Cooking With Blood Convinced Me to Stop Being a Vegetarian
A little blood in my stomach means less blood on my hands.
This article originally appeared on VICE Alps
One day, when I was nine, I decided to leave the piece of chicken on my plate untouched. Right there and then, I realised that if I really loved animals and thought they were my friends, I had to stop eating them. So I committed – from that day forward, I boycotted anything my parents tried to feed me that contained meat or fish. Over the years, I found some more complex reasons to steer clear of meat, so I've been eating vegetarian and partly vegan for the last 15 years.
That changed when I met Laura Schälchli. Laura is a 34-year-old food expert, who has invested half of her life in the political and moral questions raised by the way we eat. She was studying Design Management in New York and waitressing part-time, when she developed an special interest in the culture of food. She followed that interest to the University of Gastronomic Sciences (UNISG) in the Piedmont region in Italy. That school focuses on the relationship between food and culture, and it was founded by Carlo Petrini – who also conceived the Slow Food Movement.
After her time at UNISG, she became president of Slow Food Youth Switzerland and went on to start several pop-up restaurants. She also regularly gives lectures and workshops about how we can expand our eating habits – which is how I got it touch with her. Minutes into our first phone call, Laura quickly tore my system of beliefs to shreds.
"I really don't understand how anyone could be vegan or any kind of conscious eater while still buying chocolate and bananas," she said. "Everyone knows that the conditions at banana or cocoa farms are inhumane for workers." It's true – I do know it's almost impossible to find a chocolate bar that wasn't made thanks to child labour and slavery and I know workers in the banana industry suffer under the same kind of conditions. As food writer Joanna Blythman wrote in The Guardian: "The [banana] workers generally live either in lamentable shanty accommodation on site or they are bused in great distances to work a long and punishing day. Paid piece rates, they have to work themselves into the ground to make a living wage." Meanwhile, the price you pay for a nice homegrown British apple or pear is in many supermarkets about double, compared to the price of a banana that's imported from the other side of the world.
Knowing that, it would have been much fairer and more sustainable if I had had an occasional piece of organic meat from a local cow, instead of all the bananas and chocolate bars I wolfed down over the last 15 years.
Laura believes that people who eat meat should commit to eating the entire animal – including its blood. Europeans have been using blood in their dishes for ages but even though you can expect black pudding with your full English here in the UK, it has become wildly less popular over the years. In the bi-weekly classes Laura teaches in Zurich, she gives lectures on wine tasting or miso soup, but she also runs workshops on cooking with blood. On the phone, she tells me that she thinks it's time for an obstinate vegetarian like me to reconsider why I eat what I eat. And since I missed her last workshop, she invites me to her home in Zurich to prepare one of her bloody recipes with her.
The blood Laura and I cook with is locally sourced – Laura buys her blood from her favourite farm, just outside of Zurich. It's owned by Claudia and Nils Müller, who anaestheticise and slaughter their animals right on the pasture. So instead of having to be transported to a slaughterhouse several hours away and getting stressed by the commute, the cattle is slaughtered in a familiar setting. Nils and Claudia were the first farmers in Switzerland to obtain a permit for this kind of slaughter, in May 2016.
That's how we end up at Laura's home with a bottle of warm blood, that only hours before had been pulsing through the veins of a happy and unsuspecting two-year-old steer. Laura opens a bottle and samples the red liquid, which looks a lot like beetroot juice. I find myself putting a teaspoon of blood in my mouth a moment later, and I'm immediately overcome with disgust. This isn't beetroot juice, it's blood. I know what my own blood tastes like, (I'm not so militant that I won't lick my own blood from my long-suffering cuticles) but this clearly doesn't taste like my own blood. It's from an animal. It tastes like nothing.
Laura explains that slaughtering one pig results in 2.5 litres of blood, while a young bull, like my steer, loses 4.5 litres of blood. That usually ends up in animal feed and pharmaceuticals but you could also make ravioli with it, which is what Laura and I agree to do.
We'll make it with Vin Cuit – Swiss mulled wine. The recipe is Laura's own interpretation of the traditional dish of Vin Cuit with onions. The first thing Laura asks me to do is the knead the dough, which is kind of a relief. I knead together flour, egg yolk and oil to a dough. As I add some blood, the dough takes on a bright magenta shade. Still, I find it easy to forget that I'm working with a bodily fluid that kept an animal alive earlier today.
One of the workshops Laura teaches is for children. "I often see kids who are afraid to touch food, which is shocking to me," she says. "When they have to transfer some bits of fruit from the cutting board to a bowl, many kids in my workshop use cutlery instead of their hands." According to Laura, that shows we're raised to keep a distance to our food – especially when you consider that kids generally like to touch everything they can get their hands on.
Blood has a low boiling point so you have to heat it carefully, at low temperature. The blood slowly becomes thicker during this process and while I stir, I can't stop thinking about the animal that gave its life for my ravioli.
Meanwhile, Laura has fed the dough through the pasta machine and is ready to fill the ravioli. She also prepares a filling of ricotta mixed with blood, and says that ricotta slightly softens the taste of blood. That would definitely help me eat the ravioli without thinking too much about death and horror. Finally, she dips the ravioli in salt and bakes them with sage butter.
I've gotten pretty hungry by the time Laura and I sit down for dinner with photographer Raphael Erhart. Laura looks at me inquisitively while I take my first bite of the bloody ravioli. I can't taste anything weird – it doesn't taste as metallic as Laura had warned me it would. The image of an unsuspecting young bull with the sweetest eyes does spook around in my head but I'm not very bothered by it. Raphael clearly struggles more than me with the idea of eating blood.
But it actually tastes great. I notice that I keep running my tongue over my teeth to check if there is any blood stuck to them – until I remember that I'm just having some pasta and I'm not Eric Northman. I help myself to a second serving, and I have to say that I prefer the ricotta ravioli to the Vin Cuit and onions one. The steer in my head sighs with disappointment.
I may have betrayed that steer but I don't seem to have betrayed my digestive system – I survive the next day without any physical discomfort. And I can say now that after 15 years of religiously avoiding meat, I am no longer a strict vegetarian. If I know where the blood, the meat or the offal came from and how the animal died, I'll eat it. Similarly, I will cut bananas out of my diet if they're not fair trade and drastically reduce my consumption of chocolate, avocados, quinoa and other delicious things that might not leave me with blood in my stomach, but with a bit more blood on my hands.
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