Vegan chocolate mousse recipe via Hervé, Blumenthal and James

Family and friends are coming over the holidays and after a hearty vegan winter roast I wanted a dessert which is intense and stimulating but dinky – just 6-8 mouthfuls is what I’m after.

James‘ surprising Great British Bakeoff chocolate mousse recipe, Blumenthal and ultimately the molecular gastronomer Hervé reveal how to make a 2-ingredient mousse by adding hot water to melted chocolate and then cooling rapidly while whisking.

Kit

  • small saucepan containing enough hot water for hot bain-marie.
  • a smallish mixing bowl for melting then cooling the chocolate-water (metal quickly conducts heat and cold, pyrex may be second-best).
  • larger bowl with ice and a little water for chilled bain-marie.
  • hand whisk for aerating and combining chocolate-water
  • spoon for getting mousse in pots
  • spatula for getting mousse off spoon
  • pots – tiny bowls or shot glasses (ramekins probably too big – they’d amount to eating half a large bar of chocolate)

Ingredients (serves 12 in small pots containing about 6 mouthfuls).

This is where it gets slightly pedantic. You see I have precision scales and the nice thing about this recipe is that if things don’t work out all you have to do is melt the chocolate-water again and add one or the other ingredient to it. So the following is indicative.

  • 350g chocolate (in this case the 85% Ghanaian because the Cooperative have decided to contaminate their other dark chocolates with butter oil – next week on my way home I’ll go to Spitalfields organic and get some Divine – some plain, some ginger and orange). He also sells this Organica white bar I’m partial to, or the Plamil white I’m only slightly less partial to – don’t see why either of these shouldn’t work).
  • 270ml boiling water according to Heston’s recipe, but for me the mixture rapidly developed a truffley rather than moussey consistency and I ended up having to re-melt it and add a total of 390ml liquid – comprising a further 80ml water and 40ml rum. I bet these amounts differ depending on the proportion of cocoa solids in the chocolate so next time I’ll start with less water and re-melt to add more as necessary.

Instructions

  1. Have the pots, spoon and spatula and cold bain-marie ready close by.
  2. Put the chocolate in the metal bowl melt over the saucepan of water on a low heat.
  3. Whisk in the hot water.
  4. Transfer the metal bowl onto the cold bain-marie.
  5. Whisk vigorously, paying attention to the mixture coating the sides of the bowl, since this will solidify unless mixed in.
  6. When the mixture stands in soft peaks, quickly transfer to the pots.
  7. Chill.

Trouble-shooting

  • If the thickening happens too quickly, remove the metal bowl from the cold bain-marie and continue to whisk.
  • Or if the mixture becomes too thick, return the metal bowl to the hot bain-marie, remelt the chocolate-water and carefully add a small and determinate amount of liquid, whisk this in, then return to the cold bain-marie. Repeat as necessary until the consistency is right.
  • Or if the mixture won’t thicken, return to the hot bain-marie and add a small and determinate amount of chocolate, melt, then return to the cold bain-marie. Repeat as necessary until the consistency is right.

Dairy farming without legs

An estimated 84,000 workers are employed in the dairy industry. According to this June 2011 parliamentary briefing, the UK produces around 13 billion litres of milk each year, ninth in the world.  In 2010 the UK milk industry accounted for 16.1% of total agricultural output, worth £3.3 billion at market prices (the National Farmers Union puts the figure at 6bn). 51% of the UK-processed milk was sold as liquid milk, 26% became cheese, 10% became milk powder and condensed milk, 2% cream, 2% butter, 2% yoghurt, and 3% other products.

Despite this large stake in the UK economy, dairy farmers fear bankruptcy. Average production cost is 29.5p per litre, in order to invest in the industry farmers need 32p but many will receive less than 25p. Meanwhile milk retails at around 85p per litre, an enormous markup. National Farmers Union members have been campaigning to ensure three large supermarket chains Morrisons, Asda and the Cooperative pay dairy farmers according to a formula which ensures that farmers receive a ‘farm gate price’ that is at least the cost of production, and to regulate the sector to ensure that milk processing businesses (the largest being Arla, First Milk, Robert Wiseman, Dairy Crest) do not unduly influence the price with restrictive contracts.

As things stand even if, say, the Coop raises the shop floor price of milk (as it just has), the amount the farmer receives may drop even further because of the price set by the milk processor (as it just has). What processors pay dairy farmers dropped by a third over the past three years. And of course, processors are likely to cite reasons such as “continued price inflation in the commodities and food markets”.

Agriculture minister James Paice says that the Conservative-led coalition won’t regulate processor contracts. So the NFU are lobbying and the militant campaign group Farmers for Action are currently blockading milk processors in Somerset, Worcestershire and Shropshire. If they are successful, and if there are no significant efficiency savings to be made, the pressure will centre on consumer milk prices. Supermarkets may or may not decided to reduce their markup, but if shop floor prices rise higher than consumers are willing to pay, they’re likely to entertain alternatives to milk.

Just as it would have been good if Nokia had been more receptive to the smart phone concept early on, it would be good if the dairy industry were more receptive to alternatives to milk. I notice the Californian Milk Board is threatened enough by plant milks to try to create an aversion to them as unnatural – as if there’s nothing more natural than adult humans drinking from the mammary glands of a mother from a different species who is producing freakishly large amounts of milk, who needs antibiotics because high mastitis incidence has been bred into her, whose babies have not only been taken away but, when superfluous to farmers’ requirements as is often the case, carted hundreds of miles to the desolation of a veal farm, or shot at birth, who has a twenty-year life-span if left to herself, but who on a farm meets a premature death when no longer an economic asset – often because the antibiotics aren’t working and she’s too ill for her milk to meet EU somatic cell count limits. If she’s producing antibodies to heal herself, she gets the chop.

Only 3.1% of UK milk (Freedom Food or Soil Association) has more humane provenance than this, and I personally don’t accept that their regulations are humane. So milk is beyond unnatural. And that’s without even touching on the environmental degradation including the 990 litres of water it takes to produce each litre of milk. If you need milk, plant milks are better on so many levels. There’s bound to be one to suit anybody’s taste. And just like when you are encouraged to give up salt, things taste strange at first and it takes a bit of time to adjust to the taste – but everybody does.

And for the record, despite a recent butter binge, milk consumption isn’t burgeoning in the UK. I take my hat of to the NFU and Farmers For Action for being organised, solid and effective. All workers deserve a price that covers their costs and affords them padding and investment. It’s indisputable that dairy farmers and milk processors need a break and a decent living. I can’t see that dairy farming has legs. It’s obvious that ‘sustainable’ means addressing the interlocked issues of dairy farmers’ livelihoods, milk producers’ livelihoods, the environment, and animal welfare. Who is doing this? Apparently not the slumbering Vegan Society with its two news items since the end of May. Not the Food Ethics Council. Not the hilariously-named Fair Milk Campaign where the animals are voiceless. Not agricultral minister Jim Paice who doesn’t know the price of milk and so should be taken with a pinch of salt when he calls for cutting production costs (with presumed knock-on effects for cow welfare). Not the “does not consider alterations to the size of the dairy sector” Food Climate Research Network. Not DEFRA.

Hazelnut milk is good in coffee, hot chocolate and sweet cuisine and currently costs a pound at Sainsbury’s as part of a three-for-£3 multibuy which includes other plan milks. Soya grows in this country now and the taste of the milks has improved immeasurably. Alternatives to this primeval habit of stripping breast milk from cows and feeding it to grown-up humans are looking more and more feasible every day. But there are certain to be obstacles.

I wish that Animal Aid, the RSPCA, Compassion in World Farming, The Vegan Society, &tc would combine their resources to fund research work – complementary to the work carried out by FCRN and FEC above – into alternative economies to sustain the 84,000 people currently employed in the dairy industry.

A case study in activism – a review of ‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Safran Foer

Just bear with me a minute before I get started on the book. One Saturday morning in 1996 I set off by bus from Rusholme in south Manchester to visit my mother’s cousin’s family in the northern suburb of Prestwich. At some stage during my journey up Oxford Road the Irish Republican Army detonated their last Manchester bomb and when the bus terminated prematurely nobody knew the reason. The city’s response was still being scrambled and I managed to duck the cordons and skirt across Market Street to the bus station where the situation became clear. From a call box I dialed my relatives but it was sabbath and they weren’t picking up. I arrived hours late and was greeted with the raised eyebrow of a mother used to keeping student time. When lunch was produced I realised with dismay that I’d forgotten to tell her I was vegetarian. Never having encountered liver before, I had to inquire about the greyish lump on my plate. I considered what to do. I hadn’t warned her; in the sabbath-related news vacuum there was consternation about the bomb; I’d been very late; I didn’t want her to worry; I was hungry; the food was nearly spoiled and if I didn’t eat it it was going in the bin. So I ate a calf’s liver without complaint. It was claggy and tasted the way bad breath smells. To this day it’s the foulest thing ever to have passed my lips.

These kinds of dilemmas, arising from “the fact that we do not eat alone”, foment inside Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, a book I read because I received a copy gratis from his publicist to review on this blog. I usually avoid books on this subject because the suffering of the scores of billions of animals farmed and killed each year confounds me to the point of incoherence. But remembering that I read Everything is Illuminated even though the Holocaust confounds me, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close even though September 11th confounds me, I accepted the book.

It quickly becomes clear that Eating Animals isn’t a straightforward case for vegetarianism. Instead Safran Foer, picking a path through this “slippery, frustrating and resonant subject” with discretion, ingenuity, and not a little guile, examines what it entails to eat animals – not only for the animals but also for the eaters of animals. Towards the eaters he extends only gentleness and understanding, and this is the book’s most fascinating attribute given the scale of the death, suffering, and malpractice he reveals. But Safran Foer is not diverted by hypocrisy. Instead he has done what all good activists do: made the object of his activism, the animals, his central concern, rather than the wrong-doings of the people whose behaviour he hopes to change.

My review below is divided into four parts, and as well as the book I also refer to Safran Foer’s January 2011 RSA interview, which I recommend listening to.

Suffering

As in the UK, in the USA most animals humans eat are factory-farmed. These animals have pain and illness bred into them and are disabled from enacting their instinctive behaviour. Broiler chickens whose ability to walk or mate have been sacrified to explosive growth and disabling bodily proportions are one example. Like me, Jonathan Safran Foer wouldn’t describe himself as an animal lover, nor do you need to love animals to object to their suffering.

The accounts of animal experiences in the cage, on the kill floor and being processed are present and graphic, but rather than dominating the book they form a pivot. Although he identifies that factory farm companies rely on ignorance to continue their cruel, unhealthy, and environmentally degrading business practices, when Safran Foer describes the brutal circumstances of these animals lives and deaths, there are no jeremiads and no relish, only a sense of duty to represent the actualities.

He quotes (p228) Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

“The meat industry understands that the more people know about what happens on the kill floor, the less meat they’re likely to eat.”

One of the book’s recurring ideas is the need for advocacy:

“It seems to me that it’s plainly wrong to eat factory-farmed pork or to feed it to one’s family. It’s probably even wrong to sit silently with friends eating factory-farmed pork, however difficult it can be to say something. Pigs clearly have rich minds and just as clearly are condemned to miserable lives on factor farms. The analogy of a dog kept in a closet it fairly accurate, if somewhat generous. The environmental case against eating factory-farmed pork is airtight and damning.

“For similar reasons, I wouldn’t eat poultry or sea animals produced by factory methods.” (p195)

We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference … We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animal?”

Reading that, I thought of Charles Patterson’s book Eternal Treblinka which researches connections between species bias and the extremes of racism, between the slaughterhouse and the industrial genocide of the Jews. 

Here in the UK, as I have mentioned before on this blog, industrial farmers campaign to avoid animal and human welfare regulations which, because they are not global, make their business less competitive. The eaters of animals are so thoroughly insulated from what animals endure between their birth and our plates that we expect our meals to cost a fraction of what they used to cost. The book doesn’t evade the arguments of the factory farmers, but represents them. Safran Foer worked hard to surface accounts from within the industry and to a great extent he considers the farmers to be victims of the system in which they are trying to earn a living. Available on BBC iPlayer, Panorama’s recent documentary on the true cost of cheap food illustrates farmers’ predicament.

Hypocrisy

From these accounts from farmers it becomes clear that a change in consumer behaviour is the best chance for human and animal welfare – but in this respect there’s much that Safran Foer leaves unsaid. His RSA interview confirmed this unwillingness to take on the individual consumer, at least directly. Instead the book is a prelude, an effort to open up a space for decision-making between the extremes of, on the one hand, either eating meat with the defiance of say, food critic Jay Rayner or restaurateur Gordon Ramsay, both of whom spent time at abattoirs in order to achieve consistence in their defence of eating animal – and, on the other hand, eating no meat at all. Safran Foer correctly identifies this behaviour as a visceral aversion to hypocrisy potent enough to overpower all other aversions. Some people in the grip of this aversion will, like Ramsay and Rayner, confront and commit themselves to the violent deaths of animals. Others would prefer to remain fully ignorant rather than confront hypocrisy in themselves. Disgust of hypocrisy becomes an enemy of compassion because the hypocritical space in between the two extremes is an uncomfortable space.

Disgust of hypocrisy is one possible explanation for why consciousness of factory farming fails to penetrate the bovine disregard of the chewing human majority. Another the book doesn’t suggest is the defensive assertion of identity when confronted with a perceived attack on that identity. The main proposition of the book – “to allow ourselves to fill a hypocritical space” – is astute in the light of this psychology. Safran Foer cautions against the moral vanity of putting undue emphasis on the behaviour of single individuals. Single individuals do not change the world but they can become insufferable in the attempt.

So, although Safran Foer makes plenty of forays into dead-pan rationalism – in his case for eating dogs, for example – these are in service of a more profound invitation to consider how what we eat tells stories about ourselves. One key story is that of his grandmother, pursued by the Nazis and on the verge of starvation (p16-17):

“The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A Russian, a farmer, God bless him, he saw my condition and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.”

“He saved your life.”

“I didn’t eat it.”

“You didn’t eat it?”

“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why?”

“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”

“Of course.”

“But not even to save your life?”

“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

We make categorical decisions about what we eat – the “lines we draw in the sand, lines that if we cross them we cease to be ourselves”. It wasn’t a fear of hypocrisy which compelled her to decline the meat, but a will to lead a dignified, undegraded human existence according to her own principles. This is a key idea in the book.

Pragmatism

Safran Foer doesn’t relish the specifics of animal suffering, but given that he could have written “an encyclopedia of cruelty” with the testimonials of animal agriculture workers, and given these practices are clearly part of a conscious business model, he cannot well leave them out. I’d venture to say that unless he has an angelic temperament, he must have been horrified, sickened and angered by what he saw and read in researching the book. During his talk at the RSA he hinted as much when he told the audience that in writing the book he had sought the “most productive approach” possible – ‘productive’ contrasts here with ‘direct’. I’d say that this book is one of the most heroically un-self-indulgent pieces of campaigning literature I’ve encountered. This is why some of its strongest advocates have been farmers – who, it turns out, feel degraded by the obligation to produce according to Kentucky Fried Chicken protocols – and why when his book was published, the incendiary reaction anticipated by some of his writer associates didn’t materialise:

“It’s not a controversial book because it’s not a controversial subject. If you speak about it the right way. Is it controversial that we don’t want chickens packed body to body in cages? Is it controversial that we don’t want our air and water polluted? It only happens one way: the more you talk about it the less you want it.”

This is how farmers who want their animals to live contented lives before they die came to be some of his most significant supporters, as well as he theirs.

I’m left with the impression of somebody who has assumed the role of mediator. In response to a question at the RSA about whether he kept in touch with the flinty, uncompromising activist whom he accompanied in breaking into an industrial chicken farm:

“It’s good to surround yourself with people who keep you honest, and she – despite my barely knowing her – I wouldn’t consider her a friend and she wouldn’t consider me one – she really keeps me honest – I have her in the back on my mind when I’m getting lazy about choices”.

I find myself wondering whether evoking the idea of Jonathan Safran Foer would keep a meat eater honest, when he makes their excuses so generously, and this question opens up a contradiction, though it’s not a particularly crucial one. Safran Foer recognises that he needs to be kept honest, while he views most meat eaters as deserving of excuses. It also occurs to me that perhaps I’m looking at this the wrong way. Uncompromising activists also need to be kept honest – in the sense of grounded and sociological. Safran Foer’s book works in this direction.

At the same time, he allocates the responsibility for animal welfare to the industry’s policy-makers while simultaneously treating the industry as a force of nature responding to the stimulus of consumer preferences, so advancing his argument for consumer empowerment. It is left unsaid that if consumers can change this, then consumers have a degree of equal and various responsibility to change it. In the marketplace of ideas Safran Foer has not considered directness to be the most productive approach for animals. The most productive approach is one which massages us into the hypocritical space – the least uncomfortable and confrontational overtures to ordinary supermarket shoppers with their withered consciences. He would never put it that way. I think he’s right.

Accordingly, although he recognises veganism to be the ideal diet, Safran Foer urges his readers to focus on reducing the amount of animal eaten rather than increasing the numbers of vegetarians and vegans. The illustration he gives is powerful: one less meat meal a week in the US would bring about a reduction in emissions equivalent to taking 5 million cars off the road. “If you can’t eat one less meal a week, that begins to sound pathological”, he told the audience at the RSA.

I appreciate Safran Foer’s talent, which is to simultaneously hold ideas which scuffle – one that factory farming is a locus of atrocity and suffering, another that veganism is the ideal way to eat, and a third being an attitude of straightforward unrancorous remonstrance with factory farmers and consumers. I think this will contribute to something important – a reduction in meat meals consumed.  I also think that it will sow confusion, and in the current circumstances that can only be a good thing.

Another issue Safran Foer didn’t address is the comparative price of nourishing, convenient and delectable vegan food. In fact at the RSA he argued that vegan food was cheaper – this isn’t currently the case. Vegans are either sitting ducks trapped in a niche market, or they are given boring and uncreative alternative dishes at a cost which subsidises the hospitality industry’s meat eating clientele.

Humanity

Beginning on page 181 is a section titled ‘Our New Sadism’. It documents the perversions of violence and sexual abuse which take place in the closed environment of the industrial farm, before proceeding to talk about those which are part of the business plan.

I look at the media. Nigel Slater continues to push animal consumption despite all he has pledged to the contrary. Industrial milk producers are planning a cruel and unnatural megadairy in Nocton, Lincolnshire. One English family farmer given a tour of a U.S. megadairy for the investigative BBC programme Panorama says “This is the way that probably milk is going to have to be produced”. The World Wildlife Fund has commissioned a weekly menu intended to balance sustainability and health which I scan with growing incredulity: every single meal contains animal. There’s plenty of soya – only it’s been eaten by the animal on the menu before it gets to the human eaters. Arthur Potts Dawson of The People’s Supermarket observes the last hours of a dairy farm as it goes out of business. It turns out that most of The Guardian’s so-called ‘New Vegetarian’ Yotam Ottolenghi‘s recipes are so dependent on egg and cheese that on the whole they’re impossible to adapt for an animal-free diet. Chickens continue to have their beaks mutilated because we allow farmers to overcrowd them. The Observer has a double page spread on the premature slaughter of clapped out race horses for Europe’s meat market. In In Denial – Climate on the Couch, the movers and shakers of societal behaviour change are avoiding confronting us with bad news – rather than “Don’t”, they say “Instead”.

Jonathan Safran Foer doesn’t go in accusations. Instead he presents readers with a vision of what it is to be human, the humanising act of declining something you want because you know that it is wrong to take it. After all, “We incarcerate people who cannot restrain their instincts to have sex” and “those who eat chimpanzee look at the Western diet as sadly deficient of a great pleasure” (p196)

“I miss lots of things and I feel good missing them. I feel better missing them than I do having them.”

Good things to eat

If like Jonathan Safran Foer you agree that a vegan diet is a good idea but you’re having trouble following one, I recommend you poke around your nearest town or city, not to mention the Web. Today I ate Ethiopian lunch from a vegan place in Brick Lane’s Truman Brewery. I bought solid, therefore unpackaged, shampoo from Lush in Liverpool Street Station. From a vegetarian grocery on Commercial Road something came over me and I bought ginger and orange chocolate and rasberry chocolate from Divine, the Essential co-operative’s chocolate spread (all Fairtrade), the peerless Sojade rasberry yoghurt, Viana hazlenut tofu and Taifun Hungarian-style wieners. As I write this I’m drinking red beer from the Pitfield Brewery near Chelmsford, Essex.

Like Safran Foer, the savoury smells of scorched flesh in street markets make me salivate, and like him I feel better missing meat than having it.

The book requests that we give thought to the life before the act of slaughter which dominates the attention we pay to farmed animals – if you focus only on the slaughter, you cannot attend to the lives of suffering that would have been better unlived. Safran Foer coaxes readers away from the slough of extremes and hypotheticals – in broad and deep ways don’t we all agree? he implores. 95% of people in a survey may say it’s right to eat animals, but who would condone a farm industry which contributes global warming, or pollution, or the increasing ineffectiveness of antibiotics? Who thinks it is a good thing to keep pregnant pigs in concrete crates without bedding and too small to turn around in? On these things all but the most marginal agree, and this consensus is the most productive and promising starting point Safran Foer can identify.

Jay Rayner is not a hypocrite about meat

Today I read Jay Rayner:

“I do so love animals, especially dead, sliced up and roasted ones, their very life blood oozing out of them to the rim of my plate;”

Jay Rayner is contemptuous of what he assumes to be the hypocrisy of people who like their animal cooked all the way through before they sink their teeth in. He believes that these people are attempting to deny that they are eating animal at all, and this bothers him:

“Those of us who eat meat should face up to what it once was: a living creature that bled if it was pricked and can bleed still.”

If like Oscar Wilde you understand that hypocrisy is a compliment that vice pays to virtue, you’ll also understand how natural it is that anybody who has begun to engage with what animals experience in the run up to their unnecessary slaughter should actively try to forget what they are eating. You’ll also conclude that Jay Rayner has no conscience with regard to animals.

Then again, given that he insists “Snobbery is good. Snobbery is terrific. Snobbery is what makes the world move forward” and yet simultaneously favours factory farming over free range, maybe all this appalling, hurtful baiting is more about the struggle between Jay Rayner’s carnivorous tendency and his own conscience than it is about meat eaters who try to forget that they are eating the slaughtered dead.

The logic of practice

It made front page news in The Independent and nowhere else. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have come to a number of decisions to undo the small gains in animal welfare achieved by New Labour.

Please read that piece and give attention to the suffering of circus animals, badgers, birds, and animals about to be slaughtered (in particular look at Animal Aid’s video of illegal slaughterhouse abuses).

But while The Independent’s concern for animals is necessary and all the more admirable for being so rare, what its anti-coalition blinkers (which I have to admit nearly blinkered me too) prevented it from reporting is that New Labour had been backing away from some of its own initiatives before the election.

I’ll concentrate on beak mutilation. Mutilations of animals are ‘for their own good‘, according to intensive farmers, .

“Feather pecking and cannibalism (Figure 1) affects all birds in all production systems. When laying birds are kept systems that give the opportunity for aggressive birds to contact many other birds, cannibalism and feather pecking can spread rapidly through the flock and result in injuries and mortality. Mortality of up to 25–30% of the flock can occur and cause huge mortality and morbidity problems as well as financial losses to the farmer.”

So it is common practice to cut off part of the birds’ beaks. This is painful. Here is why the government act which regulates beak trimming refers to it as ‘mutilation’.

“The beak contains nociceptors that sense pain and noxious stimuli. [12] Beak trimming excites nociceptors. Following a trim, the nociceptors in the beak stump show abnormal patterns of neural discharge, which has been interpreted as acute pain.[13] Neuromas are found in the healed stumps of birds beak trimmed at 5 weeks of age or older and in birds whose beaks are subjected to severe trimming.[14] Neuromas are defined as tangled masses of swollen regenerating axon sprouts. During healing, neuromas are formed as part of the normal regeneration process. Eventually, the nerve fibers regrow, the excess axon sprouts regress, and the neuromas disappear. If beak trimming is severe because of improper procedure or done in older birds, the neuromas may persist, and the emitted action potentials are abnormal,[15] which suggest that beak trimmed older birds may experience chronic pain. However, neuromas do not persist in the beaks of birds subjected to proper trimming at 10 days of age or earlier.[16] For this reason, when conservative beak trimming (50% or less of the beak) is done correctly in birds 10 days of age or younger, formation of neuromas is prevented and the keratinized tissue regenerates.[17]

Labour was due to ban beak mutilation but faltered after a Farm Animal Welfare Council recommendation that, although a total ban was desirable, ‘commercial’ (euphemism for overcrowded) flocks could suffer cannibalism and feather pecking. As reported in a recent ministerial statement:

“The Farm Animal Welfare Council reviewed the evidence in 2007 and 2009. On both occasions it recommended that, until an alternative means of controlling injurious pecking in laying hens can be developed, the proposed ban on beak trimming should not be introduced, but should be deferred until it can be demonstrated reliably under commercial conditions that laying hens can be managed without beak trimming, without a greater risk to their welfare than that caused by beak trimming itself. The Farm Animal Welfare Council recommended that infra-red beak treatment should be the only method used routinely, as the evidence indicated that it does not induce chronic pain.”

This is a stark case of profit taking precedence over ending extreme cruelty. Farming UK reports that breeders are beginning to select for pecking behaviour, in the expectation that in time it can be bred out of chickens. However:

“Rob Newbery, the NFU’s chief poultry adviser, believes it may be a very long time before the industry reaches such a point. “Everyone says that with the breeds we use now and the way the world is today in terms of keeping laying hens that we need beak trimming. It has to be impressed on Defra and FAWC that unless there are major changes – and I can’t see what those major changes would be with commercial poultry keeping – they need to stick with allowing producers to use infrared beak trimming.”

Locked within this logic of existing practice, it would be easy to miss the obvious – that here are social animals, animals with a pecking order, whose dysfunctions are due to overcrowding and the impossibility of escape from the aggressive members of the confined flock. Their life must be hell.

I would say these animals shouldn’t be considered food, their eggs shouldn’t be considered food, and I’m repelled by the eugenics solution.

But as far as the workers in this industry are concerned, the implications of the proposed ban on beak mutilation and my own proposal to stop eating animal are the same: either joblessness or higher food prices, and these things have to be taken seriously because they are the reason that vested interests have been able to oppose the ban.

Written ministerial statements indicate that while there is plenty of research into alternatives to beak mutilation, funded by business interests which are invested in current expectations about food and current approaches to intensive farming, nobody with credibility seems to be joining up animal welfare with research into a new national economy of plant food.

This needs to happen, or animals will never be free.

And while it is sickening to think that if the ban goes ahead in January, some of these birds will trade in their lives for their beaks because of the assessment of commercial farmers that consumers will not pay more if they invest in improving conditions for their flocks, I think that this staggering multitude of agonising mutilations is the first thing that has to stop, and I hope I am in good company.

Read Compassion in World Farming’s report from October 2009 on ‘Controlling Feather Pecking and Cannibalism in Laying Hens Without Beak-Trimming‘.

Update: read Barkingside 21’s round-up of recent developments with animal farming and animal welfare.

Snails crazy about chilli, and other food encounters

Because there’s so much shit going down in the world at the moment I thought I’d journal in an escapist manner.

We’d bought some searingly hot chilli sauce from the inappropriately named ‘farmers’ market’ at Valentine’s Mansion in Ilford. We ate it for a couple of weeks but it must have begun to ferment because one day I heard hissing and moaning at the lid. I felt sure it would explode so Matt took it outside and called me an idiot when I urged him to remove the lid. Anyway, it continued to emit. That evening Matt noticed a strange thing – a snail had climbed the bottle seemingly attracted to the chilli gas. I chalked that one down to dysfunction but the next evening some of the chilli had begun to seep out and a slug had climbed to the bottle neck. It had a deep hole in its body (update: Uncle Monkey below has identified this hole as the slug’s respiratory opening, or ‘pneumostome) and some crud at its hind end. I wondered if perhaps sick slugs self-medicate on chilli, and made a mental note to ask B21.

Then at some stage the next day, there was an eruption (I was right, I’m always right) which blew off the lid and fired chilli sauce as high as the guttering where it’s still caked, a stain on Matt’s judgement. And there was the bottle, a mess of chilli sauce, being licked by something like 3 snails and 6 slugs.

Are we the first to discover this – and where will it lead?

More food tales.

Yesterday Matt and I walked down to Gants Hill and got a table at Idly Dosa (41 Perth Road IG2 6BX, 020 8554 5777) which is a newish idly and dosa joint at the roundabout opposite the Chabad Lubavitch House. Despite referring to itself as “fine dining”, it initially strikes you as more of a take-out place with seats. But then you settle in and begin to realise that the atmosphere is great, very reviving. There are local South Indian food fans with their families, chatting and laughing early on a Saturday evening, the plate glass window with the busy street beyond, the interesting blue and green ceiling bevelling with the myriad lights, the comfortable wipe-clean upholstered chairs, the steel cups, the keen service. I had paper dosa and it was good. Matt had onion and it was good. We didn’t have idly but did in the end have some curry, however, the curry is subordinate to the idly and the dosa, so better go for those. There wasn’t much in the way of greens on the menu, either. The lemon rice is excellent – one portion is plenty for two. A lot of it happens to be vegan.

Further on food, I had my hands in what had become of our discarded vegetable parings and left-overs today as I planted out 5 cucumber plants, several lettuces, some rocket, chilli and parsley which I’d grown from seeds. I wonder if its too much pee that makes my compost so much more like mud than anybody else’s compost.

The strawberries are ripening – we eat them one by one before the woodlice or slugs get them, and they’re sweet. I’m remembering to cut the thyme and oregano for drying before it flowers. We have fresh mint tea too at this time of year. Today we had breville sandwich with a loaf I made last night, fake Redwood cheese from Barkingside’s new Holland and Barratt, with oregano and some parsley from the garden. Blanched and preserved in brine what I pruned off the vine – dolma for next visitor. Hot brine smells surprisingly good. The lettuces will soon be ready – if I can only remember to water them. This all takes a lot of time, and on my worse days I wonder if I shouldn’t pave over the garden and read a book instead. I always conclude that it would be a bad mistake to do that, on account of water run-off, hostility to wildlife, waste, and (even more profound) alienation from my means of existence. Anyway, I was raised to garden. Before he got his allotment, my dad used to negotiate to cultivate the neighbours’ gardens in return for tithes.

There’s somehow an asparagus crown in the front garden – one of the few unpaved gardens in the street, note, and see how Gaia rewards me? – which bolted before I noticed it. The shoots before the flowers come are, in my view, tastier than asparagus spears.