Five traditional eating habits we should resume

When the Pasture Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) was launched at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in 2012 I wrote here about the impact on taste of the use of grain rather than grass to feed cattle.  How different farming methods affect the flavour of food remains my primary focus but always within the context of environmental concerns, animal welfare, fair trade etc.  What I confess is usually of least interest to me are health considerations.  It seems that health professionals contradict their own advice from one day to the next and I am more than happy to concur with Colin Tudge’s general view that for our own health and that of the planet we need to consume “not much meat, plenty of vegetables and maximum variety”.

At this year’s Real Farming Conference I caught up with developments in the Pasture Fed Livestock Association and surprised myself by how enlightening I found the session by Caroline Watson regarding the nutritional importance of 100% pasture-fed meat.

Caroline is not a trained nutritionist but began research over 5 years ago to heal herself and now helps heal others.  I pretty quickly recognised that I had recently visited her website when I was searching for suet, which I have found increasingly difficult to get as it seems the local abattoir is not returning this part of the animal, but more of this later.

Caroline’s presentation was structured around five traditional eating habits that we have largely abandoned but need to get back.  Although Caroline arrived at these mainly from a nutritional viewpoint, they chimed so closely with my own experience from a culinary standpoint that I found this advice very easy to swallow!  The five habits are:

  1. Eat 100% pasture-fed meat.
  2. Eat animal fat – butter, lard, dripping (and of course the elusive suet).
  3. Eat more slow-cooked food.
  4. Make stock from the bones.
  5. Eat the weird bits.

1.     The importance of 100% pasture-fed meat

This was, for me, the most revelatory point of Caroline’s presentation.  I have supported the PFLA since its launch, but some of the meat I buy, whilst predominantly grass-fed, is not 100%.  Assuming you have the land, grazing sheep and cattle on grass is the cheapest way to feed them and so the majority of farmers still graze their animals for most of the time, making silage or hay in the summer to feed in the winter.  The main time they feed other food is leading up to slaughter, to ensure the animals reach the conformity expected by the supermarkets and which attracts the highest price at market.  I have reasoned that, if the animals have been fed on grass for, say, 90% of their lives the meat will have 90% of the qualities of 100% pasture-fed.  It is probably worth saying here that the term “grass-fed” can legally be used for animals that have a diet at least 50% from grass, although the animals I buy, definitely graze the fields surrounding where I live for much more than this.  Caroline was adamant that 100% pasture-fed is vital and her blog explains why.  Briefly summarised, it is to do with the balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 that our bodies require.  Caroline is an advocate of the paleo-diet, which aims to replicate what our hunter-gatherer forefathers ate.  Their diet would have provided Omega-3 and Omega-6 in equal proportions but in modern diets Omega-6 predominates, sometimes by as much as 25 times!  Massively elevated Omega-6 consumptions contributes to inflammatory diseases including type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, cancer and heart disease.  Our major sources of Omega-3 are meat and fish but for animals to produce this, their digestive system needs to be producing the right fermentation bacteria.  When they are fed grass they will have a healthy pH of 7, creating the right conditions, but just 30 days of feeding a bovine grain can throw their pH downwards towards pH4 and undo the chemistry of 200 days of munching grass.  So the habit of “finishing “ livestock on cereals is actually undoing much of the good of the previous grazing.  I need to talk to the farmers whose meat I have been buying to convince them to change to 100% pasture-fed.

2.     Eat Animal Fat

Thankfully most people now understand the harm that trans-fats do but it is relatively recently that advice to eat margarine rather than butter has reversed. Vegetable oils and spreads are very high in Omega-6, one of the causes of the imbalance mentioned above. The demonization of animal fats has made it very difficult to find them – fresh and with the provenance of the animal they came from clear.  So we find bakers making cakes that would originally have been made with lard using palm oil instead – because they can get this ingredient organically certified but not lard!    Butter, lard and dripping are the animal fats that are traditional in the UK – the fat upon which a cuisine is based has a major influence on the character of that cuisine.  That’s my culinary standpoint rather than Caroline’s health one – but we can enjoy them again without seeing them as inherently “unhealthy”.

3.     Eat more Slow-cooked Food

I knew Caroline and I were absolutely on the same page when she got to this point, especially when she spoke of the absolute importance of reacquiring traditional cooking skills!  Although she didn’t actually mention the word Umami, the 5th taste which results predominantly from the freeing up of glutamates that occurs during long cooking or other processes such as fermentation, she did explain that these processes release not only flavour but also nutrients.  I have written about the flavour element before here .  What is also relevant is the use of the whole animal (more of which in point 5) but our need for a speedy supper results in a far higher demand for the lean cuts than those which require longer cooking.  Often when I teach cookery I am asked for inspiration for quick supper dishes.  Of course I can give some, but the wider picture is that you will get bored if you essentially rely on the same quick-cook methods all of the time.  A well-run kitchen, both professionally and domestically, relies on the continuous cycle of using ingredients to their full, so that there is always something being made from yesterdays leftovers and something being made that will form the basis of tomorrow’s meal.  Starting from scratch every time is very limiting.  I have two freezers – a chest freezer mainly used for meat, which enables me to buy meat a whole or half carcase at a time; and an upright freezer that contains home-made stocks and flavour bases made from mushrooms, tomatoes or other seasonal goodies.

4.     Make stock from the bones

Bone-broths (stock) are truly a Superfood in terms of both flavour and health.  They feature frequently in the “cooking for invalids” section of old cookery books – a skill that most modern cooks have not even attempted to master.  Chicken soup is often referred to as “Jewish Penicillin”, so much store do Jews set by its healing properties.

Whilst I have always used my meat bones for stock, I have now noted the cautionary notes on Caroline’s blog …”these critical points make the difference between creating a nice flavour to add to soups or stews and creating a truly healing medicine that also tastes amazing”…  Three points follow, abbreviated below:

  • The bones have to come from animals that contain all the nutrients (i.e. 100% pasture-fed)
  • The stock has to be cooked very slowly – for a minimum of 24 hours
  • There should be no artificial additions

The biggest change for me here is the length of cooking – I usually make my stocks in about 4 hours.  If you have a range cooker that is permanently on (such as an AGA) this won’t be a problem in the lowest oven.  Unless I switch to freezing the bones for occasional mammoth stock making sessions I don’t fancy switching my oven on for this long.  However, in the winter when the wood-burning stove ticks over all night I might well be able to continue cooking on this.

What are the health benefits you might ask?  There are myriad but amongst the most important is healing the gut.  Like animals, we would all once have instinctively craved the foods that could heal us, and bone broths are certainly what I crave when I am ill.  Chicken stock with the addition of root ginger is my go-to soup whenever my stomach is upset – just as onion soup made with beef stock is my answer for clearing chesty colds.  So whilst my stocks could be improved to make them more beneficial medicinally, I can already accept the truth behind their health giving claims.  For more examples see Caroline’s blog.

5.     Eat the Weird Bits

This is more than just an extension of the Nose to Tail eating principle already discussed under Slow Cooking.  Offal, and particularly the brains and head of an animal, contain nutrients either absent or in lesser quantity in lean muscle.  Caroline explained that this is why predators will frequently take just the head of an animal.  If we are to eat less meat it is particularly important that we gain maximum nutrients from what we do eat, so make sure that you learn to love offal and all the other weird bits.

Find out more

My previous articles/recipes:

Pasture or Grain Fed – a question of Taste

Mutton and Caper Suet Pudding Recipe

Making Stock

Primal Meats Blog:

Books by Jennifer McLagan:

Odd Bits



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