As a young commis chef I was confident in my attitude to meat. Cheerfully elbow-deep in minced lambs’ hearts and livers, or distractedly picking fish scales from my eyebrows after a session of cleaning mackerel, I knew where these soft, wobbly proteins were from. They were from living beings, and I had made my peace with this.
As time passed, and I learned more of provenance and welfare, of animal sentience, my thinking adapted. Meat was still okay, still delicious, as long as it was free-range, sustainable; happy animal muscle glistening on the chopping board. A good life, a swift death. And if you can grow your own vegetables, rear your own meat, it’s really just part of one long recipe for lunch. Connection to the ingredients is vital; but they are still ingredients, no?
Now, years later, I am out in the field behind our tumbledown farmhouse in Burgundy on a sunny morning. Spring is here. Swallows loop-the-loop, acrobat amorous. Nightingales sing their odd little songs, heard but not seen. Bees and dragonflies zip and curl in the air above the wild flowers and damp corners of the meadow. All is business and blur, though I am motionless in the heat, and worried. One of our young sheep is behaving oddly.
We hadn’t particularly considered getting sheep, but last year the grass in the field grew to a metre tall and hid monsters in the blades. We battled, scythe in hand, to try and harvest the grass for hay, but a dull blade and a wet month lay waste to these plans. Eventually a friend came with his tractor and mowed. The sheep, five in all, were brought in to act as edible groundskeepers.
Today she is stood, head down, near the earthen wall of the stable. Her breathing is rapid and shallow. She stares at the ground, slightly wild-eyed, and every now and again gives her head a little shake, as if trying to dislodge something from within. She is clearly in discomfort. We grapple daily with the needs of these animals – indeed often with the sheep themselves if one presents lame, and I am rarely the victor. They are cowardly ballerinas, tottering en-pointe as they graze, yet sprinting thunderously for the horizon if I stray too close. They are engaging nonetheless, and I have become fond of them. I do not like to see this creature, clearly distressed as she is, circling slowly in the shadow of the oak tree.
The vet is called and arrives; tall, white coat, wooden box, sharp implements. I shake a bucket of oats and the sheep follow me, warily, into the enclosure I have fashioned from pallets. The vet, with almost alarming speed, grabs hold of the ailing sheep and pins her against the fence with his knee. She has a high temperature, and pneumonia brought on by a sudden change of weather is diagnosed. Antibiotics are administered. We have, hopefully, noticed her symptoms early enough. She should recover.
Here is the kernel of the nut that now rattles in my mind. We are raising this sheep for meat; she was due to go for slaughter this month, but the antibiotics mean a 45-day withdrawal period. We care for her, calling on professional advice. We keep her alive long enough so we are able to kill her. Intellectually, I understand this. Emotionally, it is more complex. How can I worry so much about her wellbeing, about her feelings, if her ultimate end is my plate? But I do. She is an ingredient, but not just for my lunch. She is part of the recipe for my life as I share it with her and her flock. When she’s gone she will be missed.
That day, dark and toothsome, closing in from the horizon. We will send two of the sheep for slaughter. When the time comes, I want to accompany them to see their final journey, make sure it goes the way it should; swiftly. I hope I am brave enough. In all things, I always hope I am brave enough. I have not yet made my peace with this.