It's 9 AM on a Saturday morning and I am face to face with the severed head of a big, once-beautiful pig. Its eyes are half-closed, its ears standing up proudly, its tongue poking ever so slightly between pebble-sized teeth, and there's a slow ooze of thick blood coming from each nostril.
I knew this meeting was coming. In fact, I'm here specifically to get acquainted with this poor sod's skull in a cold, almost bare room at the back of London's Borough Market, with part of the team behind Meat School, a new venture by British curing company Cannon & Cannon. The aim is to educate people about provenance, preparation, and preservation of meat in the modern age.
Behind my pig's head (there are another two on either side of her) stands a young man in a flat cap with his hands lying fondly on a head of his own. His name is Hugo Jeffreys and he owns a small curing business in East London, called Blackhand.
He tells us what we're going to be doing this morning: first, separating the face from our pig skulls, lining them with herbs and curing salt, and wrapping into an Italian porchetta-style delicacy called porchetta di testa. After that, we'll mix ground pork meat and fat with herbs and seasoning, before stuffing it all into beef intestine to make a gargantuan Italian sausage called cotechino.
I've long believed that if you're unable to deal with the realities of meat as a foodstuff, you don't deserve to eat it. Thus far, however, this belief has been tested only in the form of offal and offcuts like testicles, livers, bull penis (called "pizzle," by the way), and unadulterated bone marrow. At worst, they've been edible; at best: outright delicious.
I watch Hugo merrily perform the unavoidably gruesome task of negotiating the beast's face—intact—from its skull, leaving the eyes in their sockets but the holes (with eyelashes remaining) very much visible in the mask. There's no getting around the fact that it's not a pretty sight, but that isn't the half of it; it's my turn now.
As a vegetarian of nearly a decade until a mere couple of years ago, I was almost expecting my first experience of butchery to be the last straw for the meat in my diet. It wasn't. I get through with only one minor mishap around one of the cheeks (it's really fucking difficult to guide even the sharpest knife up and around the contour of a pig's cheek with one hand, while holding up the considerable weight of its head with the other.)
Our halfway-point reward is a spiced apple cake made by Meat School co-ordinator Lee-Anna Rennie, which we devour as we stare in awe at our grisly handiwork. After the fat, blood, and salt has been cleaned from our hands and the gleaming metal workstations, and our prizes have been shrink-wrapped and labelled, we sit down for beers and sliced charcuterie.
Meat School aims to be an accessible starting point for Londoners wishing to meet their meat and question its origin. Jeffreys and Rennie want people to understand why, in 2015, it's pretty unacceptable to be throwing away vast amounts of 'other bits' during industrial meat production.
"We all want cheap food," says Rennie. "But we don't understand that cheap food comes at a price. You might not pay that price but somebody else does."
Usually, this price falls to the animals themselves. Factory farming in countries with less stringent animal welfare laws is a common source of inexpensive meat in the UK but leaves farm workers underpaid and animals reared in cruel conditions.
Essentially, meat shouldn't be cheap.
"You spend one day with a farmer," says Rennie. "And you realise how fucking hard it is to rear animals properly."
Rennie and Jeffreys believe there is a growing desire to question where our meat has come from. The reasons for giving a shit about provenance and "buying British" are manifold: it concerns animal welfare, the environment, employment, and product quality.
"The meat in this country, in terms of quality, is so much better than other parts of Europe. Our soil is fertile. We haven't treated it all that well, but we can still do an awful lot with it. Farmers need investment, some support," says Jeffreys. "We are a farming country. We have land. We have amazing breeds of animals. Why do we need import from anywhere else?"
Terrifyingly, however, it's not as simple as buying meat bearing a Union Jack flag on the packet. It's legal for food to be labelled as 'British' as long as the final part of its preparation took place in the UK. This includes packaging.
"Look into labelling laws," Rennie says with a grimace. "It's not nice."
Pointing to the remaining half of the cake, she continues. "The apples that went into that are a variety called 'Spartan' and I can tell you exactly where they were grown in the UK, and who grew them."
What if we were similarly knowledgeable about our bacon sandwiches? Knowing the breed of the pig, that it was born and raised in the UK, and even the abattoir it went to. Rennie likes the idea but isn't sure it would catch on.
"People don't like talking about the fact that the animal had to die in order for them to eat it," she says.
As well as showing the importance of responsibly reared meat, Rennie and Jeffreys are keen to teach people about extending the life of meat.
"There are lots of places in London where you can go to take meat off bones, but predominantly the end result is cooking it, not curing," explains Rennie. "There are old, old, old techniques in the UK for preservation, and two World Wars kinda hammered that home. Everybody learned to make the most out of everything but we've lost all that. Nowadays we want everything in an instant, but really good food doesn't happen in an instant—you have to work at it."
The Meat School course is still developing, but there's already a noticeable trend in clientele.
"We've seen no women yet," says Rennie. "Not one. It's a real shame."
"I think this kind of stuff is still dominated by men," observes Jeffreys. "I see no reason why it should be. I hope it will change. It's not like men are any more naturally skilful than women."
But interest in ethically produced meat isn't and often can't be a priority for many people, regardless of gender. It's something Rennie says makes our industry-scale wastage of offal and cheap cuts all the more unforgivable.
"They're so cheap, they have a lot of nutrition, they have so much flavour to give," she says. "We want cheap food but we're too squeamish."
Ultimately, that's the point. Ethically produced meat is damn good, and we need to undo the conditioning that tells us to eat only the unchallenging stuff. If my day at Meat School has done anything, it's driven home the fact that there's no getting around the realities of eating animals. It's gruesome, labour-intensive, and mired in issues that affect the whole planet. Should we really be glossing over that for the sake of a cheap meal?
No meat should be seen as more disgusting or unworthy than another, and if you can make peace with eating a steak, you should be able to do the same with any flesh—even if it is a pig's face.