The Conscientious Omnivore: Part 2

In my last post, I explained why and how I went from mindless meat-eater to faux-vegetarian to conscientious omnivore. This started in South Africa, but I moved to Scotland almost two years ago (oh my god!) and I’ve actually found it easier to source happy meat here, thanks to a farm called Balgove.

Even in the short time that I have been shopping at Balgove Larder, it has almost doubled in size. This makes me exceedingly happy, because it means I’m not the only one prepared to drive outside of St. Andrews to buy excellent meat (as well as dairy and vegetables) at slightly more expensive prices than what is available at the more convenient supermarkets. Balgove is clearly getting something RIGHT as a business, but more importantly, it’s also getting something right in the way it operates as a farm.

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I met with one of the two owners, Will Docker, a few weeks ago and he kindly talked me through how they raise their cows and pigs, when and where they hunt deer, and who they source their chickens from. I figured it would be an interesting chat, but I didn’t expect it to be quite so fascinating. I’m going to share a little of what Will shared with me.

For All The Cows (if you get that obscure reference, you win a cookie)

Balgove farm is in fact four farms. On each, they mix raising cattle with growing grain, and the latter goes into the former. Their current herd is a cross breed of the traditional Scottish Highland ‘Kooo’, the Short Horn and the Aberdeen Angus. Why the mix? Well kooooos are extremely hardy (because: Scotland) but also slow-growing with really high fat content, so they’re bred with Short Horn cattle. The progeny of this pairing is then bred with their Aberdeen Angus bull. Short Horn and Aberdeen Angus improves the mix by increasing carcass size and the speed of growth of the progeny, but the good fat content, marbling and hardiness from the traditional highlanders is maintained in the mix. In other words: best of all worlds. Excellent taste is something I can personally attest to as a consumer.

Pigs

Pigs are amazing! First of all, they’ll eat anything so the food waste on the farm isn’t waste, it’s still food. Secondly, because they’re not ruminants, they don’t produce as much gas as cows, meaning their carbon footprint (specifically: methane) is significantly less. Finally, they grow really quickly. Your average sow will comfortably produce 3 litters per year, with an average of 6-10 piglets each time. For the less generous farmer, growing a piglet to pork takes 4-8 months. On Balgove, they wait at least 6 months but rarely more than 10. Something I didn’t know was that testosterone makes meat taste “bad” – this is called boar taint but it only happens at around 10 months when males in the litter turn into hormonal… erm… pigs.

Happy pigs!
Happy pigs!

Until quite recently, cows and pigs that grew up on Balgove land were transported a short distance to the local abattoir in St. Andrews for slaughter. Very sadly… this abattoir has been closed down. Now, the animals are transported to a place near Glasgow, homed overnight to settle them, and then processed the next day. As a conscientious omnivore, I don’t like it. For this and more practical reasons, Will and other farmers aren’t happy either. The meat industry is renowned for its dishonesty, and farmers just aren’t comfortable taking chances with their happy animals, or the meat they put so much effort into producing as free-range. Thus, despite how hard it is to justify financially, Balgove is planning to build an on-site abattoir for their needs as well as those of the local farmers. This is something I will support wholeheartedly… not just in spirit or with this blog post, but with money I invest every time I buy their meat.

Venison

For those who prefer ‘wild’ meat over farmed, Will personally heads to Mull to shoot Red Deer, ensuring only old or infirm are taken from the herds. Having never shot an animal myself, I was interested to hear how the deer are gutted where they fall, and the entrails are left for predatory birds and foxes. The plentiful Roe deer are shot locally on surrounding farms; rabbit, pigeon, pheasants and partridge are on the menu too. Apparently, Will has also had a request for grey squirrel, which is an odd thing to want to eat, I guess. But it’s also an invasive species taking out the local red squirrel. So… why not?

Another South African living in Scotland recently went on a shooting weekend. Rather impressively, she successfully bagged a few birds for the pot. I’m enormously proud of her and… well, I’m thinking of doing the same thing next year, if I can justify the expense. The thing is: my friend received an enormous amount of bad press when a photo of the girls and their birds was splashed across the pages of my least favourite newspaper. Knowing the average readership of said worst-paper-in-the-world-ever, the vitriol almost definitely came from people who happily tuck into factory-farmed meat every night of the week. People who also don’t give a second thought to instagramming bacon-rolls, chicken burgers, plates of tuna sushi, steak suppers and 3am-kebabs. This little tangent is going to be explored a little further in part 3 or 4. But back to Balgove.

Poultry

Chicken and eggs, duck and eggs, turkey and guinea fowl are all brought in from a free-range farm nearby, mainly because Will says that raising poultry is just too complicated. Having chicken-sat recently, I totally empathise. One memorable Friday night saw me chasing a particularly stubborn chicken around an enormous garden because he REFUSED to go back into the coop, even though there was a fox lurking. Also: it was raining, sub-zero and dark. This drove me to cry under the kitchen table later, hugging a heater and a bottle of wine, demanding home-made apple pie. (Thank you, Ella)

So that’s the meat section.

Dairy

Milk, butter and all the yummy creamy things are brought in from a farm that takes excellent care of their cows. I know this not from Will, but from friends who are vets and have actually worked there. The cheese section is well stocked with a variety of absolutely delicious options – both local and imported. I still prefer getting my kicks from the Guid Cheese shop in St. Andrews itself, but Balgove also does very well to satisfy my addiction.

Fruit and vegetables

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Most vegetables are sourced locally, but fruit like lemons, apples, oranges and grapefruit are imported. At the end of the day, this is a store and Balgove Larder aims to be a convenient place shop. Plus, Scotland doesn’t grow citrus fruit for good reason (hardy stuff north of the wall) and food miles aren’t as bad as you think. Surprised? Stay tuned for the next post, where I’ll explain more.

Finally, if you don’t believe me about how awesome Balgove Larder is, take it from the mouth of babes…

Adorable letters
Adorable letters

Letter

Erm… Piggy-backing pigs...
Erm… Piggy-backing pigs…
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