“Am I fundamentally evil?” has become an infrequent but recurring thought. It most commonly occurs just before I bite into a burger. Of course, I’m not alone in this. The Times reports that sales of meat fell by £300 million last year, which is a lot of sausages. But, and here’s where it gets tricky, while Corbyn may well want to be a vegan, I really enjoy eating animals.
It only takes growing up in a bacon-free zone to learn that sin is the most exquisite seasoning. Food never tasted so good as when it carried the threat of eternal damnation. But, when you come to moralise against yourself rather than defying a distant deity, the ethical questions become far more inconvenient. Suddenly, I’m not pulling a fast one on God; I’m being bad.
Still, if the speed at which I pounced on tickets to Meatopia is anything to go by, I must be pretty comfortable on the Dark Side. Where better to get an insight into the state of modern day meat eating than at a carnivore carnival dedicated to just that? “Meat, fire, smoke and meat” seems like a pretty harmless slogan, really.
Tobacco Dock is transformed into a butchers’ row for the weekend, with metal chains hoisting prehistorically large joints over flame pits. Obviously, there’s craft beer, beards, tattoos – lots of tattoos – and it seems like every conceivable dude food stereotype crammed under one (admittedly high) glass roof. But hold up. No pulled pork? Female chefs? An overt emphasis on ethically reared meat? Maybe this isn’t the army of the damned after all.
The deal is that you swap your cash for meat bucks, at £5.50 each, which are then traded for a starter-sized portion of food. What did we spend our first meat buck on? Fish. Nathan Outlaw’s mackerel has attained legendary status in culinary circles and, perhaps, that is why he and seafood superstar, Mitch Tonks, were invited to provide Meatopia’s first ever fish dishes. Butterflied, grilled, and buddied with pickled veg and jalapeno mayo (the dish is Cornish so, please, pronounce the ‘j’), it’s a stunner.
Inevitably, meat took the ascendency. And it was still the classic barbecue big-hitters that really got the people going. The queue for David Carter’s (Smokestak) brisket never dropped below the ridiculous but, for me, it was Richard H Turner’s (Hawksmoor) clinched tomahawks with a deep, tangy and immensely satisfying roasted garlic hollandaise that won the day. Fitting, seeing as he is the UK’s Mr Meatopia n’all.
For a country that’s on a crash course to isolationism, we still do a pretty good job of hosting global gatherings. Chefs from Brazil, Israel, South Africa, Hong Kong and Finland, to name but a few, were stoking their fires and pedalling their foreign wares, and giving us an education in the process. Drunken chicken, Txuleton steak, pastirma, stigghiola and other wonders that we’d never heard of before dispelled any notions that fire and meat might be a restrictive brief.
Many of the more distinctive touches were to be found in the accompaniments. Selin Kiazim’s (Oklava) kid goat cutlet, punchy in its own right, was made mightier still by the whipped feta that added salt and softened the spicing. Outlaw’s pickles, meanwhile, gave purpose to raw red pepper. And over at the Cutting Room stage, Olia Hercules was getting excited about bread.
“In this recipe, the meat is good but the bread is the shizzle”. We’d rushed to get seats at her demonstration of an Azerbaijani dish of spatchcocked chicken cooked in lamb fat. Obviously, we were hoping for freebies. I’m yet to investigate Olia’s claim that Georgian wines are “among the best in the world” but she’s certainly not someone I’d argue with. It was also her that provided Meatopia’s most poignant moment. To a slightly smoked crowd of carnivores, she said that we need to be more selective with our meat, pay more for our meat, and eat less meat; and she was cheered for it.
That is the reality of the event. Meatopia is a celebration of quality, not meat for meat’s sake. It’s a celebration of cruelty-free farming, a celebration of ethical sourcing, a celebration of local butchery and, of course, a celebration of top class cooking. TV chefs such as Ottolenghi or John Torode may have been the most selfied men at the docks, but Peter Hannon (Meat Peter) walked around with a level of celebrity rarely attributed to a butcher. Incidentally, his sugar pit bacon ribs, cooked by Andre Lima De Luca, were immense.
Of course, questions persist; but Meatopia isn’t designed as an answer to the larger debate surrounding a meat-free future. It’s an acknowledgement that those of us who do eat meat, should do it in the right way. It’s also a reminder that we should take a great amount of joy from what we eat. Will I be on the wrong side of history? Possibly. Would I like another tomahawk? Yes.