What's your beef?

What's your beef?

Apologies for the delay. Preparation for our group assessment on Monday slowed my blog writing down, so this week you get two for the price of one: last week’s field trips, plus Tuesday lectures from this week.



Monday 26th February


Investigating the system: Field trip day 1


We began at Harrison & Hetherington livestock market in the Scottish Borders. Here, we started by observing the sheep sales. Mary Howlett, a butcher from Hawick, was there as our guide. The animals being sold here were hoggets, sheep of between one and two years old. Many were being bought to send straight to slaughter, but younger animals would be ‘finished’ elsewhere before being killed for their meat. Adam, the auctioneer, explained that, due to a miscalculation in the prediction of stock levels, current prices for sheep are good, at around 205p per kilo.




Mary told us that much of the meat, at this age, would be going to Indian restaurants for curries. However, she pointed out that the sheep are being bought according to their visual appearance, and taste is rarely taken into account. Mary is in the minority as she buys just the native breeds (suited to the Scottish environment, as opposed to continental breeds), either here or direct from the farmer.



The cattle sale was particularly busy. One animal at a time performed an erratic display around the ring, while the auctioneer interpreted the almost invisible bids from the men in tweed. The next animal waited its turn, often distressed and kicking the tiny pen, before being let out into the ring.



It was quite an eye-opening experience to see this part of the food system, which previously I’d never stopped to think about. The sheer quantity of animals being sold just on this one day was incredible; they simply become numbers and future cuts of meat. We saw the cattle ready to be sold, grouped by auction lot and waiting in pens. The space for some seemed very small, but I was well aware that it was probably more space than many animals would have at this stage of their lives.




After a ‘proper’ cup of tea to thaw us out, we headed on to Hardiesmill Place, a farm in the Borders run by Robin and Alison Tuke, rearing prime Aberdeen Angus cattle and producing some of the world’s best steak. Robin told us about the running of the farm while we tucked into a lunch of sweet cured beef, haggis, smoked cheese and beef sausages. Alison disappeared into the kitchen to prepare some steaks for tasting.




We learned about the way that beef is bought, with a butcher like Mary buying on live weight (as in the livestock market), using her skill to figure out how good the cuts will be under the skin, while a supermarket will pay on dead weight, which is the ‘useful’ meat left after the animal has been butchered and the fat cut off.


Robin highlighted the lack of incentive to breed for taste, unless selling direct or through a good butcher. Usually the buyer is simply interested in shape, weight, fat covering, and of course their turnover. For Robin and Alison, getting the breeding, feeding and handling right is vital in order to produce tasty beef.


The native cattle are born and reared in the UK, and named after the region where they originated. They are breeds that were always bred for beef, unlike continental breeds, which were originally bred to be working cattle (horses were the working animals in the UK). The result is that the meat of continental cattle is tougher and tends to be used for slow cooking.




The options for feeding are either grain or forage, the latter being the choice for the cattle at Hardiesmill. If grain is chosen, which is often barley that is not up to the standards of that required for the whisky business, the cattle bulk up quickly and can be sold earlier, reducing the costs of looking after the animal over a long period. The barley is broken down first, to mimic the job done by the rumen, meaning the rumen shrinks and the dead weight of the animal increases. In comparison, a piece of beef from Hardiesmill has gone through a four-and-a-half-year process, from planning to eating.


At this point, Alison reappeared with the steaks. Cooked simply in a dry skillet, we tasted their 10-month and 12-month hung fillet steaks, plus a sirloin, with a Co-op steak to start, for comparison. There was a small amount of gristle in the Co-op steak, which Robin thought may be due to stress from a change in diet. The Hardiesmill steaks were much softer, with a flavour that filled the whole mouth. Robin explained that a slight minerality around the tonsils was the unique flavour of the Hardiesmill beef, deriving from the terroir.


We visited the butchery to get a seam filleting demonstration from Brian the butcher. This method of cutting up the animal involves cutting along the muscle rather than the bone, to produce more steaks than stewing cuts and sausages.




Our trip to the abattoir wasn’t quite as gory as I was expecting. It hasn’t actually opened yet. After four and a half years, the abattoir is 90 per cent ready and pristine white. Alison explained that they had to go to the Arctic Circle to find this unit. I first became aware of the importance of the local abattoir, and the lack of them around, when we went on our trip to the Isle of Mull. Robin told us that the ideal for beef has not yet been met anywhere in the world, but that this is what they are hoping to achieve by having an abattoir situated on their farm. Animals can be walked in one at a time, with the slaughterperson staying with them throughout the process, which will take around 45 minutes (in comparison, 60 cattle per hour go through a large-scale abattoir). This could then be re-branded ‘ethical Scotch beef’.



Take a look at Netflix’s Steak (R)evolution, which features Hardiesmill Place as well as Glengorm Castle, which we visited on the Isle of Mull, to discover more about the search for the world’s best steak.





Tuesday 27th February


Investigating the system: Field trip day 2


On Tuesday, we had a rather timely trip to the Tesco distribution centre, the day before the snow hit and the panic-buying of milk and bread began.




The tri-climate site contains an ambient grocery section, a chilled area for fresh foods, and a freezer. We began in the monumental grocery room. Little trucks and forklifts, all operated by drivers, whizzed around the aisles, dropping off goods from suppliers and picking up items for the stores. Accuracy teams check the orders, before they leave the warehouse in cages packed into trailers. We travelled through to the fresh foods area, and on to the -21-degree freezer.



After a tour of the main warehouse, we walked to the building dealing with waste disposal, where trays and cages come back to be washed after deliveries. Food waste can become animal feed or fuel, or go into the compacter for landfill. There is a bread compacter, and a machine to turn waste cardboard into bales, which go to China to be recycled.



Back in the main building, we sat down to listen to some big numbers. We were informed that the warehouse is the size of 74 Olympic-sized swimming pools, and could contain 209 Boeing 747s. They have over 2000 employees, and deliver to 321 stores. Each week, £40 million of stock transfers through the site, and £39,000 is spent on heating and lighting. They service one-third of the UK land mass and travel 270,000 miles by road per week. Pretty impressive, but, as we saw a couple of days later, it’s a system that can be completely flawed by a day of heavy snow.




The surprise for the day, and an absolute must for the food systems module, we headed to McDonald’s for lunch. Split into ‘families’ of four, we were given £20 and some vouchers from the newspaper to spend as we liked. We were able to buy an awful lot of food that didn’t really fill us up, and produced a ridiculous amount of waste.



From here, we drove on through the snow to a processing facility, Campbell’s Prime Meat. The owner, Christopher Campbell, explained that their customers are chefs in kitchens, who want a quick delivery of fresh meat, fish and deli products, ordering as late as midnight for a next-day delivery. Their meat suppliers are slaughterhouses, leading them to do the butchery work that previously might have been carried out in a restaurant kitchen.




We changed into some rather fetching white coats, hats and shoe-covers, and headed into the factory. Unfortunately, no cameras were allowed.


It was a good job we had guides as the factory was a maze. Seemingly endless rooms of high-tech machinery, whole fish, smoked fish, seafood, frozen food, carcasses, sausage meat, ageing meat, boxes, burgers, blood, butchers, bones.


Impressive machinery in the butchery could separate the pork belly, tie the joints, and laser cut the steaks. This time we saw butchers cutting along the bone, rather than seam filleting, armed with a range of knives and chainmail gloves. The cuts of meat are vacuum packed, boxed, and delivered. In the poultry room, chickens are crowned or spatchcocked in seconds. All animals that come in are tracked by number for traceability.


After being chilled in another walk-in freezer, it was time to change out of our whites and head off home, knowing we’d never look at a steak the same way again.



Tuesday 6th March


Social Media


A form of communication that can’t be ignored in the world of food, is social media. Dr Isidoropaolo Casteltrione, lecturer at Queen Margaret University, gave us an overview of digital and social media as a form of communication, which we could then apply to our study of gastronomy.


Compared to traditional media, described as push media, involving unidirectional communication, new media is a mix of push and pull media, with a proactive audience, seeking out information themselves. This motivation by the audience, Isidoropaolo explained, means the persuasive message is likely to be stronger through new media. However, unidirectional communication is still used, for example in a Facebook newsfeed, where information is fed to you.


Humans have strong ties with close family and friends, and a group of people that they are not so close with, who are considered weak ties. It is said that the human mind can only keep up with 150 weak ties, however Social Networking Sites (SNSs) can expand this group considerably. We also end up with invisible audiences, as friends of friends may be able to see information that we have posted.


As the user is generally in control of the information they are accessing on social media, this can lead to selective exposure. Due to the people and organisations you choose to follow, you can begin to operate in echo chambers, leading to a less informed public. Those who do have opposing views may also not be willing to share these on social media. Taking a dramaturgical approach, written about by Erving Goffman in 1959 as an observation of social interaction, digital platforms have intensified our front-stage persona. Those people who don’t want to share their differing views may be concerned about their back-stage persona edging front of stage.


The heightened front-stage persona seems particularly relevant in regards to food, which is used (mainly in photographic form) on social media to create and display lifestyle. We explored this notion last term in relation to food and identity. It can be difficult to be objective about food and social media, as many of us are producing and consuming both on a daily basis. The highly personal nature of these topics, and the tendency to operate in echo chambers, means we probably don’t discuss why we are treating food the way we do on social media. Next time you’re posting a photo of your breakfast bowl or ‘liking’ a slow-motion video of somebody lifting up a forkful of macaroni cheese, stop and consider what this says about you, who you want to say this to, and how you’re enhancing your front-stage persona.