Terroir Not Terror

This essay features in Kai and culture: Food stories from Aotearoa, a collection of essays, profiles and recipes looking at the growing New Zealand food identity and some of the challenges inherent in the growing, making and eating of our food.

Food, Non Fiction, Essay, Adults, Short Read
Jonny Schwass | The commuting Book
Jonny Schwass

Nov 17   ●  18 min read

As a chef I am often asked what I most enjoy cooking, what my favourite dishes are and what I love to eat. Most people assume it is intricate multi-course menus, crafted and served over hours at a table laid with fine china and sparkling glassware. The reality is quite the opposite and if you were to come to my home for dinner tonight you would see the answer is simply well-sourced meat cooked over a wood fire. The symphony of the sizzle as a slab of beef hits the grill; the chemical reaction between the amino acids and reducing sugars; the basting with butter, fresh thyme and garlic – it brings a smile to my face every time. Cooking is the final stage of a long process that culminates in a tasty portion of flesh at the end of your handcrafted Peter Lorimer steak knife.

Sadly, it is a process that not everyone understands. Due mostly to the industrialisation of global food production and the societal immersion into processed and conveniently prepared foodstuffs, we have, for the most part, removed ourselves from the realities of our food production process. We need to be talking more about where it comes from in our daily conversations. But we also need to be discussing who our food comes from.

The first part of this simple and ancient journey from farm to fork is connecting with the farmers, the primary producers who have been the backbone of our country since we started commercially farming livestock in the mid 1800s. The plains of Canterbury have been a great contributor to the production of global food and the region has shaped our reputation in the global market for nearly 150 years. But I believe that this global reputation has begun to slow as we have sold off our wealth of intellectual property, as well as our physical property. For the sake of a few dollars we have told the world how to manage their livestock with efficient animal husbandry. For a couple more dollars we have sent our best animals (what the MPI calls ‘prime breeding stock’) to overseas markets so they can apply this knowledge and start their own breeding programmes. We are now wondering why our overseas markets are sourcing their animal protein from their own local markets and why our long-suffering farmers aren’t selling as much meat to them as we used to. The answer is not to be found in converting our lush and plentiful agricultural land to dairy. I believe the answer to farming survival lies in closing the supply chain and having farms work with chefs.

As a cook who cares, I am in a constant search for a richer perception of where the meat we serve comes from and how it lives before it becomes our dinner. This is not a trend, nor is this cutting-edge cuisine. This is whole animal sensibility. In the small ecosystem that is a restaurant kitchen, the choices you make concerning how you buy food have huge and long-term impacts. Should you choose to serve a beef fillet dish on the menu for convenience (because you are a lazy and disinterested cook), you need to realise that a cow dies for every two beef fillets. A reasonable restaurant will sell 3 beef fillets a day, 21 a week. So, each month 42 animals are killed to meet the requirements of one dish on one restaurant’s menu.

This single menu choice impacts the supply chain: an average beef tenderloin weighs 3kg, two per animal weigh 6kg and an average cattle beast on the hook will weigh 350kg. This one dish on one menu equates to the slaughter of 14,700kg of beast for the month, when the dish itself uses a mere 1.7 per cent of the animal. This has never sat well with me and I much prefer to work menus around supply rather than working supply around menus. The waste, greed and excess of generic menus that never change is offensive to me. After many years of battling this industry dilemma I believe the future lies in the past, in chefs and farmers working in unison and restaurants proudly showcasing the work of a farm on their menus. The celebrity chef status is a fallacy. The chef’s role in the food chain is ultimately very limited. Our job is to source, slice, simmer and serve the food our growers, producers, artisans and farmers have all spent weeks, months and years handcrafting on our behalf. The true champions of the food industry are, and will always be, the farmers.

I always aim to buy a carcase in the most natural and complete form I can. If it once roamed the earth, it comes to the restaurant whole – with its head held high so I can look the beast in the eye and appreciate that this was a living creature. I visit the farms to guide our menu direction for the coming seasons, which is far greater inspiration than any cookbook. We are supplied these beasts by reputable flesh-mongers and farmers who understand our exacting standards and our search for things that are perceived as being a little different.

My ultimate goal is to work with one farm exclusively and I am working towards that. This is not to be contrary, but to re-associate people with the culture of agriculture. We need to place more worth on where our food comes from and why it’s important to understand the link between something that tastes good and something that lives well. We understand this concept with wine. The links between good grape gardening and good juice are obvious in our glass, but why is it we often place more importance on the life cycle of a grape than a living animal? Why do we know not to add lawn clippings to barrels of wine to produce classic Marlborough grassy sauvignon blanc, yet we accept that hundreds of tonnes of cut pork are shipped from 22 different countries (Barugh) all with varying animal ethics, so we can have a cheap slice of bacon, some smoked ribs and all eat ham for 10 days over the Christmas holidays?

There are 102 pig farms in New Zealand but only two new ones have been developed in the last 10 years. Sixty per cent of pork consumed in New Zealand is imported (‘NZPork FAQs’) and this flood of cheap imports makes it too risky to invest in infrastructure, as you might never get a return. Pig farming is not like other farming where rising land values underpin your long-term return. The romantic notion that your bacon sandwich came from a happy and healthy pig is blurred in the midst of the ‘made from local and imported ingredients’ description.

Then there are the hidden subsidies and scale that make it hard for New Zealand farmers to compete. Whenever the US hits a downturn, their government supports the local industry by buying its pork at good prices for the schools, hospitals and prisons. In terms of scale, there is one US abattoir that reportedly kills 34,000 pigs a day (Reuters), whereas we kill 13,000 a week across the whole country. Our farmers are championed as the face of the right process but in actuality the end user defines the market, and their choices are so often based on price.

But there is one thing I believe will dramatically change the way we buy our animal proteins and give cause for some optimism about the future of the local industry. It could come from a Green Party private member’s bill. The Consumers’ Right to Know (Country of Origin of Food) Bill passed its first reading and will now head to a select committee. It states that people should be able to find out where their food comes from, so they can make informed choices about what they eat, and what they feed their children. There are many reasons why consumers want to know which country their food comes from, and why consumers may wish to avoid foods from certain countries. Some consumers want to support local producers and the local economy. Some are concerned about the adequacy of food safety standards in some of the countries that we import food from. Some are concerned about the environmental and other costs of transporting food long distances. Some are concerned about the use of post-harvest fumigation and other treatments on imported produce or the potential residues of pesticides and other contaminants in imported foods.

Many consumers assume, in the absence of country-of-origin labelling, that traditional foods such as meat, fruit, fish, and vegetables are all produced in New Zealand. As more and more food is imported into New Zealand, accurate and consistent country-of-origin labelling is even more important. As a country, we have the ability to produce enough food to feed 40 million people (Proudfoot 5). Yet as a consumer nation of just under 5 million, and based solely on having the luxury to choose, we import food. I question the need to import an inordinate percentage of what we eat, drink and feed our animals. We have the ability to feed ourselves, our families and our guests and still have plenty left to export.

The other issue facing our meat producing farmers is the search for alternative protein sources – insects, plants and so on – for health and ethical reasons. Protein is an important part of our daily diet because our bodies do not store it. Aside from the dietary considerations, which are catered for by our luxury to choose what we eat, there is the moral dilemma of death for food. There is a time to live and a time to die. This is the way of nature. If you think about it, the prolonged suffering of animals is rare in nature. When a cow lives the life a cow ought to live, when its life and death are consistent with a beautiful world, then for me there is no ethical dilemma in killing that cow for food. Of course, there is pain and fear when the cow is taken to the slaughter, as with the early bird getting the worm and the cat chasing down that early bird. This often makes me sad, but underneath the sadness is the joy, which is not dependant on avoiding pain and maximising pleasure, but on living rightly and well.

When working in the kitchen, I make a point of knowing where all our animals come from; I am more concerned with where it’s from than what it costs. I want to know the people who tend these animals as they grow and mature to something that will eventually become a very personal part of what we are. I know these animals have had a good life and I know this because it is quite possible that I ate their parents. The animals that sacrifice so much for our simple pleasure have a right to be thanked appropriately, so we practice whole animal sensibility for this very reason.

If we are prepared to kill an animal for the purpose of eating it then we have an obligation to eat the whole thing, not just the tenderloin piece, but the head, the toes and all the bits in between. If this is something you struggle with or it doesn’t sit well with you, you should stop eating meat or perhaps you should google the term ‘mechanically recovered meat’, put down that hot dog and leave the good meat for the omnivores. A selective diet based solely on personal taste means more animals live shorter, less fulfilled lives so you can enjoy an extra inch or two on that hot dog.

As much as I love meat, I need to know that the animals I have played a part in killing have had a nice life. We will never serve you baby animals. Our menu will never feature little chickens, young veal or suckling pigs. I have to admit that I pick vegetables far too young and that miniature herbs and leaves are delicious, but to eradicate animals simply for tenderness is wrong. I will not cook animals that have had their diet manipulated so they taste different or so that certain internal organs will swell to exploding. I want the food I cook to taste of its place, I want it to taste of the land it roamed. I, for one, want terroir in my meat not terror.


Works cited

Barugh, I. W. and Neuman, E.J. “NZPork Monthly Import Report.” NZPork, 31 July 2017, www.nzpork.co.nz/images/custom/SP_News/2017-9-june-imports-report.pdf

Ministry for Primary Industries. “Live sheep and cattle exports.” MPI, 6 July 2017, www.mpi.govt.nz/exporting/overview/general-requirements/live-sheep-and-cattle-exports/

“NZPork FAQs.” NZPork, April 2016, www.nzpork.co.nz/farming-pigs-in-nz/faqs

Proudfoot, Ian. “The pivot towards the consumer, rather than the election sets the 2017 Agenda.” Agribusiness Agenda 2017, KPMG, 2017, p. 5, www. home.kpmg.com/content/dam/kpmg/nz/pdf/June/agri-agenda-2017-kpmg-nz.pdf

Reuters Staff. “Smithfield Halts Hog Kill at N. Carolina Plant Due to Hog Virus – Sources.” Reuters, 15 March 2014, www.reuters.com/article/hogs-smithfield-idUSL2N0MB1JU20140314.