Deer stalking with Sainsbury's

The reality of where our food comes from – how far are we prepared to go?

Here we go, another semi-serious post that’s not just pretty pictures and oohs and aahs about food I’ve shoved down my neck of late. Oh okay then, there are a few pretty pictures, but I want to talk about something a bit more abstract – seeing the stark reality of where our food really comes from.

You may have seen recently that I went on my first ever ‘deer stalk’ as part of my day job writing about food. I travelled up to the Scottish Highlands with Sainsbury’s to see where they get their Taste the Difference venison from. Random, it may sound, but interesting too. I spent two nights up at the glorious Glen Lyon Estate talking deer and tasting deer for a piece that you can find in The i here.

Deer stalking with Sainsbury's

Farmed deer at the Glen Lyon Estate – don’t worry, we didn’t shoot any of these

Deer stalk with Sainsbury's

Deer stalking with Sainsbury's

I’m not going to re-hash all that here on the blog. If you read the piece you’ll see all sorts about the process of how a live deer gets from roaming around on the Highlands onto our plates – something we watched from start to finish. But for me, the whole experience raised some serious points about how important it is that we understand where our food comes from.

As a general fan of food, I’m certainly not someone who thinks that chips grow on trees or chicken comes in the shape of breasts that magically appear in packets in the supermarket. Additionally, as someone who loves meat and is quite prepared to snaffle it on a regular basis, I think it’s important to be able to face up to the facts of how it gets on to our plates.

I’ve been in butchers, I’ve seen carcasses taken down into steaks, loins, legs and all the other myriad cuts you get. I’ve chucked a lobster in a pan and heard it squeal horribly (well, I left the room briefly – and besides, I’m told that’s just the sound they make in general), I’ve gutted fish, plucked game birds, and tried in general to not shy away from the reality that goes with consuming living things for our own delectation.

Despite that – and I know there’s so much more I could have done and am yet to do to really face up to the facts – the process of seeing good old Bambi go from charging about on the Highlands to being a carcass dragged back to be hung up in a ‘larder’ is certainly another addition to that reality of where our food comes from.

Deer stalking with Sainsbury's

Deer stalking with Sainsbury's

It’s not the stalking of the deer – a serious, silent yomp around the hills of Scotland. It’s not even the shooting part since I didn’t actually take part in that. In fact, we were sheltered from the reality of that by the fact we were behind a ridge when it happened. I did, however, witness the ‘gralloching’ of the deer once it was shot.

If you don’t know, and haven’t read my piece in The i (begone with you!), it’s basically the evisceration of the animal’s guts while it’s still on the hill. A vital part in allowing it to enter our food chain. But if you’re thinking surgical gloves and sterile tiled floors, think again. This is old-school. You know that scene in Star Wars when Han Solo saves Luke Skywalker by cutting open the belly of his Tauntaun and stuffing him inside (if you don’t you really won’t get this)? Well, that’s it.

It’s certainly miles away from the neatly wrapped packs of venison you see stacked on the shelves. As is watching the carcass be dragged back to the vehicle, and then once back at the estate seeing more insides being removed and body parts checked for disease, before it’s ready to go off to the abattoir to be skinned and prepared. None of it is pleasant, but it’s all necessary and it’s all something that we have to be aware of has to happen if we want to tuck in to venison carpaccio, stew or whatever other lovely recipe we’ve had produced for us.

That’s me there wandering through the Scottish Highlands stalking deer. And no, I clearly didn’t take it of myself – props to epic photographer Craig Stephen for some wonderful shots!

Another marvellous Craig Stephen picture – just so you know I really was there! 

So how far should we go to learn about where our food comes from? Like I say, I thought I knew a fair bit but I had no idea some of the nuanced differences between farmed venison and wild venison, other than where it’s from. Like the fact it’s killed differently (okay, that seems obvious now) and prepared completely differently. But what I also hadn’t thought through was my different reaction to some of these nuances.

The thought of seeing a deer get shot is difficult, and I admit I didn’t actually witness the moment when its life was taken away in front of my very eyes. The only time I’ve seen that was when we had to have our cat put to sleep and that was because it was necessary rather than because someone wanted to eat him, and then it was hard enough.

However, as I wondered how I’d feel about actually seeing that moment and reflected on how I felt watching the brutal process of preparing that deer for someone’s dinner plate, I also thought about what it would be like to stand in an abattoir and watch rows of farmed deer file in and get a jolt to the head, production-line style, ready to become the latest tasty venison dish. Would one be easier to watch than the other? To me, I felt that perhaps the former would be easier to handle. It’s a bit more of a fair fight, after all. In my one deer stalk, we were out on those Highlands for hours and only shot one, missing another one, not to mention all the others that we didn’t even get a look in on.

Is there also something, I wonder, about it being on less of a mass scale. It just feels a bit more old-school and something I can reconcile myself with more easily than breeding animals in abundance purely so we can enjoy something all year round, wherever we are, and serve up to meet the latest trends and desires that we humans so glibly adhere to because we can get what we want, when we want, at the push of a button.

Of course, it could be that if I see either of those processes up close and personal, I decide that the reality of killing an animal for my own sustenance just isn’t worth the taste. There are plenty of people who already hold that view and probably some reading this thinking that mulling over how an animal has ended up on my plate is really by the by when it’s there in the first place. I respect that view and understand where they’re coming from, but for some of us it’s not quite that simple.

Deer stalking with Sainsbury's
Deer stalking with Sainsbury's
Deer stalking with Sainsbury's
Deer stalking with Sainsbury's

Certainly, when I dined on venison cooked expertly by the guys at Ballintaggart Farm that night (no, not the one we shot – a different one), I wondered if I’d feel guilty, having learned what I’d learned. Afraid not. I tucked into that venison, being more aware than I ever have been, about what it once was and how it had got to my mouth, and enjoyed every second of it. I wonder in some way if it’s because I had gained more of an understanding of the effort that’s taken, or more of an appreciation about what had been lost for my gain.

It’s not an issue that’s going to be dealt with in one fell swoop. These aren’t conversations where we all agree, and I’m certainly not advocating we should shrug off the death of animals for our plates as a ‘necessary evil’. But talking about these kind of things is important in appreciating where our food comes from, understanding how it gets to us and then perhaps working out how far we’re all prepared to go for what we want. If, for example, I saw a farmed deer get killed in an abattoir out of season, would it make me only stick to wild that’s been shot in the hunting season?

Who knows, but it’s only by thinking and talking about this stuff that we ever get anywhere near to coming to those kind of conclusions. These conversations aren’t a million miles away from the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall talking about battery hens or free-range meat or over-fishing. And perhaps the more willing we are to face up to the reality of what we’re eating, the more progress we’ll make in being the kind of consumers we want to be and balancing our dinner-plate-desires with how we get what we want.

Couldn’t resist one more of Craig’s fabulous photos – highly inappropriate nails for a deer stalk but hey, I was too busy musing on food….

I was taken on a press trip by Sainsbury’s for a piece on wild venison for The i. This piece is nothing to do with that, and is merely my own musings inspired by that trip. Despite all pictures being watermarked Eat with Ellen, you’ll see that three of them are significantly better quality than mine – they were taken by a fabulous Scottish photographer called Craig Stephen. A huge thanks to him for such great shots – the watermark is a technical issue I’m trying to resolve so if you want pictures anywhere near as good as these make sure you visit his website at http://craig-stephen.co.uk/.

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