A Date with Death

I am twenty-five years old and I have never seen an animal being killed. As a result of this I have largely lived my life oblivious to the fact that every time I tuck into a nice chunk of meat, I am contributing to the death of yet another animal. Despite working in a butchery at the start of my travels, I still considered meat as an ingredient and did not attribute to it a cost of living. I had never held down a creature, watched it struggle as the knife met its throat, heard its last breathes, or felt the heart beat dim as life slowly faded. That was until last week.

While on the drive home after a long day’s farming, my host for the week, Milo, received a phone call. “Alex, how would you like to witness a goat harvest?” he asked. I paused to think for a moment. If I am going to eat meat, I must be ok with animals being killed for it. How else could I really understand the consequences of my lifestyle choices?

We arrived at Augustino Malisa’s (Tino’s) farm, where Mr. Goat was waiting. Tino would be slaughtering the goat as is custom in his homeland of Tanzania. Cut throat slaughter may seem inhumane but for many cultures it is an everyday part of life. I should emphasise at this point that Tino really loved and cared for this goat. You may or may not know that in the UK, when a dairy goat gives birth to male kids, they are frequently slaughtered at birth, as the cost of keeping them alive is too uneconomical. The option of raising billies for meat seems a slightly more ethical alternative. Just bear that in mind the next time you’re tucking into a goat’s cheese tart.

Heart pounding, I nervously approached the goat. I could’ve sworn he knew what was coming. The knife was placed to his throat, and before I knew it the slaughter was over. The experience, as unpleasant as it sounds, was an incredibly powerful moment and not one I’ll forget in a hurry. Nor will I forget the freshly grilled goat’s meat we enjoyed soon after. Not because of the taste, although the veal-like colour and delicate flavour was unlike any goat meat I’d eaten before, but because for the first time in my life I experienced a new emotion while eating. Honesty.

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Farm to Table

Gazing over the neighbouring fields as a child, I never really considered their significance beyond the beautiful vista they lent to the view. Every now and then, I’d see the farmer, flat cap, wellies and tweed, tending to his animals and crops. “By gum, how quaint life is in Yorkshire!”

Shadwell view, Leeds.

A beer with a view. Our garden back home the week before I started my year round the world.

My failure as a child to understand the link from farm to table seems somewhat ridiculous. But how many of us actually know where our food comes from? While we have a certain knowledge about cooking and world cuisine, most of us have little idea about how food is produced. This might explain a recent study, which found that UK school children thought cheese comes from plants, tomatoes grow underground and potatoes grow on trees. With this in mind, I ventured north of San Francisco to Sonoma County where ‘farm to table’ is gospel.

I met my employer and host for the week, Milo Mitchel, in the sleepy town of Sebastopol one sunny evening. Milo explained to me how the town is historically famous for Gravenstein apples, a tart apple perfect for cooking or cider making, which was first brought to the town by Luther Burbank. I didn’t have to wait long for my first farm to table experience. Minutes later I was sat by fire, drinking freshly pressed apple juice and feasting on freshly caught rabbit. Having spent the last 7 weeks in the metropolitan rush of New York and San Francisco, this was a moment of true bliss.

Love Shack

The Love Shack – My Accommodation for the week.

Marshmallows by the fire

Roasting marshmallows by the fire.

Milo picked me up the following morning to begin our first day of farming. We would be visiting Zazu Restaurant, where Milo is the resident farmer, to plant some edible violas, herbs, and install drip irrigation systems for their padron peppers (patrons of the restaurant pick their own peppers which are then cooked and served.)

Pepper Zazu Restaurant

Planting the violas.

As the day progressed, Milo explained to the intricacies of soil composition, the art of watering, and how each of the plants we were tending to had different needs. Mid way through our time together Milo broke away to speak with the Zazu’s staff about the produce he was growing – something that stood me in good stead for when I would later cook in the Zazu kitchen.

We later moved on to one of Milo’s private customers to prune some apple trees, feed the sheep and plant support for some tomatoes. On arrival Milo discovered a problem with the irrigation system. A gopher, had chewed through the tubing and wiring. This misfortune brought to my attention to the difficulties of farming. As Milo explained, no matter how much you read, learn and practice, some things just come down to luck. And that luck is the difference between making a living or not.

Milo's other plot of land.

Milo’s other plot of land.

Next day, I woke up having been bitten by some pesky spider, clearly unhappy with the love shacks latest resident. Undaunted, I went across with Milo to one his larger farms to harvest some produce for the restaurant.

Spider Bite Farming

Spider vs Foodish Boy

A TV crew was soon to arrive to film a ‘moveable feast’, so we set about planting more violas and cleaning up the farm for cameras. TV shows are not your average farm experience. However, California is so widely celebrated for its farming, that it draws Hollywood to its doorsteps. But then again, they’re not only ones poking their nose in. 5179 Miles. The distance travelled to work in an industry that lay just 10 yards from my backdoor step. Maybe next time the local farmer walks by I’ll hop over the fence to learn some more!

My farm to table experience continues later in the week with a particularly bloody encounter. Milo has also written a post about our time together here.

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