Why you should care
Because knowing that your meat used to be something else before it hit your supermarket shelf is the start of ethical eating.
The 300-year-old wood-beamed stone farmhouse, nestled between the Adriatic Sea and the Apennine Hills, is as romantic as you’d expect of an Italian country cooking school. So, too, is dining under the stars on food cooked in an outdoor kitchen. But not so much, perhaps, venturing into the school’s killing fields, knife in hand, to dispatch your own dinner in person.
La Tavola Marche promises a vacation “in close contact with good food and wine, nature and the tradition of times gone by.” And since farmers raise and kill their own beasts daily in rural Italy, to the American proprietors of this residential cooking school, that means being prepared to get up close and personal with blood and guts — before the candlelight and chianti that washes down the finished products.
If you’re going to talk the talk, you have to be prepared to walk the walk and get your hands inside an animal.
Jason Bartner, who dreamed up this communal slaughterfest, is a New York chef turned “farm to fork” practitioner in Italy’s central backwoods. His annual “Forage, Slaughter and Butcher Your Meal” course attracts Americans, Canadians and Brits, most of them city dwellers, as Bartner once was himself — and in the same state of remove when it came to the food on his plate. The course, now in its fourth year, was inspired by author Michael Pollan’s challenge to readers on whether they are prepared to kill their own dinner, put forth in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
“If you’re going to talk the talk — throw around words like ‘organic’ and ‘farm to fork’ — you have to be prepared to walk the walk and get your hands inside an animal,” explains Bartner, who cooked for dignitaries and celebrities at an Upper West Side club before quitting Manhattan to pursue the rustic life. And the course is gaining in popularity, with an extra session added this fall. Included in the curriculum: whole-hog butchering, sausage making, chicken slaughtering and two days of hands-on cooking classes. The cost is around $1,200 (925 euros) per person for five nights’ accommodation, food and wine with meals.
The killing part certainly stirs the emotions, though: “We’ve had tears, and refusers who didn’t take part in the slaughter, but they all appreciated the life of a living, breathing animal was being taken to support their own,” says Bartner. “It was not just a piece of meat.”
But he hopes guests see the slaughter as a necessity rather than a macho ritual: “Killing a chicken is not my favorite thing; you have to do it quickly, with minimal stress.” While most participants take up the invitation — “10 out of 14, on average” — fewer, he reports, attend the dawn slaughter of a large pig at a neighboring farm, though all attend the butchery session that follows.
Traffic is doubtless driven by word of mouth from former pupils, like the author of the Dish.Diva.Jaz blog, who, although she abstained at the last minute from delivering the death blow to “beautiful” chickens whose eggs she had just collected, extols the experience of watching the newly deceased birds swaying gently in the breeze:
“It’s over instantaneously and as I stare at the hens suspended in the tree I see beauty and richness that only this trip could provide. A depiction of slow food, of farm to table … a true example of life on the farm.”