I knew this was going to be a special experience from the outset, food from farm to fork and every stage in between. We, my son Nat and I, arrived at Trealy Farm for The Meat Course in good time on a Friday evening in early March to a warm welcome from Ruth and James, the brains and inspiration behind all that goes on at Trealy Farm. Nicky, our amazing cook for the weekend, was already busy at work wrestling with a pig’s head, roasting beetroot and preparing celeriac soup for the following day. We were the first to arrive and privileged to have such a relaxed introduction to the weekend.
On Saturday morning over coffee the programme began with a literally down-to-earth discussion. The topic was the soil, the provider of life and source of everything that happens on a farm, the farmer’s most precious resource. It’s obvious really but so easily overlooked and with this thought in mind we set off up the hill from the farmhouse to survey the land and all around.
Looking down across the valley and over to the other side are a variety of farms with fields in a range of states and colours, ploughed, cropped, open pasture in greens, browns and yellows. Green grass in early March, explained Ruth, can be a sign of artificial fertiliser, it’s not natural and with the price of fertiliser rising steeply it is simply not sustainable. Farmers are being challenged to think much more carefully about their use of certain inputs which is a good thing. The grass generally is over-grazed due to all the rain this last year. The hay harvest was poor and came late in September, not July as would normally be the case.
In the middle distance a tractor is half-way through ploughing a field. Dairy farmers, explains Ruth, often re-seed with clover each spring. The problem is clover is not deep-rooted and so doesn’t take nitrogen deep down into the soil. The clover is mob grazed by cattle who feed on it intensively a strip at a time before moving on to the next strip. Some goodness is put back into the soil by the cattle but not enough and so the soil becomes progressively denatured. It seems it is not just consumers who have become disconnected from their food, but many farmers too have become disconnected from the land and place a heavy reliance on unsustainable external inputs.
We need a balance between ploughing and permanent pasture which sequesters carbon deep in the soil, says Ruth, and permanent pasture means grazing livestock and the production of meat. A reason for meat production I had not until then really registered. Ruth is a fan of mixed farming which uses rotations and is truly efficient rather than monocultural farming heavily reliant on inputs from outside the farm.
In the bottom of the valley stretches what some saw as a scar on the landscape - the A40 dual carriageway. In fact it turns out to be something of a blessing in that it makes the economics of farming more viable by providing a ready route to market.
We make the descent back to the farm in warm sunshine which had only a little earlier appeared where we were to become acquainted with some of the livestock specially gathered in a barn to meet us. Trealy Farm livestock is wide-ranging: Dexter beef cattle, a Jersey cow rescued after a bout of mastitis, sheep of numerous breeds - Welsh Mountain, Manx Loaghtan, Hebridean and Zwartbles, the latter are Dutch milking sheep not very good for meat. The Mangalitza pigs are extraordinary animals and a good scratch behind the ears seems to send them into a seventh heaven! Finally, the four goats were easily the most playful and acrobatic, helped by the fact that they pretty much had free rein of the place.
We are encouraged to move quietly and calmly and get close to the animals. It’s not long before you gain a sense of the group dynamic of each small herd and the differences in personality between individuals within the herd. These simple steps do much to engender respect for the life of each animal. I stood silently in the middle of a flock of sheep as they pressed up against me. Animals make us human, says Ruth, and I think I understood then what she meant.
Ruth talked us through some of the practicalities of rearing livestock for meat. The reason male lambs are castrated at birth is because testosterone would give the meat an unattractive strong flavour. The Dexter cattle are long reared, up to 30 months unlike more commercial approaches where fast grown cattle are slaughtered at 18 months and have up to 20% more water. While 100% grass fed meat can be tougher, it is better for you since it contains more Omega 3 and less Omega 6, the flavour is much better and the meat has a higher quality fat.
There is no routine use of antibiotics and, somewhat to Ruth’s surprise, some successful homeopathic treatments have been in use more recently. We were introduced to the baseline animal health routine, the 3 ‘ts’ – teeth, tits and toes. Healthy teeth to eat with, tits to suckle the young and feet because that is where many problems can start. Following a brief demonstration of how to lift a sheep and lay it slightly on its back for a ‘3ts’ inspection, we were each invited to follow suit. In no time at all our small group was seated around the sheep fold each with a reclining sheep looking, for the most part, quite chilled out. It was then that Ruth enquired of us which was to be for the slaughter? ‘Not mine!’ was the universal refrain.
We had reached the moment which sets The Meat Course apart from any other comparable course. We were to witness the humane slaughter of a sheep, but first we retired for refreshment, including a delicious chocolate and almond cake produced by Nicky, but, much more importantly, a group discussion on the issues and ethics involved in the slaughter of an animal.
The key stages of transport, reception and the slaughter process itself are all critical to humane slaughter. The need for order, clear focus, concentration and engagement by those involved is essential, but above all maintaining calm throughout is critical. There is a financial imperative that underpins these requirements which undoubtedly helps, quite simply meat from an animal stressed by the process of slaughter is poor quality meat and fetches a lower price.
I was introduced to Temple Grandin, the influential American researcher and author who has made a lifetime study of animal behaviour, whose work has greatly improved the treatment of animals. The rules on slaughter are set by European Union regulations which came into force at the start of 2013, but where domestic regulations are stricter they continue to apply. The issues surrounding religious, including Halal, slaughter were discussed and I discovered that, contrary to popular belief, around 90% of animals killed in this way are stunned prior to slaughter.
Ruth explained that an animal must be rendered insensible by stunning prior to slaughter which must take place within 2 minutes. The Humane Slaughter Association recommend 30 seconds. The slaughter itself involves the insertion of a knife in the neck of the animal to sever the arteries following which blood rapidly drains from the animal. There must then follow 2 minutes before skinning takes place.
The stunning can be achieved in a number of ways. We were to witness the use of a specially designed captive-bolt gun whose weight, when I held it, surprised me but Ruth was clearly expert in handling it.
A special area is reserved for the slaughter. We quietly and calmly gathered around to witness what for all of us was an event of huge significance. James gently but firmly restrained the sheep, Ruth placed the gun softly against the sheep’s temple and it was swiftly all over. Ruth took no more than 5 seconds to sever the arteries in the sheep’s neck and James placed a bowl to collect the blood which quickly drained before the sheep’s head was removed. James stirred the blood with his hand to prevent coagulation otherwise it would be no good for use in making traditional black pudding. I took a turn too, the blood was still warm. The process had observed all the essential principles we had earlier discussed.
The sheep was now a carcase, which was laid on its back on a wooden ‘V’ trestle for the process of skinning and removal of the feet to be undertaken. We were all encouraged to participate in the process, carefully separating the fleece from the body, and we all willing did so. It was an event where touching, feeling and smelling were as important as observing. Once skinned, the carcase was hung up and the internal organs removed when it now resembled the more familiar carcase of lamb seen so often at my local butcher.
There is no doubt in my mind that the sheep we witnessed being humanely slaughtered had led a good life and when the end came it was swift and painless. I have always been a meat eater, I think I always will be, but I will take even greater care in the future to ensure the meat I eat led the life of the animal whose death I had just witnessed. It was the moment where everything we had done that day had been leading up to, a fact I had then only just fully taken in.
Over dinner that evening there was much discussion of the day’s events, surprisingly one member of our group had not actually expected to witness a humane slaughter of a sheep. He seemed, however, quite at one with what he had observed. A reflection of the care and compassion with which the task had been undertaken.
Sunday was to be a day of butchery and charcuterie … but that’s another post for later.
The Meat Course costs £270 per person or £255 per person for two people booking together. Inclusive in the price is two nights’ accommodation and meals from Saturday breakfast to Sunday evening meal.
Trealy Farm is one of the UK’s leading artisan charcuterie producers, blending traditional practices and innovative technology to make great tasting products.
The Humane Slaughter Association is the only registered charity working exclusively towards the highest worldwide standards of welfare for food animals during transport, marketing, slaughter and killing for disease control and welfare reasons.