Talk about a bloody revolution

If meat is murder, then we're a nation of serial killers. What is it about the stuff that continues to whet our appetite?
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

How can you possibly eat meat? I mean, how can you? It's bad for your digestion, it's bad for your heart and it's got a shocking reputation.

How can you possibly eat meat? I mean, how can you? It's bad for your digestion, it's bad for your heart and it's got a shocking reputation.

After five years of BSE scares, here and in France, after the unforgettable images of incinerated herds of cattle, stories of infected cow carcasses discovered en route to McDonald's franchises in Italy, after the condemned-chicken scandal in Lincolnshire, not to mention last year's grisly EU report criticising French methods of pork production ("The animals were stabbed on a conveyor belt and blood was collected in an open system with a high risk of contamination from unclean skin"); after assorted outcries about slaughterhouse hygiene, veterinary controls and animal welfare, after all the damning, emetic news that keeps coming through the swing doors of the media like plate-loads of entrecÿte bordelaise carried by waiters, you wonder: why do we eat meat at all any more?

Because we sure do. Pork chops, ribs of beef, pork medallions, lamb cutlets, burgers, chicken breasts, doner kebabs, the whole noisome family of meaty chunks; we eat more and more of it. Figures from the Meat and Livestock Commission show an enthusiasm for the consumption of red meat that hasn't been seen since the early 1990s. Last year, we worked our way through 2.6m tonnes of assorted animal flesh, the greatest amount since 1991. The figures break down significantly. Beef and veal took a spectacular dip in 1996, when beef on the bone was banned, but are now back to record levels.

Mutton and lamb, once staples of Sunday lunch, began to decline in the Eighties, nose-dived in 1993 and have now clambered back into favour. Pork seemed a healthy alternative to beef and lamb throughout the Nineties and, for one heady moment, overtook beef as the nation's favourite roast in the Doom Year of 1996. The consumption of chicken, meanwhile, has grown exponentially since the Seventies, gaining more fans each year, especially among the faux-vegetarian classes.

So keen are we on eating dead animals that there's been an anti-vegetarian backlash, of a sort. It's difficult to wrest reliable statistics out of the Vegetarian Society or the meat-eaters' lobby, but the signs are that a number of consumers who turned veggie during the bovine-spongieform crisis have "lapsed".

Some do it to pursue a high-protein, meat-and-no-veg diet popularised by Jennifer Aniston and American Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Others just got heartily sick of the wholesome gastro-playground of vegetarian cuisine. Madonna went back to eating meat, as did actress Julia Sawahla, and Liv Tyler and Anthea Turner. For God's sake, even the Dalai Lama gave up his herbivorous ways when confronted one day by a sizzling sirloin!

There's no shortage of places in England for nouveau-carnivores to take their wicked obsession. Chez Gerard, the steak-frites chain, has just opened in Manchester, as has the Gaucho Grill, another steak house de nos jours. Few of our top chefs put their heart into cooking for vegetarians. We aren't like France, where the Michelin-starred restaurant L'Arpege in Paris, announced it's taking all meat - except maybe chicken and a smidgeon of seafood - off the menu ("Vegetables are so much more colourful, more perfumed," bleated chef, Alain Passard. "You can play with the harmony of colours, everything is luminous.") Here, we're clinging to more robust tastes. Like, for instance, Tuscan Steak, which has just opened in Ian Schrager's fantastically trendy St Martins Lane hotel, off Trafalgar Square. It offers, along with the usual Tuscan antipasti and porcini, a vast grilled Florentine T-bone (American actually, the word "Florentine" is affectation) steak, which is laid in the middle of your table, carved, then shared out among the diners. The steak costs £48.50, which is fine as long as there are four of you sharing it.

Why have we, as a nation, gone back to eating meat? Are we genetically programmed to enjoy the meat and skin, the sinew and bone and texture, of the flesh of other species, just as my labrador takes a proffered leg-of-lamb bone softly between her jaws like a nun at Holy Communion? It's possible. We can no more deny our love of grilled steak, with its sexy redolence of blood and ashes, than deny our own humanity, made up of both in life and death.

"Oh how criminal it is for flesh to be stored away in flesh," wrote the Latin poet Ovid in Metamorphosis, "for one greedy body to grow fat with food gained from another, for one live creature to go on living through the destruction of another living thing!" In these islands we stopped being so fastidious years ago. The English were known as keen carnivores back in the 16th century, when Nicander Nucius of Corcyra wrote in his Travels that we were "Flesh-eaters, and insatiable of animal food; sottish and unrestrained in their appetites; full of suspicion". The English "table" - the cornucopia of gastro-delights - offered a bewildering array of dead livestock, wildfowl and assorted pondlife. Parson Woodforde noted in his Diary for Leap Year Day 1788, "We gave the company for dinner some fish and oyster sauce, a nice piece of boiled beef, a fine neck of pork roasted and apple sauce, some hashed turkey, mutton steaks, salad etc, a wild duck roasted, fried rabbits, a plum pudding and some tartlets" - and all that at three hours' notice.

We're programmed by history to regard meat as the centrepiece of a dish, just as a fire in the grate is the focal point of a room. Meat gives a point to any cooking endeavour in a way that, say, pasta or rice dishes never can. Dinner without meat is like martini without the gin, the LSO without Simon Rattle, Pisa without the Tower.

When chewing your way through some boring slabs of over-dried topside at Sunday lunch, you can go off beef - at least the supermarket variety, in its embarrassingly naked crimson shame, when any joint, as Jane Grigson used to tell us, benefits from an overcoat of tasty fat.

But you cannot afford to have negative feelings about this. You must find the nearest farmer's market, and pick up a hand-reared, on-the-bone rib of beef, a great solid lump of grass-fed cow the dimensions of an Italian saddle, and invite a dozen friends round to savour (after four hours of basting and smelly torment) its giddy-making aroma and melting, fibrous delicacy. And don't get me started on the wonders of cold roast lamb sandwiches with mango chutney, or the serendipitous bliss of finding, in your local butchers, a really thick pork chop with half a kidney attached, or the shockingly seductive mutual sawing through a shared chateaubriand, as if you and your beloved were gradually uncovering each other's flesh.

That's why we like meat so much - a combination of inbred Englishness, instinctive cannibalism and sexual appetite. No wonder Henry VIII gave his loin of beef a knighthood.