perch and nest area) which contain around 90 birds and are stacked on top of each other in tiers, can offer better quality of life than some free-range coops. So, not straightforward – and a bit of a lottery for the poor old hen.
In days gone by, slaughtering an animal was a whole-village ritual – a sort of celebration of the animal’s life and death. The carcass of a pig would be shared and would feed people for as much as a week. And that’s another thing. Not only is meat now a daily certainty for most of us rather than a special event, portion sizes have ballooned. And, you can’t help linking portion size to mass production, and to the desire to distance ourselves from the animal as a living being before it hits the shelf.
But it is all a bit chicken-and-egg – do we eat more because there is more, or vice versa? I don’t know the answer. But I do like to know where my meat comes from and how it’s been treated in life and death. And, if that means spending a bit more and eating a bit less, then so be it.
A version of this post was first published in The Berwick Advertiser on 3rd April 2014