Thursday, 26 November 2009

Making the Most of Animals: Part 1 - Wonderful Offal

Offal is not to everyone's liking; and photographs of it being dissected and prepared are probably to even fewer people's liking - so if you are squeamish about that sort of thing, you might want to duck out now.

For me this is not about morality. Treating an animal well and making the most of its body when you kill it is better for your health and better for your wallet, so it's a compelling case regardless of ethics.

Since we're on the topic, though, I would observe the following: our physiology has evolved more slowly than society has developed. Hardly surprising when you contrast the mechanism of natural selection with that of cultural development. Hence, vegetarianism - a perfectly reasonable concept borne of advanced cultural thinking, yet ill-suited to our bodies.

There is a point of view that a good carnivore at least shows respect for the animals he or she eats by ensuring they are well treated and using as much of the creature as possible. To me this makes sense - but I am not a table-thumping evangelist of animal rights; as I say, for me this is a health and finance no-brainer.

However, please note: eating every part of a badly fed/treated animal is not a wise compromise. Intensively farmed animals are likely to have an unfavourable fat profile and contain antibiotics.

My point about cost is this: given that eating well-treated animals is essential to ensure healthy meat, then the cheaper way to do this is by eating all of those animals.
Free Food
Mrs M and I have been buying most of our non-wild meat from Fordhall Farm in central England. This is how we ensure the animals have been treated well.

They run a delivery service, but we prefer to drive over in the summer, when it's possible to see the animals in the fields or enclosures and witness their freedom first hand. The team who run it have even featured on television, where we learned more about the lengths to which they go to ensure a natural existence for the animals.

Last year, I asked whether they had any offal for sale, other than the few parcels of liver in the frozen section. No, but we have some to give away, was the response. Why would you give it away, I wanted to know. Because otherwise it gets thrown away.
Healthy Food
That day, along with our usual purchases, we returned home with a cow's heart the size of a soccer ball, two lamb plucks (liver, heart and lungs all still joined together), a cow's tongue and two pig's kidneys:

Chopped up, this made a staggering 16 meals; and I mean man-sized meals. We are talking 300-400 grams of meat per meal. For zero cost.

What's more, this is the good stuff. Offal is packed with vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and probably much more besides. Our ancestors would have fought over these parts.
The trouble is, people are squeamish about offal. Mrs M is only now taking gentle steps towards eating the stuff. For the last year, I have been eating the offal on days when she is eating with friends or otherwise I make her an omelet or fish instead.

Part of me wants to shout about offal from the rooftops so that the world wakes up and stops shovelling this amazing food down the drain and can
therefore use half as much land to provide the same amount of food. The other part of me wants to keep schtum so that the few of us who like the stuff continue to get it on the cheap.

Clearly the first part of me has triumphed, because I am writing this post.
Dealing with Offal
I'll show you how I deal with these parts of the animal when I get them home and how best to cook them; but don't expect recipes: this is about practicalities. I'll add links to recipe ideas on other blogs at the end.

This weekend, we came home with two lamb plucks as well as our usual haul: . I laid these on a couple of chopping boards, , then separated the liver, heart and lungs into individual pieces by severing then from the main windpipe of the lamb: . What remained was various pieces of fatty, between-organ tissue, bits of muscle and windpipe itself: .

In total, this lot made nine large meals: .

I took the bits and pieces and slow cooked them with onion, tomato and garlic (I forgot to photograph the garlic): . Five hours later, I put it into a container and into the freezer: .
This is one of the toughest parts of the animal I have tried. In the early days I sliced it up and stir fried it. It was very tough. In fact I did this again recently because I had not thought ahead. It took be almost 2 hours to chew through the lot: .

Braising on low heat heat for up to 2 hours will tenderise the meat more and create a tasty, if thin, gravy...but the smart money is on slow cooking. We bought a slow cooker recently for £30 ($50) and have never looked back. After 5 hours, this piece of tongue was so tender I was able to peel the skin off with my hand: . It was as nice as any fillet steak I have ever had.
I've eaten lamb, pig and cow heart. The texture and flavour is rather like a toned down version of liver. Less tender, less piquant. Although you can cook heart by braising or even frying and find it just about tender enough to eat, it does benefit from longer cooking too. Hearts come with a 'crown' of fat around the top - this is delicious and it would be a crime to cut this off.

A cow's heart usually weighs about 2 kilos, from which I create about 5 portions - here's one I cut up recently (along with a tongue): .

This is a meal of one such portion, braised: . You can see the tasty fat 'bubbles' on the left of the piece of meat.
Kidneys are happy being fried, so this is how I tend to cook them. They can be slightly rubbery, so you may prefer to cook them for longer in casseroles or just by themselves... but I am too lazy for that and in any case they really are reasonably tender when fried. The ammonia smell that sometimes emanates from cooking kidneys is not to everyone's taste. Here are some pig kidneys I recently made a meal of: .
This one's easy: just slice it and fry it. The composition of liver is such that it is tender by nature and in fact the only real danger to its palatability is overcooking, which can make it tough.
This is the one organ meat I hesitate to recommend unreservedly. It's not the taste, but the consistency which is a problem. Not surprisingly given its function, it's somewhat aerated, and so lacks density, which for me is main appeal of meat.

I have learned that slicing and frying lung is not the best approach. I have not tried slow cooking yet, but did discover that when I braised the whole piece for 90 minutes, the result had an acceptable tenderness, albeit that it still had that insubstantial, aerated quality.
Heads, Brains and Others...
There are some parts of the animal I have not mentioned because we have never tried them.

Heads: we were once offered a pig's head at the farm. I wasn't sure whether we were expected to cook it or put it on the bed of a rival gang member. In the end we said no, mainly because we figured out we did not have a pot big enough to cook it in. Apparently you make something called brawn using pigs' heads and other parts such as trotters and bones. I am sure the heads of other animals can be cooked in the same way.

Brains: you occasionally see brains on the menu in expensive restaurants. I have never been offered brains at the farm. It's a bit of a sensitive issue in the UK after the BSE debacle and perhaps the one thing people are most unsure about eating. That scene from Hannibal doesn't help.

Stomach: two dishes I am aware of are tripe, which is made from the stomach of the sheep and haggis, made from the stomachs of cows. I have tried neither, nor have we been offered the stomach of animals at the farm.

There are, I am sure, many others.
How to Make Offal Less Unappealing
Getting used to the idea of eating offal, or persuading someone you cook for to try it can be a challenge. Here are my tips:
  1. Don't let them see it beforehand (if you are cooking for someone else)
  2. Try to make it look as unlike its original form as possible
  3. Casseroles or stews are a good way to disguise
  4. Use plenty of herbs and spices like garlic - the smell of cooking will win you/them over
  5. Follow a recipe: it will diminish that sense that it's 'not right'.
If you want to see the eating of offal in action, follow me on twitter or keep and eye on the My Meals photo page on this blog. I post photos of my meals on most days, and eat offal about 3 times per week.

As Mrs M is not yet on board, I revert to plain preparation for offal dishes: at best, I use tomato, onion, garlic, perhaps coconut cream. If I am stir frying I use coconut or red palm oil. The latter is worth exploring because it can add a lovely bacon-like flavour.

At worst, I simply slow cook it in water.

For some better recipe ideas, search on Google. There are plenty out there. Mark Sisson has done a couple of good articles on offal and recipes for it:

Mark's Daily Apple: Organ meat recipes
Mark's Daily Apple: More detailed post about offal (including tripe and brains).

See Also:
Making the Most of Animals: Part 2 - Glorious Fat
Making the Most of Animals: Part 3 - Beautiful Bones
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Friday, 13 November 2009

Supplements - What I Take and Why

Many people would like to take a single tablet each day that ensures optimal health. Thus was born the multi-vitamin. But you can't. It's not that simple.

Until recently, my Father required an entire cupboard in the kitchen to house the collection of tablets and potions from which his daily supplementation was administered. My relentless re-education campaign is paying off: we are now down to a single shelf.

Over the years I went from no supplementation to lots of supplementation then finally to judicious supplementation. I'd like to spare you the effort of making the same journey.

First of all, a couple of assumptions to make clear.
  1. I eat a Paleo diet (most of the time.) Thus, the nutrient density of my food is high and well proportioned. My meat is mostly wild or organic / grass fed / free range. My fruit and veg is mostly organic. Yes, the nutrient density of modern fruit and vegetables, organic or otherwise, is lower than those our ancestors gathered; and yes, modern life throws at us additional toxins such as pollution. However, I doubt our ancestors had consistent access to the volume of fruits and vegetables we do. I believe this offsets the reduced nutrient content and additional toxin load.
  2. I have no special requirements. I am not pregnant (and barring some kind of unwelcome miracle, never will be) and I am not aware of any congenital deficiencies. My research has been based on my requirements as a normal healthy male.
What Supplements do I Take?
Vitamin D
I have read a lot about this (see the articles in my bookmarks under the vitamin D tag.) There is a growing consensus that it's a crucial ingredient to our wellbeing, and one whose healthy levels have been underestimated. People mistook average levels for healthy levels. Modern man spends much less time in the sun, so our bodies are not able to make what they need; and since it's almost impossible to compensate for this via diet, we have a problem only supplementation or regular holidays can solve (unless you are lucky enough to live somewhere sunny.)

I have written about how I got tested, revealing a significant deficiency, then supplemented to achieve improved levels.

I buy this product.
Summer: 3000 iu per day when I do not sunbathe. Zero iu when I do.
Winter: 4000 iu each day.
I get tested every 6 months, and adjust supplementation accordingly. I am still learning.
I don't agree with everything Mark Sisson says about supplementation, but there's no doubt he knows his stuff, and it's his views on probiotics in this post which have driven my policy. The key points I have learned are:
  • We need healthy bacteria in our guts.
  • Some things we do in our life kills the friendly bacteria (e.g. antibiotics, illness, stress.)
  • Unlike our forefathers, we are very hygienic. So the friendly bacteria does not tend to get replaced naturally.
  • Once re-introduced, friendly bacteria can grow and flourish by itself.
Based on this information I take a day's worth of acidophilus once a month, just to be sure. If I get an upset stomach now and again, or have a couple of days of stress, this will 're-seed' my friendly bacteria culture.

I buy this product (but not from this shop)
Once day per month: 36 mg Lactobacilli culture x 4.
I have my Mother to thank for this one. S
everal years ago she noted I was taking ibuprofen tablets like smarties. I was playing a lot of sport and constantly had sprains or muscular issues to combat.

Since then I have learned how bad Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) - of which ibuprofen is one - can be. They mess with your stomach in a way which (to a layman like me) sounds a lot like the impact grains have.

What are the alternatives? Well, many of the healthy foods I am already consuming have anti-inflammatory effects. Omega 3 fatty acids, for a start; and apparently cherries have excellent anti-inflammatory effects - but how many jugs of cherry juice would I need to combat a sprained ankle?

Bottom line: serrapeptase is a naturally occurring substance with a long track record of largely side-effect-free use as a powerful anti-inflammatory. So when I am injured, I take that.

I buy this product (but not from this shop)
When injured, I take 60,000 or 120,000 iu 3 times per day. I have no real basis for this dosing other than the knowledge that side effects are rare even at high doses, and I have never experienced any.
What Supplements would I Consider Taking?
Omega 3 Oil
I have read a fair bit about this too, but don't seem to have bookmarked anything. The key point is that the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids in our diet is very important to health. As hunter gatherers this was not an issue. Wild food is high in omega 3. However, processed food and industrially farmed animals are high in omega 6. Supplementation with omega 3 can therefore be a good idea to combat the modern diet.

Nevertheless, I do not supplement with omega 3 because:
  • You can get omega 3 from foods. Oily fish is an excellent source. I eat sardines, mackerel and herring by the bucket load. These are small, wild-caught, oily fish. Size is important because small fish have not lived long enough for significant quantities of cancer-causing toxins to build up in their fatty tissue. I also eat tinned salmon.
  • As I mentioned, most of the time I don't eat modern or industrialised food anyway, so my omega 6 intake is generally low.
  • I don't like spending money I don't have to.
Why Won't I Take Anything Else?
I will preface my final point with the following statement: I am always learning and certainly do not know it all. A year ago I would have written this blog post and not even mentioned vitamin D. Next week I may read an article that convinces me I should supplement with something else. For now, my views on further supplementation are as follows:

Mankind barely even 'gets' the human body at the moment. We are about as good at knowing the full effects of a supplement as we are at predicting the weather beyond next week. This is a good analogy because like the body, the weather is an immensely complex system in which everything interacts with everything else.

We run crude tests where we change one variable out of billions, then draw our conclusions from a few measurements over a few months.

We evolved to receive our nutrients from food, which is also a complex combination of many substances. Yet we identify single molecules in that food and think that by supplementing just that molecule we can compensate for eating material that barely qualifies as food.

So I will continue to 'supplement' with real food, except in cases (like vitamin D) where I am convinced this is not possible and where I am willing to take the gamble of consuming an isolated substance that crudely approximates what nature intended.
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Saturday, 7 November 2009

Hunter Gatherer in Goat Herding Shame

[Click on the small pictures in the main story to see larger images]

Okay, I admit it. I'm a fraud. While promoting the hunter gatherer lifestyle I was secretly herding and milking goats.

Now that I have come clean, let me tell you about our recent experiences as herders.

In July Mrs M and I stayed at a gîte in France, 3000 feet above sea level in the Pyrenees. The British couple who own the property live in an adjoining house and keep various animals, some as pets, others as a resource.

Mrs M and I would like, one day, to be self-sufficient. What better way to guarantee our food is not sullied by modern techniques? So in July we took a keen interest in the animals and what it took to look after them.

"You can't really go on holiday" was one of the key things we were told.

After the July holiday, Mrs M and I were so taken by what we'd seen that we offered to look after the animals if the family ever wanted to take a holiday.

"Yes please - how about October?" was the response...
We arrived a couple of days before the family were due to go away. We needed to be trained.
The Animal Inventory
Here is the list of animals:

Goats - 4
Sheep - 2
Chickens - 20
Cats - 2
Dog - 1

The Delinquent Dog
The wild card in the menagerie was the dog, Tango (pronounced Tongo, since he is French!) In July he gave the impression of being well-intentioned but partially unhinged. Even once he knew who you were, he could do any of three things when he encountered you - bark repeatedly, ignore you, or press himself distractedly against you with a sort of offhand affection.

He was kept indoors when the postman came. We would need to establish some trust and authority or he could be trouble.
The Routine
As with many humans, animals are at their most stable and happy when they have a good routine. During the two days of training, I took these notes:

The routine was as follows:

First light:
  1. Turn off the electric fence around the chicken houses
  2. Give food and water to the five chicken enclosures
  3. Open each chicken house and release the free-range hens from their shed
  4. Let the sheep out of their enclosure

After Breakfast:
  1. Prepare milking pots and food for the goats
  2. Drive down to the goat shed
  3. Milk Cordelia, who is currently pregnant, meanwhile giving straw to the other 3 goats
  4. After milking, rope up the goats and take them to their enclosure
  5. Check the electric fence and turn it on.
  6. Check the water in the enclosure and replenish if necessary.
  7. Take the milk back, filter it, and freeze it

Mid afternoon:
  1. Corn for the chickens - the free rangers congregate by the garage for this, the others have it thrown over into their enclosures
  2. A little more food for the young cockerels because one of the hens from another enclosure flies over and eats from their food tray
  3. A little corn to the sheep from the hand, to retain their domesticity
  1. Shut the chickens away and turn on their electric fence
  2. Shut the sheep away
  3. Shut the goats away
The Perks
Of course there are some perks to all this work. Even though it was winter, one of the free range ladies did oblige us with a couple of eggs during our tenure, which I duly consumed with some leftover lamb:

In addition, how could we resist having a coffee each morning with raw, minute-fresh goat's milk?
Food and Meals
We had a number of fine evening meals. This was largely courtesy of Carfour supermarket's organic section rather than the local butcher, who was closed for the week:

As well as keeping animals, they also have a fairly large vegetable patch, in which she grows pumpkins and courgettes, amongst other things. Our hallway looked like this when we arrived:

Needless to say, we were invited to help ourselves.

While I was mooching around the grounds barefoot, I trod on a few hard lumps in the grass. On inspection, I discovered a number of buried sweet chestnuts. There is a large chestnut tree there and although there were almost no chestnuts remaining on the ground, it appeared the many squirrels had kindly set some aside for us earlier in the month ;-) We roasted these with one of our dinners.

I also found a buried walnut, but sadly was unable to locate the tree from which it had come.

We also ate at a couple of restaurants - the photos below are of (we think) a duck gizzards starter. The main course was duck breast in a rosemary sauce.
The Disappearing Hen
The first two days in charge went like clockwork. We felt like Dr and Mrs Doolittle.

But this was too good to be true. The thing about animals is that like humans, they have their own agenda, and it does not always tally with that of their keepers.

On the second evening, only five of the free range chickens reported for bed. We had shut away all the other chicken houses, the electric fence was on, and it was almost completely dark. Had the fox eaten her? This seemed highly unlikely, given we had been around all day, and being eaten by a fox is not something one would expect a chicken to do quietly.

So we rang Suzanne, who told us that this particular chicken occasionally roosted in a tree when it was mild. So, reluctantly, we closed the free range hen house for the night.

The following morning, with relief, we discovered the missing hen had rejoined the gang. This is her:
The Traumatised Mouse
On the third day, I found a mouse behind Tango's water bowl. It's eyes were closed and it appeared unable to move much. I was not sure whether it was a baby mouse from a large species whose eyes were not yet open or an adult mouse from a small species, potentially traumatised by one of the cats. The fact that it was hairy suggested the latter. I put the mouse somewhere safe and quiet to recover or die, whichever nature decided.
Goat Pandemonium
Also on the third day, Mrs M and I were relaxing on the patio after lunch . The sheep were grazing nearby, the free-range hens were grubbing around by the garage and Tango the dog was snoozing at our feet.

The sound of animal bells is a common one in the Pyrenees - there are sheep, cows and horses all around in the fields and hills, all wearing bells so they can be easily located. Our goats also had bells. So when we heard the faint sound of bells getting closer, we didn't think much of it.

But as the sound grew closer and more rythmic, Mrs M and I looked at each other. Was the farmer using our driveway to move his sheep? The sound got louder and louder and panic began to creep in. Whatever was wearing the bells was clearly about the make an appearance from behind the hedges.

When it did, pandemonium broke out. It was the goats, who had leapt over their electric fence and come trotting up the drive. A whirlwind of feathers erupted as they ploughed through the chickens. The sheep bolted. Tango did what any dog would do and barked loudly and incessantly. Meanwhile, two of the goats had mounted the patio table and were inspecting our lunch plates.

Mrs M managed to get Tango inside and I managed to get hold of the billy goat's collar and that of Miranda, the light brown girl goat. They did not like this, but one has to be firm. I led them back down the drive. The herd instinct compelled the other two to join us and once we were round the corner they all began trotting back. Goats are clever. They knew exactly what they were doing. Mrs M and I felt rather like stand-in teachers being taken advantage of by a rowdy class of pupils.
The wildlife in the Pyrenees is spectacular at this time of year. We have recently bought a new digital camera and were able to capture some of the flora and fauna we found:
I did some great Paleo/Primal workouts in between all this, an account of which, including some videos, can be seen on Train Now Live Later: Hikes, Rope Climbing and Log Throwing in the Pyrenees.
The Menagerie Grows
The day after Mrs M and I left, the family bought three ducks. Their home will be in an enclave of the sheep enclosure. We hope, time permitting, to get the opportunity to do this again. We certainly feel very lucky to have been able to do it once.
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