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travel, stories, and other flights of fancy

Reflections of a conflicted omnivore… and a bit about Segovian suckling pig

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   “If you’re going to kill an animal for food, you may as well use the whole animal.” Said someone, once, I think on Master Chef.

Another time, a vegetarian friend scolded me for leaving half a schnitzel on my plate. “An animal died for your meal” she said, “so you can’t throw it out now, you have to finish it”.

For quite some time, I’ve been umming and ah-ing about whether or not to eat meat.

Environmentally (and politically, I suppose?), I belong to the camp of people who believe the planet would be better off if we were all vegetarians. Livestock consume too much fodder (energy), destroy too much land, and fart too much methane, to really justify the unnecessary quantities of meat enjoyed by a lucky handful of first-world people. As for animal conditions and cruelty, like most people, I try to live and eat in blissful ignorance. I know there’s a good reason why I don’t want to know too much about where my meat comes from. If I did, I’d probably have to bite the bullet and go seriously green. Obviously there’s a lot more regulation these days; you can opt to buy fair trade and organic and what not… but I’ve heard (not quite from the horse’s mouth, but close enough), that these ticks, trademarks and certificates are not to be trusted. At least in Spain.

On the other hand, I’m a firm believer in the natural cycle of things. Animals eat other animals, and our ancestors have hunted, stabbed, beat, bludgeoned and skinned their dinners for millennia. Who are we to turn our noses up at what evolution (and our tastebuds) dictates to be nothing but a good thing? Damn vegetarians. Think they’re smarter than Darwin. (And they’re so bloody difficult at dinner parties.)

Over the years, my actual meat consumption has oscillated radically, though not always in relation to the ideological tug-of-war that’s being played out upstairs.

As a kid, I ate a regular Australian omnivorous diet. This consisted of (burnt black) sausage sizzlesat at all school/community events, roasts on special family occasions, fish theoretically once a week but more like once a month, and a constant intake of the world’s best (I’m really not biased) spaghetti bolognaise.

As a teenager, I worked at Maccas. Not only did I eat a lot of the de/re-constituted/frozen/hydrated ‘meat’, but I actually inhaled the fatty gases and absorbed the meaty greasiness through my skin as well.

As a uni student, I became an economic near-vegetarian. This didn’t bother me, as I had a really swanky sandwich press. A cheese-and-tomato* toasty has protein, carbs and vegetable. For under 50c per meal, what better nutrition could you ask for?
* ie tomato sauce/ketchup

Towards the end of uni, I remember I had a few short stints without meat, mostly for health reasons. It was part of a semi-permanent ‘detoxification’ process (obsession). Live on nuts and berries for a week, and then everything else (all ‘bad’) every other week. Smart.

Then I had a steak* in Argentina, and that idea went out the window. How could meat be bad, when it makes you feel this good? Argentinean steak literally had a Popeye effect on me, and I resolved to start eating meat regularly when I got back to Melbourne.
*with a nice glass of Malbec**, of course.
**an incredibly heavy red wine, that makes Australian shiraz seem like fruit juice

I guess part of growing up* has been the (incredible!) realisation that how you feel on a daily basis has a direct correlation with what you do or don’t eat. Good stuff makes you feel good, and rubbish makes you feel rubbish. Brilliant!
* yes, I consider myself partially grown up

And so for a while, I had a very healthy, very regular diet, with everything safely balanced and controlled. I ate wholemeal grains, free range eggs and organic chicken (though still not quite enough fish). I got seriously into Kangaroo meat, which was a cheaper, healthier option to other red meats in Australia. (It’s also more environmentally friendly. Kangaroos don’t hurt the land, and they don’t produce methane.)

As for a good hearty beef steak, that was for special occasions at my parents’ place, as they have connections with an incredible butcher. I still remember the eye-fillet (medium rare) that dad cooked me for my going away dinner. I don’t think I’ve had a beef steak since. It’s been a year and a half, not that I’m counting.

When I came to Spain, all planning and moderation went out the window. Meal ‘times’ were shifted about four hours later, the bakeries in my village only had fluffy white bread, all cooked food seemed to be fried, all fresh food was soaked in olive oil, and the people seemed to eat so much god damn pig.

But when you don’t know the language, you can’t protest. All you can really do, is let go.

On more than one occasion I found myself in situations where the only food was meat (dripping with fat), and bread, without so much as a cherry tomato in sight. That’s not to say that all Spanish food is unhealthy and that the people don’t eat greens, it’s just that they do eat a startling quantity of pork products, and fried potatoes are often considered to satisfy the vegetable component of a meal. Such a shame, when the fruit and veg here is so cheap and delicious.

But anyway, I’ve gotten used to it. I’m a lot more flexible about meal times, generally eating whenever the siesta rolls round, and/or whatever the barman decides to dish out for tapas. Funnily enough, I’ve neither starved to death, nor accidentally gained ten kilos in this time. To offset the amount of meat served when I go out, I’m practically vegetarian at home. (If I don’t eat out in a while, I can pass periods where 90% of my protein intake comes from cheese. Some things don’t change.)

One thing that I’ve been trying to embrace (or at least accept) is the amount and variety of pork products here. The pig, as much as the bull, is practically a national icon. To have a leg of jamon (cured Spanish ham) in your kitchen is a sign of affluence. If you see meat on a menu and it doesn’t specify what kind, that’s because it’s pork.

All credit to the Spaniards, they’ve certainly been resourceful and creative in the development of pig meat cuisine. Not a bit goes to waste. The ears can be stewed (until they’re soft and slippery) or fried into crunchy garlic ‘cartilage crisps’. The trotters are boiled into gelatinous god-knows-whats. The skin can be processed into curly little bar snacks that look deceptively like popcorn.

When I was working in a primary school last year, I had the pleasure of accompanying a group of 6-8 year olds to the ‘Museum of the Mantanza’. The mantanza is the ritual of killing a pig, gutting it, cleaning it, and preparing all the different foods that come out of it. It’s traditionally a family event; every member has their role, from cleaning the intestines to make sausage casing, to collecting the blood to make morcilla (Spanish black pudding). In the museum, we saw the ancient apparatus from times when the mantanza could take a week from start to finish. With modern technology, it takes about a day to get everything done. The mantanza takes place in winter (in summer the meat deteriorates too quickly), and begins before daybreak with the killing of the pig. The people breakfast on migas (stew of oily breadcrumbs) and a strong herbal liquor, to fortify themselves not only against the cold, but the stench of the open animal. At the museum, we had the pleasure of watching a video of a mantanza, from start to finish. The kids, mostly from the country, were nonplussed. For me it was an eye-opener.

Being a city girl, I was glad to have seen it (and even more glad not to have smelt it). It was a timely and not-so-subtle reminder of exactly where (and from which bits) my food comes from.

The region of Segovia (where I live now) is famous for cochinillo, roast suckling pig. It literally consists of the whole baby animal splayed on a plate and roasted in a giant wood-fire oven. People come from all over Spain to eat it. Ever since I’ve arrived here I’ve been meaning to order it, just the once. I suppose I liked the idea that it’s a whole, un-processed animal. There’d be absolutely no doubt about what you’re eating. But as it’s kinda expensive, and it’s best to have a big group of people to share with, my friends and I had been waiting for a special occasion in order to try it.

As February is the month of birthdays (wherever I go), last weekend we got a group together for a big Saturday lunch of cochinillo.

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We were served at the ratio of one pig to every three people. My first impression was that the little darlings looked so small on the plates, with their tiny trotters and curly tails and their sleepy squinting eyes. Then try trying to eat one. I can admit that the meat was good, from a critic’s perspective. It was juicy and tender, and surprisingly not very fatty. The skin was crispy and much thinner than pork crackling from a full-size pig. The clear broth that was served as ‘gravy’ was absolutely delicious. But in the end, the meal defeated me. As much as I’m glad to have tried it, the fact is, cuteness and ideology and everything else aside, I simply don’t like the flavour of pig meat. Unlike spiced chorizo and cured jamon, chochinillo tastes of nothing but pure roast pork.

A pretty embarrassing amount of food was left being after the meal. My vegetarian friends would be appalled. I was appalled. Hours later, I still felt full, and really quite unwell, despite not actually eating that much (quantity wise). Days later, it’s snowing outside and I find myself craving fresh garden salads and watermelon. The richness of the meat has lingered well past its welcome.

I guess it’s great to be open to new things, but in the end, each to their own. The cochinillo experience has definitely reminded me of my limits, and re-awoken my internal (now external) debate…

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2 thoughts on “Reflections of a conflicted omnivore… and a bit about Segovian suckling pig

  1. Ah Jean,
    I also suffer from lingering ethical dilemnas when it comes to eating cute animals. Every now and then a thought will pop up and I think of what (who?) this animal used to be and how they ended up on my plate. But I am nothing if not stubborn and surprisingly pragmatic. I’m not going to switch to a cave man diet (they’re all the rage here in Aus) but I find I buy and eat less meat than I used to, and it is higher quality, free range, and sourced locally.
    Thanks for the rustling up some ominous omnivorious debate!
    PS. Have you been to England to have pork scratchings yet….?

    • thanks Pip!

      I wonder, do these wanna be cave men actually hunt their own food?

      as for pork scratchings… that’s a no. no i haven’t yet and no not going to. more weird pig derivitaves is the last thing i need!

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