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Of Vegetables and Venison

I arrive home to find a magnificent box of vegetables in the kitchen. Red cabbage and onions, leeks and peppers, potatoes and, hidden in the leafy carrots, a few shiny red chillies. At first I think Karen must have signed us up to a veg box scheme, then remember that I gave a haunch of venison to some neighbours who have just started a small-holding. This is their gift in return.

Fallow Deer

This story began when I spotted a road kill Fallow Buck beside the A303. It was still warm when I lifted it in to the back of the car, took it home and kept it in the garage overnight. I should really have gutted it (gralloched is the proper word) that night but it was cold in the garage so I got away with that mistake.
 
My next error was to introduce Karen to this beautiful animal when it was still a deer rather than a selection of neatly packaged joints and fillets of venison in the freezer. Instead of venison steaks and casseroles she saw the sad spectacle of a once proud beast with broken legs and bloodied head lying in the boot of our car. This was an error I couldn’t correct.
 
Now, I was a vegetarian (mostly) for over twenty years while Karen has always been happy to eat meat. Recently, after reading Graham Harvey’s The Carbon Fields and Simon Fairlies’ Meat – A Benign Extravagance (anti and pro reviews can be seen here), I’ve started to eat some meat, it almost feels like an environmental duty, but Karen still eats far more than I do, including venison. But not this venison!
 
And neither would Nathanael! The first time I cooked a casserole with the beautiful lean meat he pushed the pieces around his plate for a while and then went and got some cheese from the fridge. Now this is a boy who will eat the most disgusting processed meats you can find in any supermarket, fast food restaurant or greasy café. I have a friend who once inspected abattoirs and calls sausages ‘mystery bags’ because you never know what is in them. My friend won’t eat those sausages but Nathanael will happily devour them, perhaps precisely because their contents are unknown to him, while the venison on his plate is a known quantity.
 
Gooseberry Bush before pigeon attackI do understand how they feel. All this summer I’ve watched pigeons eating the gooseberries in our garden. Last year I harvested fifteen pounds from three bushes but this year gathered less than a pound. Every time I adjusted the netting they found a way in, every time I waved my arms and shouted from the window they flew off, but returned within minutes. So no gooseberry-jam or crumbles this winter.
 
Now I’ve looked at those pigeons and thought about how their lightly fried gooseberry flavoured breasts would taste and of how this recipe would end their depredations in our fruit garden. I’ve read The River Cottage Cookbook where Hugh explains how to catch pigeons and I’ve looked up the price of air rifles on the Internet. But those pigeons are still in the garden and have, adding insult to injury, built a nest in the Magnolia to make their journey to our gooseberries more convenient! I can’t, or haven’t yet, overcome my squeamishness about killing them. I’ll probably have to wait until someone runs the little bastards over.
 
Many years ago I lived on a farm where we kept pigs, chickens, geese and turkeys. I remember days spent killing, plucking and gutting fowl and butchering pigs on the kitchen table. I sneaked around in the woods with the .410 shotgun favoured by poachers to shoot rabbit, pheasant and pigeon. None of them had done me any harm but I ate them anyway.
 
Not now. I gutted, skinned, butchered and ate that deer because not to do so would have been a terrible waste. My neighbours and I will eat the meat, I gave the skin to a local leather worker who will turn it into a beautiful bag and I shared the carcass and guts among the badgers and foxes in a nearby wood. Nothing was wasted. But taking the next step, pointing the rifle and pulling the trigger, is one I’m not ready to take just yet.
 
There is a tremendous amount of confusion and hypocrisy around our eating habits. Vegetarians who eat dairy products when the dairy industry is inextricably linked to the beef industry, people who eat fish from unsustainable sources while spurning meat, Vegans eating soya and nuts grown on land stolen from the rain forests – and people who eat meat but don’t want to think about how it got to their plate. Putting people back in touch with the sources of our food could be a chance to tackle this problem.
 
Here in Totnes we now have a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) scheme for pork and lamb as well as one for vegetables. You can pay in advance for anything from a few packs of sausages (no mystery about where these come from) or a pack of mince, to a whole pig or lamb. The animals are kept outdoors whenever possible and CSA supporters can take a hand in looking after them. You can’t actually slaughter your own animal but you can have an intimate connection with what eventually ends up on your plate. This could lead some people to become vegetarians and that’s no problem. It will certainly result in higher standards of animal welfare and, because good meat costs more than supermarket crap, less meat may be consumed. Meat as an occasional extravagance rather than a daily staple is good for our health, the environment and our consciences.
 
Pigs at School Farm
 
So today I’ll happily chop carrots, cabbage and potatoes for dinner and if I cry it will be because I’m peeling onions and not because of any ethical dilemma. I know they’ll taste especially good, not just because they’ve been grown organically, but also because they are a gift from our neighbours. And I’ll keep a sharp look out for road killed deer because I really wouldn’t want one to be wasted.

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