Take a butcher’s at what’s on your plate

Jerzy Morkis
Jerzy Morkis

I remember the first time I saw a hare, close up. It was staring down at me as I, clutching my mother’s hand, stared up at its unflinching eyes.

Its hind legs were bound together on a steel hook and it was quite, quite dead, but still looking pretty fit and capable of springing into life and hurtling down the street.

That was my introduction to a hare ... and I had similar encounters with rabbits, partridges and pheasants.

These weren’t a collection of trophies but recently deceased creatures on display and for sale outside our butcher shopfront.

Inside there were sides of cow and pig, again suspended from hooks, with sawdust covering the floor to collect the last few drops of blood.

The reason this comes to mind is the other day I stopped off at an award-winning butcher. Rightly popular, there was a queue and it was was while I was waiting to be served I noticed there was nothing, other than shades of pink and red, to indicate that these acclaimed products were once part of living creatures.

“Thank goodness for that,” exclaimed a colleague. “We’ve moved on from these days; an array of dead animals would offend our sensibilities... that would be horrible...” Now that puzzled me; why would the origins of your dinner “offend your sensibilities”?

The town I grew up in had the ‘Buckie House’, a small, shell-covered private menagerie where you could make your acquaintance with a monkey, parrot, fox, guinea pigs as well as canaries and budgies in a packed aviary.

Just a couple of hundreds yards away was the butcher’s where, either intact or in portions, was the array of different and ill-fated creatures – the ones that were the main ingredients in our mince, stews, sausages and the providers of the occasional roast.

The Buckie House and the butcher – these were the two places I learnt most about animals. Lions, tigers and elephants etc were confined to books or a rare outing at primary to Edinburgh Zoo. Too big for the Buckie House and no demand at the butcher’s I suppose. So, it strikes me that an understanding of exactly where your cuts of meat come from has to be a good thing. And by that I don’t mean whether it’s topside, sirloin, silverside or whatever but the very fact there’s another price beyond the financial cost of eating meat.

I’m not shaking my puy lentil maracas here or advocating everyone becomes a grazer.Far from it; if I’m not a committed carnivore I’m certainly a habitual one and I suppose ever since that first encounter with the hanging hare there’s always a portion of guilt that’s served on my dinner plate.

It’s a bit like being a smoker – in the back of your mind you always want to stop, but...

With a good friend of mine and my future daughter-in-law both being vegetarians, I’m starting to enjoy making the occcasional hot and sour bean casserole or leek boulangere; the only downside being, apart from being so finicky with all that blanching and sauteeing, is that both dishes would taste so much better served with a steak.

And while the butcher shop tiles, depicting some proud, hefty bovine, standing contentedly in a field oblivious to the cleaver a wee bit down the line, may now be relics of our shopping past. Cow, sheep, pig, deer and game surely deserve some credit for the sacrifice we have forced on them.

To relegate our livestock to a polystyrene tray covered in cellophane is not “protecting our sensibilities” but anaesthetising them.

Folk should know where their food is from, no matter how unpleasant that may be. They should also care. If they did, perhaps we wouldn’t have had the outrage when it was revealed tests had shown horsemeat in a wheen of products. The question is, would we be told if the boffins tested for anything else and it came up positive. Dog? Rat?

By distancing ourselves from the butcher’s knife we’ve handed over meat to the marketing men. Bring back the hare on the hook I say.