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Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The Meat Course Part 1

The Meat Course, run by Ruth Tudor on Trealy Farm near Monmouth offers a chance to get to grips with all things meat. I don’t mean just identifying cuts and how to cook them but gaining an understanding of farming, animal welfare, farming methods and challenges, the social and environmental impact of farming, butchery and using meats.

A two day course leads you through these areas in an enjoyable way, challenging some of your beliefs and understandings, offering an opportunity to learn and grow and develop a more rounded view of the process from field to fork.

As the course website puts it “Connecting with the reality of farming animals for meat”.

Having attended I am sure that this course is valuable, or even essential for cooks, writers consumers and anyone who just wants to find out more about the food on our plates. I was in a group of seven, one male attendee had to drop out at the last minute with a case of Mumps – not a condition to be envied in an adult male.

We ranged in age and experience or involvement from the 20 somethings who ran a café and Supperclub in Bristol through to the retired ex Reuters journalist who runs a community woodland and included a vegetarian and someone who just wanted to be able to buy meat from a butcher rather than a Supermarket without feeling intimidated by their lack of knowledge.

Meeting up on the 140 acre organic farm perched on the hillside below Trellech, Ruth introduced the course over coffee in the newly built cabana with panoramic views over the valley below and as far away as the Blorenge and Sugarloaf mountains. The daughter of a North Walian hill farmer and vet, Ruth has worked as a teacher and still runs the North Wales farm, as well as Trealy, and is passionate about teaching and sharing information and experience. Local schools have been regular visitors to the farm and a highlight of the Abergavenny Food Festival has been the Sausage design and making competition for children, run on and from the farm.

Having discussed both the group’s and Ruth’s aims and aspirations we donned green overalls and set off to meet animals. Trealy Farm keep sheep, pigs, goats, cattle, horses and rabbits, many rare breeds all grass fed with minimal “input “ or intervention, and a small number had been brought into the barn overnight.

Entering we lowered voices to maintain an atmosphere of calm for the animals and Ruth and James – who runs the charcuterie side of the operation – talked us through the types of animal, their husbandry and about the advantages of low input, grass fed sustainable farming. Then we were asked to choose an animal or animals and to observe them and get into the pens – the exception to this being the Dexter Cattle, grandmother, mother and calf, as they would be highly protective of the calf.

Whilst others entered pens to meet  goats and sheep, I opted for the pigs the incredible Hungarian Mangalitzas. Are they Pigs or Sheep? Their gingery, curly coats are pretty much unique and their ancient heritage shines through. They are quite dog like in attitude and behaviour, nuzzling up to you as you enter the pen and looking for a pat or stroke. They get even more doglike if you give them a good scratch, eventually rolling onto their sides for a tummy tickle and uttering little grunts of pleasure.

Animal interaction over we regrouped to describe our experiences and, with the promise of returning later we went for lunch and continued chat and discussion over a superb meal with – obviously – great charcuterie, local breads and cheeses and seasonal quiches and a real treat Raw Milk for teas or coffees with Goat Milk for those who didn’t wish to avail of the raw product.

Lunch over we climbed the hill at the back of the farm to look out across the valley and identify the different farms and farming methods from organic to intensely farmed dairy with high additional input, arable through mixed to livestock only and, in the distance the low sheds of a chicken farm.

Discussion was very wide ranging - types of farming, impact on the land, sustainability, amount of artificial fertilisation needed in varying methods, badgers and TB – Ruth confirmed that they had a number of badgers on the farm but were TB free, and even CAP and subsidy. This was a no holds barred discussion and we were impressed by Ruth’s openness when discussing subsidy and how best to use it.

Returning back down the hill we went into the barn again to get up close and personal with sheep carefully lifting lambs of different breeds to see how the more commercial modern breeds put on weight much faster than the rare breed ones even though their age was the same. The demand for “fat bottomed girls” from supermarkets was changing the nature of sheep farming and even the organisations representing farmers were promoting a move away from traditional breeds and methods and into business friendly modern methods and breeds irrespective of the impact upon taste, sustainability and environment.

The return to the sheep was the precursor to the most challenging part of the course but set it in context.

As we broke for tea and coffee Ruth introduced the difficult part, one of the sheep from the farm would be slaughtered.

Ruth explained what would happen and how the sheep would be kept as calm as possible and killed swiftly and humanely. Ruth described her own feelings about slaughter and that, whilst a necessary part of meat farming, slaughter should be humane, done with respect for the animal and as stress free for both human and animal as possible.

The sheep, a one year old (sheep of this age are usually called Hoggets), brought down from the North Wales farm and onto better grazing pasture for finishing was taken into a pen with several other animals to minimise stress and then the others released back to the field. The killing was very swift. A captive bolt gun rendered the animal unconscious and then the throat was cut and within a few seconds the Hogget had bled out.

Straight away the sheep was skinned, hung and the offal removed.

Though this part of the course was optional everyone attended and afterwards all felt that it was an important experience. No one particularly wanted to see an animal die BUT done with care and compassion and not a little emotional input from Ruth, it was an important step for us all. We need to understand the cycle of life and death on a farm and that slaughter on site or in small local abattoirs as opposed to huge industrial plants on production lines has to be the best method.

After the slaughter we broke for a debrief and supper, a chance to reflect upon the afternoon, discuss our feelings and prepare for the second day.

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