It’s an early morning and you’re getting into a car with two strangers. As a non-driver you’re grateful for a lift, because you’re going to the sort of location in the country that is hard to find on Google maps. A fact which reassures you that it’s probably going to be an interesting place and hopefully, an interesting day…
You’re getting in a car with two strangers to skin and butcher a rabbit, and then, of course, eat it – what else? Followed by a bit of a masterclass in how to write about food from Louise Gray, otherwise known as ‘The Ethical Carnivore’. You’ve never met her before, but she lives locally, and you’ve seen she’s doing a lot of talks at the moment because the book she’s just released has become a bestseller.
You’re scared you’re going to have to write under pressure during the day and then read out your clunky sentences in front of her and these people, these strangers you’ve just met. But it is a good and necessary challenge, as you’re starting at MSc in Gastronomy imminently and it’s years since you’ve written much more than online product descriptions, and definitely too long since you’ve read a book in its entirety that you enjoyed.
Not long into the car journey, you find out that these two people have travelled from England (at least one of them), especially for the event, and they are mostly vegetarian – one happily describes themselves as ‘flexitarian’, explaining they rarely eat meat but eat only sustainable meat. They’ve both read the book and really enjoyed it. You haven’t and feel a bit of a fraud as you explain the course to your travel companions and how you ended up being there that day.
Of course, you get hopelessly lost, but eventually, find the house and walled garden right at the end of a track with no signpost. With an entrance at the rear, the walled garden looks naturally beautiful, very different from the manicured gardens of the National Trust properties that you often spent childhood weekends stomping around in. You meet in the garden and share some herbal tea (picked from the garden of course), whilst the other participants arrive. After a prior warning that it might be upsetting for people, and that also no photography by participants would be allowed (so as to focus properly on the task in hand), you all enter the room of the workshop.
And yes, you still recall that shared low gasp on walking into the room, for it was really beautiful. Beautiful, striking and full of death, our rabbits laid out on mats on a patterned tablecloth. I say ‘our rabbits’ because we are now respectful custodians of these furry creatures, this memento mori. Overhead, decorative gilt frames cover the far wall, awaiting restoration. The smell is the most memorable – dead, damp and earthy. Not unpleasant, but definitely dead, almost furry. This furry smell changes as the skin is removed, suddenly or possibly gradually, it is more noticeably gamey, it has become food. A smell of transformation? A happening. You were never really that keen on game, but you eat it if you have to. It’s been a very long time since you ate rabbit, but you’re sure you were pretty young the first time.
We chop heads off, and twist the legs to break them before chopping, to make it easier. They snap loudly as they are twisted. There is a choice to use scissors instead of the knife for ease, but that seems kind of sinister, even if it was a little easier. You do things ‘the proper way’ and just add more weight and height with the cleaver as you thud through bone and flesh.
We learn a little move, a quick twist of the tail which can remove the colon in one go, but it doesn’t work for everyone. You twist carefully and ‘pop’, it all comes out, in one go, no mess or fuss, and you are delighted – a colon interspersed with lumps of rabbit poo in hand like a prize – as a photo is taken for posterity! You liken it to getting a champagne cork out of a bottle with no fuss, a gentle sleight of hand.
The skinning and gutting seemed easier and you separate the parts for different purposes, your butchery ok, but sloppy. You are impressed by one of the guys there who neatly lays all the body components out like artwork or an archaeologist. He confesses he harbours a secret desire to be a butcher or suchlike. A year later, you know him better and your group of friends club together to buy him a nose to tail butchery workshop for a special birthday.
Afterwards, you go outside, to talk about writing, and start with a discussion of food memories. Someone shares a memory of her family keeping rabbits as pets, edible pets. As a woman they were spared the killing of the pet rabbit, however, their brother was not.
Louise Gray is friendly, affable and disarmingly honest, explaining how she’d had a hard time prior to getting the book deal, a stage of life with “no job…no boyfriend.” She likens her motivation to start the experiment of only eating animals she’d killed herself to a dinner party pledge gone awry. Made real by the sadness of killing and the burden of taking a life for human consumption, we ponder the ethics of communicating this responsibly. Discussing different styles of writing, Louse reads some passages from writer’s she is fond of, as well as a few passages from her own book. We talk about Proust and ‘his madeleines’, the sort of reference in classic literature that one really ought to know, but you don’t. You feel your skin bristle as Louise read passages from Michael Pollen’s tales of hunting in which he states his sensations are heightened, a similar feeling to that of being high. You understand the sensations – this is good writing.
The lunch is delicious, (Charlotte can really cook!), a lovely rabbit ragu dish with lots of fresh crusty bread, salad, plenty of wine on the table and cheese, which of course you don’t eat, as cheese is your nemesis. At some point, Louise goes out to the car to show us her bespoke roadkill hats, peppered with an ample amount of pheasant feathers, they’re grand, beautiful and simultaneously a little morbid.
You reflect on one of the first pieces of food writing that you read at a young age that has really stayed with you. A short story by Janice Galloway in a collection entitled ‘Blood’. A tale of bread, meat, sex and death. However, you feel guilty for not feeling that emotional (or guilty) about the rabbits. It could be you’ve always been a bit morbid, from a family of medics, surrounded by gory pictures from medical textbooks as a child. At this point, you’ve still never killed anything. Maybe that would be different…
A month or so later you have made your first and second kill in quick succession, a knife straight through the head and spinal column of a lobster, uncomplicated – quickly and easily ‘dispatched’. A bradawl forced through the forehead of a crab into the brain, another puncturing the central nervous system, but this crab – the last of the living – is stubborn, it doesn’t want to die. It flails around, despite its brain injury until you repeat the process. It is an unpleasant experience, an unsatisfactory memory.
The day draws to a close, and those of us who don’t already own The Ethical Carnivore deem it a necessary purchase after the delightful and thought-provoking day we’ve spent. There are less spare seats in cars than on the way, so Louise offers you a lift into town. You do a little washing up, then head off with spare rabbits in tow. Again, the conversation with Louise is frank and free-flowing, like old friends we talk about ageing and dating and dating apps. All part of the cycle of life.
This piece was purposefully written without referring to some notes I took on a day, to summarise my memories of the event, over a year after it happened. The workshop was run by Charlotte Maberly of Food Connects, in collaboration with Louise Gray.