Some people who have taken an interest in the menus of Alphabet Soup have thought nothing of me serving up crocodile or ibex, but have balked at the thought of anyone eating reindeer. I served reindeer again for a pre-Christmas dinner party and it went down a storm with our guests, but when I mentioned it during a shoot for my new book (*clang*), it made a couple of people uncomfortable. One in particular thought it was a "brutal" step too far. He slowly shook his head and tilted it with concerned sympathy at me, before asking, "why did you feel you needed to do that?". I must admit I was genuinely surprised by the reaction. Perhaps it's because I've had so much positive feedback about this project and the lengths I've gone to to source unusual, alphabetically appropriate ingredients, that I wasn't prepared for hearing anything different. But it did make me sit up and reassess. Memories of the drive down to Devon for family holidays came flooding back, when we would roll down the windows to shout, "Mint sauce!" at fields of sheep. I've always thought that was a funny, perhaps even charming, story, but was this, in fact, an early indication of my natural heartlessness.
The uncomfortable judgement I felt that day stayed with me for some time and made me question my motives. Should I be judged as insensitive for some of the choices I've made for the sake of this self-imposed culinary mission? Had I become inured to the strangeness of what was on my plate, or indeed, who had died to make its way onto it? Was this all just some savage stunt, in which greed and novelty had thrown my moral compass off-course? And were some people right to view this project as a callous attempt to shock? Was I being deliberately perverse?
In truth, it didn't even enter my head that reindeer might be an unpalatable idea to anyone. It's beautiful, wild Scandinavian venison that is entirely organic, having lived a happy life roaming pesticide free land. OK, the carbon footprint might be an issue for some, but food importation is so much more of a complex issue to unravel than that. When I asked the company I bought it from, how the reindeer made its way to Britain, I was told that the wild meat was processed (i.e. cut up and packaged) locally, before being frozen and shipped to the UK. In terms of animal welfare, it seems a no-brainer that eating reindeer is a more ethical choice than battery chickens, who are fattened up so quickly that their legs buckle under the weight of their own unnaturally bloated breasts, leaving them able to do little more than sit in their own filth until they are sent down a conveyor belt to their untimely deaths. Little research is needed to uncover some terrible truths behind the transportation of livestock for days on end in disgusting conditions and I, for one, find the idea of eating an animal who has led a carefree life in their natural environment an easier mouthful to swallow than a bite of a bacon sandwich made from intensively reared pigs.
Is the issue with eating reindeer less about ethics than emotions? The images from childhood of red-nosed Rudolf and his chums pulling Father Christmas along in his sleigh, so that we could all wake up with present-filled stockings at the end of our beds on Christmas morning, are richly evocative. I can fully understand and appreciate that the magical charm we attached to them as children along with the carrots we left out for them on Christmas eve, are enough to make the idea of serving them up for lunch an abomination too far for many.
I see reindeer meat differently. I am as struck by their elegant majesty as the next person, but neither am I immune to the charms of all other doe-eyed deers, wide eyed cows and snuffling pigs. I am a meat eater and, as such, although I try as much as possible to ensure the flesh on my plate has come from a good and happy place, I tend not to anthropomorphise my Sunday roast. I don't think this makes me brutal, I think this makes me honest. Reindeer meat is low in fat and rich in iron. It is a brilliant source of protein and also happens to taste wholly delicious. I have read the arguments against eating meat, but I have decided not to tread the path of vegetarianism. Instead, I try to source my meat carefully and as ethically as possible, which is why I will be serving and eating reindeer meat again.