Friday, June 27, 2008

Lamb - up close & personal

I had a new experience this last week. Watching the lamb I was buying from a live critter running around his field to a cut up carcass ready to go in my freezer. Here's the story.

My friend Rob who's a semi-retired farmer (I don't think farmers ever fully retire, certainly Rob won't) asked if I wanted to buy a lamb as he was going to slaughter one of his. I said I'd have half since I don't currently have freezer space for more. I also got to thinking that carnivore that I am I've hardly ever seen the whole process through from live animal onwards. ( I quit hunting deer many a year ago.) So I asked Rob if I could be there as he did everything. No problem says Rob.

Rob was a good choice to watch as not only has he been a sheep farmer (he still has 2,000 acres in Scotland that one of his son's runs) he is also a Master butcher who had his own shop. Thus he really knows what he's doing. Currently he only has half a dozen sheep since that's all Jean, his wife, will allow. So I was in good hands.

The weather cooled down last Monday so Rob called & I went over in the early evening. He had penned up the three lambs and grabbed & brought out the one that was to be killed. Rob admits that even though he's been a farmer & butcher for many years he still has to psych himself up to do the actual killing. (Note I deliberately didn't take any pictures as this is a family friendly blog. At least so far.) A quick plunge with a very sharp knife and the jugular vein was cut. Brain death was virtually instantaneous as the blood supply was cut off. It took longer for the rest of the body to shut down, but there seemed to be no pain.

That was the hard part for me and I think for Rob as well. Next came the skinning. (I asked, but apparently there is little market these days for lamb pelts.) Rob carefully cut the skin around the ankle bone leaving a strip which he cut down towards the foot. This became a 'handle' for later. The foot as then cut off at the ankle. This was done for each leg and then the skin inside each leg as cut up to the body and peeled off. At this point we hung the lamb up using a stick pushed between the bone & tendon of the rear leg above the ankle. Thus the lamb was hanging head down. Rob then very carefully cut the skin up the belly from the rear to the neck. He started separating the skin from the body by pulling with one hand while pushing inside with his other hand clenched into a fist. This continued until the skin on the legs could be peeled back (at about this point Rob carefully cut around the anal area.) after which the skin on the back side was peeled off fairly easily. At the end all the skin & pelt came of including that on the head.

We now had a bare carcass. The innards were held in by a membrane. Rob carefully cut the membrane as I positioned a wheelbarrow underneath. Everything including the anal area came out cleanly & together. Most was cut out leaving only the heart, liver, pancreas and kidneys still attached.

Finished! I was amazed at how little blood there was other than at the beginning. We now hung the lamb in Rob's barn, high up, to fully drain. After a few hours it was moved inside to a cool place to hang for two days.

Two days later, this Wednesday, I went to watch Rob cut up the lamb. I'm always fascinated by how easy professional make doing things look and this was no exception. Rob started by cutting off the breast at both sides. He then cut through the neck to detach the head. Rob then cut (sawed) straight down the backbone as in this case we were dividing the lamb in two. Next off came the hind leg (which we're eating this Sunday) This I asked Rob to bone and to cut off the shank. Next came the shoulder which we cut into two pieces since a whole shoulder is too much meat for just Linda & I. We then cut 2 four rib racks and a couple of dinners worth of the remaining ribs. Rob rolled & tied the breast and cut out the nice neck pieces. I took home some of the liver & one kidney which we had for dinner that evening. Delicious!

The dressed whole lamb by the way weighed 15.8 kilos. (35.2 pounds approx.) Rob sold it to me for 10 Euros per kilo which is a very good price hereabouts.

All in all I'm glad I watched the whole thing. I learned a lot. I doubt that I'll ever kill & dress my own meat, but I learned a lot about cutting up the carcass and how to maximize the usable meat.

I'm not going to have any qualms about eating this lamb at all. I think he'll be even more delicious than if he were anonymous.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Fete des Mais - Part 2

Having planted our Maypole we all decamped to out local lake. This was in aid of planting a tree, introducing the full new council and, this being France, having a meal and a bit to drink.

Here's the whole council. And here's our very happy new Mayor!

After mercifully short speeches the beer & wine started flowing and the conversations really got going. This was a great chance to bring ourselves up to date with many local friends, get the latest gossip and socialize in general. I for instance ran into friends whose 13 year old son is getting into tennis, but has nobody to play with. I'll probably regret volunteering, but we start next Friday. Can my ego stand getting walloped by a teenager? Probably yes & the exercise will do me good.

After a few goutte's (drops) we all trooped off to the tables under the trees for the repas. In addition to wine we had a buffet selection of several salads, slices of roast pork, pizza slices, cornichons, bread, cheese and fouace (a local kind of cake). It was pretty nice spread all in all.

I'm not going to try to describe the rest of the day, but I will leave you with some pictures of our wonderful friends & neighbors in the village. A bientot!


A good time was had by all. By the way that's Madam Le Mayor taking the video.

People are great!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

La fete des Mais - a tradition revived. Part 1

This morning our new town council resurrected an old tradition: "La fete des Mais". Literally "the Corn Festival", but really a very old tradition honoring the Earth Goddess which goes back to pre-Christian times. It typically held on the Sunday following the longest day of the year.
Here is the painted tree ready to be put in place. This is the traditional offering. The location was outside the village, but still in the commune. Just outside in fact of the new Mayor's gate. Interesting.

As you can see we had a pretty good turnout both young & old. About 75 people I'd estimate which is not bad for a commune of only just over 400 people.

We had some nice decorations as well as a 'friendly' drink before the actual raising of the pole. I must say that the raising was dome most efficiently. The guys seemed to be well organized and know what they were doing. Here's a pretty self explanatory set of pictures of the process. For the sake of scale I'd say the pole is about 50 feet high.

For the rest of the story see part 2 as this was only the start of the day's festivities.

You just have to love France and the French when they do things like this. They do them well, wholeheartedly and with a great sense of occasion and propriety. I love it!

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Le Vieux Pont - Again

We went to Le Vieux Pont in Belcastel for lunch yesterday. There were 8 of us at table. Linda & I, our in laws plus our friend Pat & three of her friends. It was particularly interesting in that Pat & her friends are all retirees from P&O's catering division. Thus a well traveled and very knowledgeable group food wise.

We all opted for the 4 course menu. After pre-amuse amusées followed by an amuse our entrée was a choice of either Fois Gras de Canard mi-cuit or Gambas with local vegetables. I had the Gambas which were delicious & accompanied by artichoke, leek and mangetout with a light melange of sauces.
Mains were a fork tender pieces of beef (It looked & tasted like fillet, but wasn't.) with girolles, potatoes and a truffle sauce. The alternate was a lightly poached then grilled piece of cob with spring vegetables. Very very tasty.
Cheeses as always here were local with a selection of maybe 10-15 types. Cabecous, St Nectaire & ,of course, Roquefort.
My dessert was strawberries done several ways with a wild strawberry soup complete with straw. Really nice & light. Others had the chocolate medley of 4 different chocolate desserts.

Overall a nice meal in great surroundings. The room was full as is normal with quite an eclectic crowd. As we were finishing an extended French family, about 15 of them, came in to start celebrating Grandmother's birthday. They were having so much fun we wished we could have stayed.

We enjoyed the company so much that they're all coming to our place for dinner tomorrow. Belly pork is the main course. Not as refined as the restaurant, but very satisfying.