Country Notes

Bloody vegans

Patrick Galbraith on the complex ethics of butter substitutes

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

I suppose he must have been there on business but he never went into any dull details. Kazakhstan, as far as my father’s stories went, was simply a place of men battling stray dogs in the street with umbrellas and children heading off hunting on horseback with eagles on their arms. As a thirteen-year-old, I thought it sounded perfect, right down to a joke he was frequently told, which he’s been repeating ever since.

“The Kazakhs are the second biggest consumers of meat in the world,” an old boy would say to any western traveller who was prepared to listen. “But who eats more?” the westerner would inevitably reply, whereupon the Kazakh would say, “The wolves of course,” and much fermented mare’s milk would be spilled across the floor as everyone rolled around laughing. In translation, it’s not a particularly successful joke but I’d like to hear it first-hand in a tavern in the shadow of the Tian Shan mountains.

There’s nothing duller than a person who sits around the dinner table trying to take people to task for what they do or don’t do

On the scale of that charming man, Morrissey, who recently claimed that vegans are superior beings, to a pack of gray wolves, I probably sit somewhere just north of the Kazakhs when it comes to meat consumption. I’m as passionate about radishes as a person ought to be but with Anne from down the road regularly stopping in with a haunch of venison, John from Penpont dropping off roe liver when he’s passing, and Martin “the worm man” hanging a goose on our gate every few months, there’s a lot to get through.

In early June, on the day I turned 28 — the same day I discovered some of my trousers no longer fit — I went on holiday with a bunch of pals to the Norfolk village of Great Snoring. There were seven of us, half of whom would side with the moody Mancunian. On the first night we had vegan paella. It was everything you’d imagine: paella without the good bits. After that, everything seemed to revolve around aubergines and somebody smacked a cucumber (Ottolenghi-inspired, probably).

There’s nothing duller than a person who sits around the dinner table trying to take people to task for what they do or don’t do. At one point, one of my more zealous vegan pals explained that veganism, to him, is about eating “non-violently”. It’s a valid idea and we all ought to be able to manage a meat-free week. But as the sun set on the fourth night, I noticed movement in the flowerbed by the old barn.

Readers will remember that I recently found myself in that irritating situation when you need to make a rabbit pie for a poet but the bunnies don’t show. A Dumfriesshire rabbit is a canny creature. For centuries his kind have been persecuted by everything from whippets, to rifles, to nets set in the dead of night.

The following morning, however, it became clear that a Great Snoring rabbit is as glutinous and torpid as you’d hope. As I wandered in my pyjamas they gazed up at me, hopped off ten yards, and went back to finishing what remained of the lawn.

I’m still not sure why my girlfriend’s father, who lives just outside Snoring, spent so much money on an air rifle but he seems to have forgiven me for the time I mistakenly went home with a pair of his boxer shorts and was more than happy to lend me the weapon. The “bsa r10 super carbine” is a different beast from the piddly air rifles of my teenage years and the events of that evening could hardly be described as sporting: one moment the rabbit was grazing away and the next he was flat on his back. It was time to dig out Clarissa, the fatter of the two fat ladies, and put Yotam back on the shelf.

I like trying to eat “non-violently” except that palm oil production is destroying vast swathes of orangutan habitat

Cooking wild rabbit isn’t easy. I subscribe to the belief that it needs to spend all night in a vat of salty water to get rid of a sometimes bitter taste. The morning after the soak, before the jointing began, I came down to a conversation about vegan butter.

“What’s it actually made of?”, one of the other omnivores asked. “You don’t want to know”, came the reply. But I really did and later, as the bunny browned on the stove, I did some Googling. Recipes vary but it’s usually full of palm oil or made from avocados.

I quite like the vegan mantra of trying to eat “non-violently” except that palm oil production is destroying vast swathes of rhino and orangutan habitat, and thirsty avocado farming is draining parts of South America dry.

I looked down at the rabbit. There was still some blood on my hand but not as much as there is on the hands of those who buy vegan butter. It’s complicated, but violence out of sight is violence out of mind.

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