Tag Archives: animals

A Happy Pig is a Good Pig: What Free Range Really Means

This piece was originally written for the Tiki Chris blog.

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Pork has got to be the most versatile meats. From roasting joints, loins for chops, legs for gammon, ribs for barbecue you can create all sorts of wonderful dishes from nose to tail.

While it’s tempting to rush off and start a cooking marathon as soon as possible, it’s important to consider where your meat comes from first. Of course, discerning shoppers always try to source the best quality possible to be sure of welfare standards and good flavour. However there are so many labels to decipher and even the savviest foodie is likely to be confused by the terms “outdoor bred”, “outdoor reared” and “free range”.

Based on my recent visit to Blythburgh Farm in Suffolk, here’s what they all mean:

  • outdoor bred = born outside but then moved indoors to be reared intensively for the majority of their lives
  • outdoor reared = intensively reared outside; they may be in huts or tents but they’re shut in for the whole time
  • free range = born outside, reared outside, freedom to roam large paddocks for all of their lives

If the pork you’re eyeing up in the supermarket has none of the above labels or is imported pork, chances are it’s from animals who have had relatively miserable lives.

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The explanations above are courtesy of Jimmy Butler (pictured right with his son Alistair), an experienced farmer and head of Blythburgh farmily farm in Suffolk. The Butlers converted their pig farm into the “absolutely, totally free range pork” venture it is today back in the 1990s.

Today, you can find pork bearing the Blythburgh stamp in specialist butchers around the country including my local, Hennessy Butchers in Battersea.

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You may have come across Blythburgh pork, also known as Jimmy Butler’s pork, on menus at the Savoy, the Fat Duck, the Ivy and the Hind’s Head – as well as street food favourites Chipotle and Yum Bun.

The label “Blythburgh pork” means that the meat you are buying is traceable back to one truly free range farm, which has ideal conditions for raising happy pigs.

The pigs that produce Blythburgh Free Range Pork spend their entire lives outdoors in the fresh air, with freedom to roam. Large airy tented barns in each paddock with plenty of bedding straw provide shelter when needed.

Better welfare and better taste – these pigs grow at a slower rate, so develop more flavour and succulence that is not easy to find in intensively farmed pork.

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Jimmy’s son Alistair tells us that pigs are curious, intelligent animals who love to root and play. As Jimmy puts it, “a free range pig is a happy pig and a happy pig is a good pig”.

The open spaces of the free range farm is clear to see just off a main road near the town of Blythburgh; the pig farm has become something of a landmark in these parts. You can see for yourself how the pigs happily roam in large paddocks, playing and rooting around as is their nature in the sandy Suffolk soil. I was lucky enough to cuddle one…

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After the visit, the group of food writers I was with were invited to a butchery demonstration by Gerard King, from craft butcher Salter and King, who skillfully broke down a whole side of pork and shared his top tips for preparing each cut. His recipe for rolled pork belly stuffed with chorizo sounds like a winner!

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With fine quality meat like Blythburgh pork, the simplest recipes are often the best to showcase the natural flavours. The Butlers shared one of their favourite family recipes for slow-cooked pork shoulder:

Ingredients:

  • 6kg Blythburgh pork shoulder, boned, rolled and scored
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • salt

Method:

Heat oven to 220 C. Place the pork in a roasting tray, rub the skin with oil and salt, and then sprinkle with fennel seeds. Roast for 30 minutes and then lower the oven to 120C. Cook for a further six and a half hours. When cooked remove pork and rest for 15 minutes. Remove crackling, shred pork and serve in rolls with apple sauce or with vegetables and gravy.

Find out more about Blythburgh Pork on their website www.freerangepork.co.uk and Twitter feed @BlythburghPork

Amazon rainforest in Ecuador

We missed out on visiting the Amazon while we were in Brazil; a combination of time constraints and unwillingness to take expensive and side-effect inducing antimalarial drugs meant we headed no further north than Salvador.

Although the majority of the rainforest is in Brazil, many countries in South America lay claim to a slice of the Amazon, including Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Since Ecuador would be one of the last places we would visit in South America, we decided to take the plunge and head into the mighty jungle.

First stop towards the rainforest was Baños, a pretty town surrounded by waterfalls and mountains.

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I managed to get Mark to relax in the thermal spas that give the place its name for about an hour before he insisted on a five hour hike up to the highest summit.

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We met a very affectionate blue eyed llama on the way…

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The next day was the first of the two day tour we had chosen. With just a couple of days it is only possible to see the secondary jungle on the outskirts of the Amazon; going deep into the primary jungle requires nearly a week.

We still saw plenty in those two days though.

One of the first stops was a sanctuary which had many different species of monkeys and primates, like the chorongo and capuchin blanco.

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After that we visited a local indigenous community, where we learnt a bit about their culture and customs. A bowl of chicha was passed around – after we tasted the lumpy, sour, fermented drink we were told that the ladies of the community prepare it by chewing and spitting out mouthfuls of yucca. Apparently enzymes in saliva aid the fermentation process. An acquired taste indeed!

We were invited to have a go at shooting darts through a traditional blow gun. Here’s a scary looking picture of me lining up a shot, with scary face paint to match.

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That afternoon we had a short boat trip in a traditional canoe that would have tipped without the practised local man steering and keeping it steady.

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Once back on dry land, we hiked up to a viewpoint over the jungle, where there was possibly the world’s best placed swing.

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Both Mark and I had a go – click here for a video of me whooping like a loon on my first swing.

This video is Mark’s second swing; he bellowed some very rude words the first time and only just managed not to soil his pants on this go.

We also found some natural swings in the jungle later, on the way to a waterfall.

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At the waterfall, I did a spot of skinny dipping…

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…only joking!

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As it got darker, we were dropped off at the primitive jungle cabins where we were spending the night.

The next morning a couple of cheeky lion monkeys joined us for breakfast.

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We visited the massive boa constrictor which the local people inexplicably thought made a cuddly pet. Mark enjoyed grappling with it…

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Me, not so much…

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Then we made our way through the jungle to a lake, carrying a bundle of fish heads wrapped in banana leaves to help coax the caimans up to the surface.

It worked!

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After the caimans swam away, we did some more thrashing around in the jungle and learnt about some of the plants and their medicinal uses.

This tree is known as “dragon’s blood” – when a small incision is made in the bark, the sap drips out dark red as if the trunk is bleeding. When the sap is rubbed into skin, it becomes creamy and white. This is used as a remedy for stings and bites.

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Our guide Delfin picked some leaves, crushed them in his hands and made us inhale. The strong menthol like smell sent us both into a frenzy of coughing. Amusingly, he insisted this was good for you, especially if you were trying to get rid of a cough or cold.

Another time Delfin plucked a large leaf and told us to suck at the part which had connected it to the stem. We obediently did so, and tasted a pleasant sherbet flavour. Delfin stopped giggling long enough to tell us that we had just eaten a mouthful of “lemon ants”; the insects and their eggs have a sour fruity flavour. Honestly it was tasty – I’m sure it won’t be long before restaurants in London charge a fortune for specially imported Ecuadorian creepy crawlies.

Some of the plants were pointed out more for their ornamental value, such as my furry beak below. Maybe to make up for all the tricks he was playing on us gullible gringos, Delfin sweetly made us necklaces and headbands, as modelled by Mark.

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His speed and skill at stripping fibres from leaves and twisting them into strong cords, or quickly weaving lengths of palm into pretty patterns was impressive.

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Back to the main hut for lunch and the lion monkeys decided to get more friendly. This little one hardly left my lap. The moment I would stop scratching his tiny head he would squeak and nudge me to start again.

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Soon the other, less sociable monkey got jealous and started a play fight.

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Meanwhile a couple of the dogs rolled around in mock fight – all the animals seemed to be going crazy at once. Jungle fever indeed!

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(Note from Mark: how ugly are these dogs! One of them is missing most of his hair and the other has these wonky ears!)

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After our post lunch siesta, we went back out, this time to a different lake to look for turtles.

Mark went into Bear Grylls mode and got hold of an enormous water turtle.

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Lifting the 50kg beast was a challenge – click here for a video of Mark’s efforts.

This one was a more manageable size…

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Delfin found more than one type and stacked a water turtle on top of a ground turtle (a bit mean – Mark)

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With squelching boots we left the turtles behind (after making Delfin unstack them) to see what else was nearby.

Mark befriended a boar…

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Just as the end of the day was approaching, we heard an unusual high pitched cry. Delfin recognised this to be a tapir, so off we went in search of him.

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Such a beautiful and placid animal – tapirs are endangered so this guy is the only one around for miles. It’s quite sad as he was obviously lonely and followed us back down our path for ages, until the boar scared him away.

Next time I’m in this part of the world I will definitely leave more time to explore the Amazon – the two day exploration of the secondary rainforest gave us a taste of what the dense jungle of the primary rainforest has to offer.

A Glorious Week in the Galápagos Islands

I grew up on tales from my biology teacher father about the voyages and discoveries of his hero, Charles Darwin. I have always wanted to visit the Galápagos Islands, where Darwin’s observations of the shared traits and subtle differences of species which make up the diverse wildlife inspired him to develop the theories of evolution and natural selection.

Actually setting foot in a place I have known for my whole life via teachers, books, pictures and museum exhibitions felt like visiting the Promised Land.

Most people on the islands are Darwin geeks who care passionately about nature and conservation. But the Galápagos attracts all walks of life; even creationists come to marvel at the flora and fauna, some of which exists nowhere else on earth.

One guide we met believed that these islands were the Garden of Eden; the animals have a carefree life without fear of humans or other predators. There is even a forbidden fruit: the apple-like manzanilla, poisonous to humans but a key part of giant tortoises’ diet.

The main island of Santa Cruz is surprisingly busy, with 20,000 inhabitants – I had always pictured the Galápagos to be more of a wilderness.

We went to pay respects to “Char-less Darwin” as he is known here (my last name is always pronounced “Dook-ess” throughout South America).

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Although this statue was a respectable tribute to the local hero, in other places on the islands Darwin is depicted as a freaky Poseidon-like deity…

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There are several giant tortoise reserves around the islands, all committed to preserving endangered species and preventing another sad story like that of Lonesome George, who lived for decades as the last surviving member of his subspecies, and died recently without passing on his genes to any offspring.

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Thankfully, many tortoises are thriving at these sanctuaries. Mark and I were lucky enough to visit during feeding time, which only happens once every couple of days.

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It was quite hypnotic watching these ancient creatures creak over like grumpy old men, to munch painstakingly slowly at the leaves.

We were also allowed to check out the breeding area. Tortoise eggs are taken from their underground nests (mothers don’t miss them as they abandon their eggs once they’ve been laid anyway). The eggs are incubated until they hatch (fascinatingly, the sex of the tortoise s determined by the temperature of the eggs during incubation) and then the tortoise babies are kept safe from dangers like hungry rats and careless goats for the first three years of their lives. This ensures the babies have a much greater chance of reaching maturity and ultimately helps to keep tortoise population numbers up.

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Although much more wildlife exists on the more remote and less populated islands, Santa Cruz island is home to many sea lions, who seem to enjoy much of what the town has to offer. Sea lions snoozing on park benches, lounging in small boats, or begging for scraps at the fish market are a common sight.

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Similarly, the pelicans on Santa Cruz use the main harbour as a convenient lookout point before they dive for fish.

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Santa Cruz’s beach at Tortuga Bay is a fantastic place to spot marine iguanas.

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Usually the black reptiles can be found on dark lava rocks, but here, against the super fine white sand that looks and feels like talcum powder, they stand out beautifully.

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While we waited for a multi day trip to the more far-flung islands to become available, we went on a couple of day trips.

Isabella island has a lagoon which white tipped sharks use to sleep in. Although these sharks do not attack people, I was glad that we could see the lagoon from the safety of dry land.

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Dangerous or not, something about the way sharks move gives me the shivers!

The Galápagos islands have some of the best scuba diving spots in the world. As a diving novice I wasn’t allowed to go to Gordon Rocks (you need at least 30 dives under your belt before you’re deemed experienced enough to navigate the changeable currents). For the first time in months, Mark and I split up for the day: I went on a dive boat headed for the more manageable, but still excellent, dive site at Seymour while Mark went off to Gordon Rocks.

Although you’re virtually guaranteed to spot dozens of hammerhead sharks there, Mark was unlucky and saw none at all, but still saw plenty of white tipped reef sharks, sea turtles, rays and many types of big pelagic fish.

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Amazingly, a snorkelling excursion we signed up for at Kicker Rock on San Cristobal island was miles better than either of our scuba dives, or indeed most of the 70+ dives of Mark’s whole experience.

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The water was cool, clear turquoise and just brimming with wildlife: Galapagos sharks (which don’t bother humans unlike tiger or great white sharks), massive sea turtles, rays, and about a million different kinds of colourful fish.

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At one memorable moment we had to swim through the narrow channel of a gorge between two tall, sheer towers of rock.

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As the channel was only a couple of metres wide so it was a bit of a thoroughfare for sea creatures passing through. Because of the narrowness, the current of the water passing through was really strong and we had to swim hard to navigate the ebb and flow of the swell. It was incredible doing this with a snorkel mask on, able to see all these different species right under us, all swimming hard against the current like we were. It was like being part of a wildlife documentary!

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A motor boat took us between the three snorkel locations – at one point Mark and I were sitting on the bow of the boat as it roared past mini islands, through stunning turquoise water with the sun beating down and the wind in our hair, thinking of our friends slaving away at work back home…and how much they would hate us if they could see where we were!

The final snorkelling spot was one of a few places where we were able to play with sea lions in the water. So memorable!

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We managed to get a deal for a last minute, 4 day 3 night cruise. It may be more fitting to say “boat trip” as this poky thing, ironically named “King of the Sea”, is hardly the type of luxury vessel normally associated with the word “cruise”.

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It was big enough for some impressive jumps and divebombs from the roof though, and we had a fun, young group.

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Over the four days we visited the islands of San Cristobal, Española and Floreana. We saw hundreds of sea lions…

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There are about 28,000 sea lions living on the Galápagos, the same number as human inhabitants. They’re so chilled out around people that you can join them for one of their many naps…

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As well as black marine iguanas, some of the islands like Floreana have coloured species…

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I think the one on the bottom left looks like he is showing off full sleeve tattoos. Well ‘ard. Look at the chap on the top left, eating a discarded sally lightfoot crab shell (for the calcium, apparently).

Here are some which got away…

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After a few days in the Galápagos, we saw so many sharks while snorkelling that I stopped feeling uneasy about them. I love this photo – two white tipped reef sharks sleeping ON TOP of a ray!

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There are also huge flocks of blue footed boobies – apparently their feet become even bluer when it’s mating season, but they were pretty blue!

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Like the sea lions, they’re totally nonplussed by humans so you can sit and chill with them.

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Hundreds of them can be found around the cliffs of Floreana, where they circle overhead and dive down to pluck fish out of the crashing waves.

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The waves hit the cliffs with such force, the spray is as strong as a geyser. Sometimes unfortunate iguanas get shot 20m straight up into the air by the water!

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There always seemed to be a new type of bird to look at in the sky.

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Clockwise from top left: oystercatcher, mockingbird (Darwin had his eureka moment when studying the beak lengths of mockingbirds from different islands); albatross, flamingos, frigate bird (with its red chest puffed out to attract a mate), Galápagos hawk.

Although visiting the islands is famously expensive (flights, entry fees and costs of mandatory tour guides add up), we let our credit cards take the hit. Knowing this would be a once in a lifetime experience and that access is very likely to restricted in the future for conservation purposes made the eye-watering cost easier to bear – and the experience was worth every penny (and subsequent debt!)

Please can I stay forever and be a castaway, or a stowaway on a pirate ship?!

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