An appetite for flesh

A carnivorous Christmas has Findhorn's 'reformed vegetarians' salivating

Christmas Day is one of only two occasions when meat is served in the community kitchens here, the other being haggis on Rabbie Burns Night. There is nothing like a predominantly vegetarian diet to stoke appreciation and a lusty appetite for flesh! In this community, as in the various others that I have spent time in, I notice the communards in the local pubs and restaurants with a particularly keen glint in their eyes, as they order in their steaks and casseroles.

Seems to be part of the spirit of the age. I know more "reformed vegetarians" than perhaps any other category of diner – I myself spent almost a decade without flesh passing my lips. Up here in the north of Scotland, it is an easy transition to make. The low population density and fine grazing land means it is easy to find superb local and organic meat from animals that have spent most or all of their lives in the great outdoors. The butchers in the neighbouring town sell venison culled in the local woodlands together with pheasant and other game birds. Our travelling fish seller – Graham, who comes by weekly in his wee van with a big smile, a hearty greeting and a phenomenal memory for names – generally has wild salmon on board.

This is the only place I have lived in Britain where wild food is common. At this season, you can see teams of hunters – generally, I guess, from the neighbouring RAF airbase – gathered by the roadside, brandishing guns, off to the woods to shoot. I used to be unreservedly against hunting. Then I read an inspired essay by Ted Hughes in which he described how hunting and fishing were truly unique in their ability to tie him into the natural world – to force him to study the habits and speak the language of the creatures he hunted. To truly identify with and respect them. It was positively shamanic in tone.

I find this deeply plausible. Here in the community, there are a number of folk who are expert in flaying and butchering road-kill and I have partaken of sumptuous barbeques of young deer shot in local woodlands owned by community members. Even the vegetarians are in on the act. There are others in the community who organise "wild food" tours, describing the wealth of tastes freely available in the edible landscape that surrounds us. The effect is to subtly, but unquestionably, tie us more deeply into our own distinctive natural environment.

Eating locally and with the seasons is an important ethic within the community. This does have its challenges. The weekly box of organic vegetables delivered to subscribers (including Liz, my wife, and I) of our community-supported agriculture scheme will be filled with root vegetables and winter greens for months to come yet. But, this wonderful, local, wholesome and respectfully harvested meat is a major compensation.

On other fronts, this festive season brings familiar and comforting rituals. The game of "Angels and Mortals", where each draws the name of another from a hat on whom, for 10 days or so, to shower anonymous gifts and blessings. The solstice spiral meditation, a form of labyrinth laid out in the auditorium of the Universal Hall that one walks as an end-of-year meditation. The Boxing Day walk up in the Cairngorms and the Polar Bear swim in the Moray Firth on New Year’s morning.

As for a New Year’s resolution, no need to look further than the sign at the top of the main stretch of road in the heart of the community. Under the ‘STOP’ on the road-sign, someone has inserted the word ‘Worrying’.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad