“I can cook for vegetarians, but I run out of ideas after two weeks. So it can get boring for them. Vegans though, I can’t cook for them. What would I make?”
At the time we were sitting at Dominique’s wide kitchen table blissfully spooning up creme chocolat. It was hard to disagree that her awesome cooking would lack a certain something without animal fats. And with Hugues’ contributions from the trawler turning up every few days, and last year’s meats stockpiled in the freezers and pate jars, meat and fish both fresh and preserved is a big part of the diet here.
Dominique’s daughter Julie keeps goats for milk and bees for honey in the adjoining fields. Once she brought a jug of goat’s milk for us to taste, warm from the udders. There are six gorgeous kids, some of which will be sold as milkers, pets and lawnmowers in time. With goats, it is possible to wean the kids later and continue milking the mothers without separating them. The same can’t be said for cows.
An organic dairy farmer works next door on Dominique’s land, so whenever she wants milk she dips into his unpasteurized, unhomogenised milk tank with a bucket. When she kept her own two cows she churned her own butter, but these days she’s not up for the obligation to milk at 6am every morning.
She told us that when the calves are taken away the mother cries for days.
“It is very hard to listen to at first, but they soon forget.”
I’ve been a vegan and a vegetarian in the past, most recently following an almost vegan diet that included eggs, and also avoiding all refined sugars and grains. I felt physically great on that one, never mind the pride that my diet was ‘green’ and humane. However, the proteins I ate as a vegan- pulses, avocado, chickpeas, nuts- were mostly flown in, and my substitutes for refined sugar were usually tropical fruits like pineapples and dates. Hardly sustainable long-term, in a future of depleting oil resources. I hate soya products, but for the vegans who love them, swathes of rainforest- full of animals- have often been razed to provide the growing land. This sweet exchange demonstrates the knots ‘ethical eaters’ can tie ourselves in: http://www.ukhippy.com/stuff/archive/index.php/t-43379.html
I only really gave up that diet when we moved onto the boat. Sam is never going to be vegetarian, let alone vegan, unless absolutely forced by circumstance. The kitchen is just too small to cater for two widely differing diets, so we’ve both been eating veg-heavy meals with mostly whole grains, but including butter and small amounts of meat and fish. Over the winter we bought two preserved sausages a week- one spicy, one salty- and usually some cheap grass-fed meat like lambs’ hearts and kidneys to make a stew from on Monday. Sometimes we use a tin of fish from the stash in our cupboard. We stick to non-endangered species but all trawling involves ‘by-catch’, which is generally discarded. We both eat something sweet almost every night, out of habit. (Because as I kept telling him, Sugar Is An Addictive Substance.) Until we got here it was often Nutella from the jar. Nom.
Similar to smallholders Ken and Carole Neal, who we visited in Newbury last year, Dominique has a humane but unsentimental attitude to keeping and eating animals.
“I can cook for vegetarians, but I don’t understand them. What do they think we can do with all the male calves while the females are being milked? You need a calf to get the milk. They can’t all be kept. Vegans are more consistent, I understand that. If you don’t want animals to be farmed and killed, it makes sense.
If it’s about how the animals are treated in industrial farming, if you just become a vegan or vegetarian you are missing the opportunity to support farmers who are treating their animals very well. If it is the conditions you care about, and the environment, why not eat a very small amount of expensive meat that has lived a good life?”
As a smallholder, Dominique is not constrained by the profit motive to squeeze her livestock into a small space and feed them crap. The chickens and ducks have a whole field, where the compost heap is also housed, to scratch all day. They’ve dug themselves dust baths in comfy little corners and they put themselves to bed in a spacious henhouse each night. They’re glossy and feisty, with sharp beaks, strong feet, bright red combs, and enough attitude to take a flying banzai leap at the egg collecting bucket on the offchance it contains food. They live about a year, ten times longer than the average factory broiler because they provide both eggs and meat.
The geese have a smaller field for two of them. The gander was killed by a fox recently and they’re too old to make tender meat, so for now they’re just contributing the occasional egg. There’s only one rabbit left, after Dominique’s hunting dog Belisse got confused about which animals it was OK to kill. And she looks so innocent…
“I try to give my animals a good life. I’m not going to set them free, they’d be run over or eaten by foxes straight away. And they’re not pets, I keep them for food.
I try to be considerate of them. When the chicks hatch, there’s a light you put in their cage to keep them warm. The first one I got was a red one, it kept them awake all the time. They use this in factory farming because they eat all the time they are awake. When I realized, I got a softer light so they could get some sleep. They grow slower. But, I would hate it if somebody stopped me from sleeping.”
Luckily for us, the new chicks hatched while we were there. One day the incubator was sitting mute in the corner, the next there were cheeping noises coming from it. Two days later it was time to lift them out. I prepared their cage in a barn, with fresh newspaper, a saucer of water and the warming lamp. Dominique opened the drawer and there they were!
I went back several times during the day to replenish their water. By day two, they were walking properly instead of pinging about like confused electrons, and they’d learned to drink by sipping and tilting their heads back. The four late hatchers we put in that day were quite outclassed by the day old chicks, who’d grown by about a third and mastered the basics of life outside the shell.
When they’re old enough, these chicks will be added to the existing flock of 22. Then the killing of the older generation begins. By the end of winter only the new generation will be left.
“I can kill my animals if I have to. Chickens are the easiest. Most animals get upset if you kill one in front of the others. But the chickens all crowd around and eat up the blood. Hugues goes hunting for wild boar and game birds, so he usually does it for me. I find the rabbits the hardest.”
Like most meat eaters, I already know I wouldn’t like to see with my own eyes the conditions industrially raised animals are subjected to. If you can find peace with the thought that we eat them in the first place- and many can’t– the cruelty stems from treating living beings like units on a production line. If the chickens peck each other from lack of space, burn and blunt their beaks when they’re chicks. If the pigs go mad in their confinements and bite each others’ tails off, just lop them off pre-emptively. If the cows can’t digest the cheap corn they’re fed, dose them up with drugs.
Veganism is a necessary response to a culture in which most of us eat far too much meat. If everyone did it- which is very unlikely- we’d have a problem: what do we do with these animals? Death may be preferable to life on a factory farm, but Dominique’s animals seem happy to be alive.
If everyone followed Dominique’s suggestions of only buying ethically farmed meat we might have a similar problem at first, but it would be easier to make a transition to having fewer, better treated, more expensive animals whose manure could start to replace fossil fuel fertilisers. But we don’t. We rarely count the cost of meat, which is huge in terms of land use, water and cruelty.
People have different reasons for going vegan. The best argument for me is a kind of offsetting. As long as so many people eat meat and dairy several times a day and expect it to be cheap, it’s necessary that others try to take up the slack by rejecting it altogether. I’ve given up persuading Sam to join me in my vegan diet, so for now I’m a meat-eater at a reduced level. I enjoy the flavour, though the ethics of it nag at me. It’s not an industry I want to support.
I can see myself raising my own meat, though. If we had a few grass-eating pigs, two goats for milk, some geese to raise for Xmas and some chickens for eggs and meat, I think I could justify their deaths at the end of a happy, healthy life in the open air. And if I couldn’t, I’d have to give it up altogether. A major part of this journey for me is looking the costs of my lifestyle square in the face, trying to eliminate as many as possible and take as many as I can of the essentials into my own hands.