Zach and I wandered into the food tent at the Amberly A&P show, where we knew the butchering demo would be taking place. Neither of knew what time it was, so we grabbed an IPA and made ourselves comfortable on a hay bale. We were chatting with Lyndal when a woman got on the microphone and asked for volunteers to guest judge for the Lamb portion of the upcoming Hoof to Hotplate competition. Lyndal, knowing how fond I am of eating, grabbed my elbow and shoved my hand into the air. Sure enough, I had a spot!
Zach also got a spot and we took our places at the guest judges table, located between the real judges table and the beef butchering demo that was taking place right next to us. We chit chatted a little with the other guest judges and were then presented with a spreadsheet and a glass of Pinot Noir. As I was trying to make sense of the spreadsheet, the master of ceremonies told the gathering crowd that we would be tasting twenty four different lambs.
Did she just say twenty four?!? But, how? Oh boy, not really sure what we got ourselves into.
The portions were about the size of a domino, prepared medium rare, and were scored on aroma, flavor, tenderness and texture. When the first bite arrived, I peered across to the real judges to check out how they were going about judging their meat, first sniffing, then cutting, chewing, pondering, and often doing it again. After about four different lambs and a refill on my pinot noir, I started to get the hang of it. The thing is though, they were all really good. Even the one that I ranked the lowest would have been a treat to have on the dinner table.
After about every six plates, there was a lull, during which we watched the butchering demo. The whole afternoon was really quite phenomenal. I had a parade of lamb bites going on in front of me, a crowd of 50 people to the side of me, and when I turned around, a cow carcass hanging behind me. The butchers wore chain mail gloves and worked their knives through this cow like a conductor in front of an orchestra. Zip, zip, zip! Three cuts and the skirt steak was out. Zip, Zip and there is your rib eye. My jaw fell open. Nick, the butcher from Harris Meats who was doing the demonstration, could butcher a half a cow in 1 minute and thirteen seconds. I did a half a pig in six hours. Hats off to you, man. During the butchering demo, Brian Harris was educating the crowd about abattoirs, knives, and why cuts are priced they way they are.
We had to leave before the finals round, so we did not get to find out how our taste buds compared to those of the judges, but that was just as well. After we left, two more volunteers took our places and got to share in the experience. I wrote down the numbers that I liked best and looked them up online afterward. For the record, my favorites were Sally and Malcom MacKenzie’s Dorset Down X and Denis Rhodes’ Poll Dorset X, Zach enjoyed Robert Sloss’ Romney Dorset Down X. We learned what type of lamb we enjoy and had the best seats in the house for enjoying the butchering demo. I couldn’t imagine a better way to experience the Amberly Show.
If the Mt. Somers hiking trail isn’t one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks,” I’m excited to see what’s made the cut.
We began our hike, or “tramp” in the local lingo, at the Sharplin Falls parking area, near Staveley, about an hour from Christchurch. Our route was Sharplin Falls to the Woolshed Creek Hut (bypassing the Pinnacles Hut), where we’d spend the night, and then to Woolshed Creed parking lot the following day. We met an affable Czech named Jan overnight in the hut, and he graciously provided us a ride back to our car.
Our first day was the longer of the two, with five hours on the trail broken up by a leisurely lunch at the Pinnacles Hut. The morning featured a steep climb up to 800 meters followed by a wonderful jaunt along Boyers Creek. Due to spring runoff, the creek was more like a raging river, taking parts of the track down with it and slowing our progress, but the challenge of hopping from rock to rock along the riverbed with our packs did nothing but add to our enjoyment. We climbed out of the river valley and into the sub-alpine bush above and arrived at Pinnacles Hut for lunch around one o’clock. At our stop there, I learned that the rock formations directly behind the hut (the “Pinnacles”) are home to some excellent sport climbing routes. As I salivated over the lines, I concocted a plan to return with ropes and gear for an extended stay at Pinnacles Hut.
The weather turned worse as we departed the hut, with rain changing to sleet and eventually, snow. We felt two worlds away from our humid morning jumping from around in the creek bed, but again, the journey, and its attendant challenges, are the point. As the weather continued to decline, the terrain eased and we hurried our pace, eager to dry off in front of a fire at our day’s destination. A few hours and several frigid river crossings later, we had arrived, hanging our soggy socks behind a crackling fire.
I’ll reiterate Bill Bryson’s point from A Walk in the Woods: besides the beautiful scenery and physical rewards, hiking’s appeal comes largely from deprivation and then return of basic comforts. As I sit in front of that fire, warming my frozen toes, I felt tremendously fortunate to have simple warmth.
As we patted ourselves on the back for our decision to bring our camping stove, we enjoyed a simple vegetable soup and chatted over tea with our new Czech friend. I discovered that he was also a rock climber in need of a belay partner, so we exchanged contact information and discussed the lines at the crags we’d gawked at on the way in. Tired from our long day fighting the wind on the trail, we turned in early to read a few pages of our book before nodding off to a restful sleep.
We awoke to find our fire burnt out and a strong chill in the air. The hut sat down in a deep valley, so while the sun was shining on the hilltops, it hadn’t yet reached the few inches of snow that accumulated overnight lower down. The cold motivated an early start, so we were on the trail again before eight o’clock. While the signs outside the hut indicated it was a three hour trip to the end of the track, we hustled through it in half that and were back at our car and relaxing in the Staveley Village Store, drinking hot coffee and snacking before 10am. This was backpacking at its most luxurious.
New Zealand’s backcountry huts provide an unprecedented and unequaled level of comfort, especially compared to those I’ve visited in the northeastern United States. They’re equipped with wood stoves and firewood, sleeping mats, sinks with clean running water, and, most importantly, four walls and a roof. The shelters in the United States are simple platforms with leaky roofs, open on one side to the elements and, if you’re lucky, near a running stream or fire pit. New Zealand’s backcountry huts are the Ritz-Carlton to the United States’ Motel 6.
Tickets to stay in one of the country’s extensive system of huts ($15 per person or $120 for an annual pass) are available at Department of Conservation offices, many visitor’s centers, in the general stores at each end of the Mt. Somers Track. The Staveley Village Store is worth a stop anyway for a delicious savory brioche and a cup of coffee after a few snowy and windy days on the trail.
This hike came recommended by a few different guide books (Fodor’s, Lonely Planet), so I had high expectations. Despite (or possibly even because of) the weather, it exceeded all my hopes. The terrain was challenging but not difficult while changing from lush forest to rocky alpine terrain. There were exciting river crossings and comfortable huts spaced relatively close together. At the beginning of December we’re scheduled to hike the Heaphy Track, which is part of the “Great Walks” system. These are the most popular tramps in the country, and come with special (higher) rates and an online booking system. If Mt. Somers didn’t qualify as a “Great Walk,” I’m excited to see what has.
Since I left the United States three months ago I’ve grown further and further from the realm of time. I haven’t worn a watch since high school, but I’ve had a cell phone and its clock strapped my hip – wait, I’m not quite that nerdy – in my pocket ever since. Now that I don’t have a “real” job, or any commitments that require time-specificity, I’ve abandoned the clock entirely. Take that, progress.
I still have a rough idea of the time: I know when breakfast, second breakfast, brunch, lunch, tea time, and dinner are. Hey, the blog is called “Bring a Snack.” What did you expect? Everything else just slots in somewhere between. Sometimes I have to be places, but my appointments are measured not in quarter-hour increments, but in approximate days. Jobs start “around the 15th” or “at the end of the month.” So I get up when the sun does, work until I’m hungry, and go to sleep when it gets cold and dark.
Slavery to the clock has been the latest pillar to fall. I used to perform the “phone/wallet/keys?” Ritual of the American Male every time I walked out the door. Now I only check for my wallet and knife. I suppose that in itself is indicative of how my life has changed. I wonder what’s next?
As Christina mentioned in her last post, we’ve struck a nice balance, both financially and mentally, between jobs and time off to explore New Zealand on our own. Most recently we’ve been in adventure-mode, spending the last week bouncing around the Canterbury region of the South Island. Here’s what we’ve been up to:
October 10: Camped in Little Akaloa, a tiny village on the sea on the Banks Peninsula. The drive along Summit Road at sunset was stunning.
October 11: We had a lazy morning reading and relaxing in Little Akaloa, then rode our borrowed bikes up the hill beside town. We chose our destination because the street at the top had a nice name: Long Lookout Road. It turned out to be very poorly named, but the descent back to town was steep and exhilarating.
October 13: After refusing to pay for the world’s most expensive parking spot again, we camped under a tree on the side of the road. This isn’t explicitly allowed in New Zealand, but there weren’t any “No Camping” signs and there was a public bathroom nearby. We don’t need much else. We paid for our bravado with a sleepless night, fearing our shade tree would collapse under a relentless gale and sheets of rain and awoke to find the windows in the van were stuck in the down position. In the rain. ‘Twas a challenging string of events.
We spent the day resupplying in Geraldine and visiting some very odd tourist attractions: the largest knitted sweater in the world and a handmade reproduction of the Bayeaux Tapestry with millions of tiny pieces of metal. As we limped up the mountain out of town the pounding rain relented into a gorgeous, peaceful snow.
In Lake Tekapo we spent the evening soaking in piping hot thermal pools, with giant Christmas-y snowflakes gently falling around us. The snow continued to fall as we went to sleep – nearly a foot was forecast.
October 15: After an off-road adventure in Nissan Serena Williams, we found a nice secluded camping spot on the shores of Lake Pukaki, with panoramic views of the Southern Alps and Mt. Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand. We took a very muddy and bumpy bike ride in Ruatawhini Conservation Park and came to the realization that some kind of suspension is pretty much essential for mountain biking to be fun. I spent the afternoon getting my monthly dose of adrenaline, bouldering along the Mt. Cook highway.
Back on the road, our plans were again derailed in Mt. Cook National Park. We’d planned to do a short hike in the morning then go up to Mueller Hut for the night, but our discussion with with the ranger at the visitor center went something like this:
“Mueller?” He looked down at our feet. “In those boots?”
“Do you have skis?”
“Any avalanche training?”
Fully emasculated now: “Nope.”
“You’ll never make it. Come look at this.” We walked to a window of the sparkling visitor’s center and he pointed at a giant icy blue shelf that looked like it was about to tumble down on the mountainside and us below it. “That’s where you’re headed.” We quickly changed our plans and made the prudent choice: relaxing in the Old Mountaineer’s Cafe with a glass of whiskey.
October 17: Hey, that’s today! We’re back at the Old Mountaineer’s, caffeinating and writing. Today we’ll head back to the Tekapo hot pools for another soak and a day off from hiking/biking. We’ve both got a knee that’s barking and could use some extended R&R. Tomorrow we’ll be back at it with a hike around Mt. Somers on the way back to our WWOOF hosts.
Traveling like this provides constant freedom, but with that comes a few challenges. We’re always making plans then scrapping them with changes in the weather or our attitude. We’ve learned its useless to have more than a very rough sketch of your next few days, and the best skill you can have is flexibility. The Mueller Hut hike is on my NZ bucket list, so I was bummed to learn that it wasn’t possible this time, but I’m content in telling myself that it’s a reason to return to the area later in our trip.
Despite the challenges of the last few days, I still feel incredibly fortunate to be here. I only need to look out the window at the jagged mountains surrounding us to be reminded that this is a special opportunity.
If you have been following along with our adventures (we love all of you who are!), you can see that we split our time between working on farms and traveling in our tres chic van, Ms. Serena Williams. You may also know that our plan is to be here in New Zealand for about a year, with no income other than the occasional odd jobs here and there. One thing we are constantly minding is how we spend our time and money. There are endless opportunities to spend money on really enticing looking adventures like rafting, zip lining, jet boating, zorbing, and alpine climbing expeditions, but we would be flat broke after a week of that. We didn’t save for that. We saved enough to live very simply and to see the country by exploring on our own. This post is a break down of how we are making it work without an income.
By balancing our time between working and travel, we get different benefits and can live fairly inexpensively. WWOOFing (working on farms) gives us the opportunity to learn valuable skills, get to know people, and our meals and lodging is provided in exchange for 4-5 hours of work. We have been lucky enough to stay with farmers who want the work to be something that we are interested in, while also being of use to them. They ask questions like, “What do you want to learn and do while you are here?”
While WWOOFing, we spend most of our time on or very close to the farm. We get to know the surrounding area well, taking occasional afternoon trips to the mountains or the beach. Our only expenses are on extras, which are usually just wine and cookies. Except that our current hosts provide plenty of both. (Thank you L&S!) Who needs packaged cookies when Lyndal made mousse au chocolate on a Tuesday night?
In the last two weeks of WWOOFing, our expenses totaled $74.50:
- $50.00 Doctor’s visit and antibiotics for my foot (which is slowly, but surely on the mend)
- $20 Torlesse Vineyards Pinot Gris
- $4.50 Foccacia from the Farmer’s market
While traveling in the van, our costs are higher, but we have the freedom to make our own schedule, to sleep late, to spend the morning sitting on the beach, wearing my straw hat and sewing up the holes in the armpit of my denim shirt, or to keep going on a dirt road just to see what is at the end of it. With that freedom also comes the challenge of stretching the dollar by buying day old bread and brownish bananas and finding activities that are free. (Hello, hiking and biking!)
Our costs for one week of living in the van and exploring come to around $600.
- $400 gas
- $50 campsite fees (Freedom camping when possible and shelling out for a Dept. of Conservation campsite when we really need a shower)
- $100 camping food (box of wine, pb&j supplies, oats, nuts, canned beans, lentils, farm stand veggies)
- $20 entry to Lake Tekapo Thermal Pools (50% off thanks to bookme.com, kinda like a Groupon)
- $25 breakfast at a farm stand cafe.
It is the balance of these two ways of living that makes our long term travel work financially possible and rewarding. Balance between time spent with new people and time alone. Balance between boxed wine and vineyard tastings. Balance between sleeping in the van and in a bed. It all evens out to make it work pretty well so far.
Oh, and the money we save by eating canned beans will allow us to afford a few splurges like bungee jumping and knife making
Saying things out loud makes them seems more real. And what could be louder than broadcasting something to the world via the internet? It’s probably obvious to those of you that have been paying attention, but for the slackers (and myself) I need to declare my latest and greatest revelation: I want to be a farmer.
No, not the conventional “rows of corn as far as the eye can see” farmer of yesterday, but the “self-sufficient 10 acre plot with a diversity of animals and plants” farmer of tomorrow. Or the day before yesterday, depending on your point-of-view.
When we left New York I was leaning in this direction, but I hadn’t admitted it to myself yet. So we didn’t plan to travel with any kind of specific purpose. We knew we wanted to try farm life through WWOOFing, but we weren’t sure that it would work, so we built in some flexibility to do other things – things like lay on the beach in Thailand for a month, sipping local hooch and sweating it out immediately.
But we were right, we want to be farmers. And now I don’t want to do other things. I want to do things that continue my education and development as a farmer. So maybe we’ll still go to the beach in Thailand, but we’ll keep it to a week then hop on a bus to a peanut farm.
In some ways, the best plan was not planning at all. This allowed us the space to explore and get more focused as we went. It can be difficult to set out into the unknown, but if we’d followed a prescribed pathway we never would have found the right direction for us.
Travel with purpose, but don’t let it determine everything. Maybe you want to learn to cook in Europe or build houses in Mumbai. Or you might just want to test drive life outside of your comfort zone. Vague purposes are the best of all, by nature they allow the kind of flexibility necessary to focus on something clearer later on. Take a step back, and then two steps forward.
According to the Great Code of the Omnivore, we should try our damnedest to use as much of a slaughtered animal as possible. Our recent experience butchering a pig has given us a chance to put that in practice. Here are some of the things we’ve done with commonly discarded parts of a pig.
Head: Pâté de Tête. Also called headcheese or brawn. Not pretty to process, but delicious. Every soft part of the head, save the eyes and ears, is used. Cheeks, tongue, neck, snout, lips, etc.
Ears: Crispy Pig Ears. Fry ‘em up. “Sounds” good, eh? Eh? Sorry, that pun was “offal.” Oooooh!
Brain: Again, fry it. A helluva challenge to extract in one piece, but, like most things deep fried: tasty. Unique texture. Watch out for shot.
Heart: Some of the inner bits are very tough, but cooked right the meaty parts can be interesting. Note I didn’t say “good.” Could also be thinly sliced and layered in a terrine with a pate for a completely different texture. Maybe with some fried brain?
Blood: Black pudding, also known as blood sausage. Delicious.
Liver: Pâté, duh.
Kidney: Deviled Kidneys. River Cottage has a recipe that looks good, but I haven’t tested it.
Small Intestine: Sausage casings. Not sure what crazy bastard had the idea to clean the poop out of the small intestine and stuff it with bits of spiced meat, but s/he was a genius.
Stomach: Some people love tripe. I’m not one of those people. I prefer my food to smell like things other than poop. Pretty much anything else.
Caul: This is a net-like layer of fat attached to the stomach. It’s handy for wrapping up roasts and rolled loins. Or herding cats.
Skin: Left on the meat for delicious cracklin’, or could be processed for fine. leather. goods. Treat yo’ self!
Trotters (feet): Added to brawn, or their gelatin extracted by boiling and reducing and used in place of, well, gelatin. Bill Cosby would be so proud.
Tail: Also added to brawn. Watch out for a million increasingly tiny bones.
All joking aside, imagine how many of these items are discarded daily, and how much food they could produce. A little bit of creativity makes the animals killed for prime cuts go lot further. Any other ideas for making use of these or other commonly discarded pig parts?
We’ve spent the past four days up to our elbows in either pig or pork. Literally. Part of me thought that the process of slaughtering and butchering a pig was going to be sad and disgusting. But it just wasn’t. It was intense and it was challenging and there absolutely was one sad part and one disgusting part. But that is nothing compared to the rest of the process, which was absolutely invaluable. This is the story of how it went. Note: I feel that pictures are absolutely necessary to this post, but some images are quite graphic.
Around 2pm, Lyndal and Steve’s friends came over to shoot the pig. After discussing whether to use a .22 or a shotgun, and how to kill the first pig while keeping the second calm, the six of us headed out to the pig pen. Lyndal gave Squeak a pile of acorns to munch on while their friend quickly and calmly loaded the gun and BANG! Bubble let out a short squeal and fell to the ground.
GATE! EVERYBODY GRAB A LEG! NO CHRISTINA, LET THE BOYS! DRAG HER OUT, QUICK! SOMEONE MAKE THE GUN SAFE! BUCKETS, GET THE BUCKETS!
Bubble was dead within seconds of being shot, but the muscles in her legs continued to thrash violently, making it tricky to grab on. Squeak barely noticed that anything had happened. She was eating acorns while we were outside the pig pen, holding Bubble still and collecting the blood from Bubble’s jugular, both to drain from the carcass and to use for blood sausage later. The four guys loaded the pig on to the back of the trailer and drove her around to the front of the barn to hang in the gallows. “You alright?” Lyndal asked as we walked across the warm, sunny field, back toward the barn. “Yup. Just a little adrenaline-y” I said, as that was the only way I could describe it. Watching Bubble get shot and collecting the blood was uncomfortable. But after that, the pig stopped being a pig and became a carcass.
After the pig is killed and before it’s butchered, it has to be either skinned or scalded to remove the hair and then gutted. Otherwise we would have hairy bacon and our tenderloins might smell like poo. If a farmer is going to sell the meat, slaughtering, scalding and gutting must be done at an abattoir. Since this meat is for personal consumption, it can be done at the farm.
The boys took Squeak to be scalded in a bathtub full of hot water while us girls skinned Bubble, who was too big to fit in a tub. Using a skinning knife and starting at her ankles, Lyndal and I carefully cut the skin away from the fat and meat. This took about an hour and required intricate knife work since we didn’t want to damage the meat or puncture the belly, where the organs were held. When we got to the head we stopped, cut a circle around the head, and removed the head and the skin from the rest of the animal. This went into a wheelbarrow to bury in a hole.
Next, a line was cut down the center of the body to expose the organs. Not going to lie, this was the disgusting part. It smelled like hot poop. Because it was hot poop. Most of what is inside the pig is a gigantic large intestine that looks like a very full balloon, about to explode. Lyndal asked me to press against said warm, gigantic poo balloon to keep it from falling out. This way, she could remove the organs that she wanted to use for pate and terrines. I stepped to the side and gingerly put one hand on the large intestine.
“No, I mean really hold it,” she said.
So I lifted the other hand and leaned into the sack. Am I going to barf? No, you’re not. We’re cool. You got this. FUUUUCK that smells bad. Oh my god. Stop being a baby. But my finger is sliding in. And if it explodes… A few minutes later we were done. It didn’t explode. The mass of intestines slid into the wheelbarrow. It was bad, but the impending shit storm never came.
Shortly thereafter the boys returned with Squeak. We compared pigs, shared about what each technique required, cleaned up and collapsed with a glass of wine and a plate full of cassoulet, made from last year’s sausages.
To get ourselves warmed up for the Day 2, day of marathon butchering, Zach and I had watched Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Pig in a Day, a DVD about butchering and preparing cuts of meat. The DVD was an hour an a half. While both instructional and exciting, it turns out they skipped some parts.
The first step to turning our two pigs into pork was to saw the pigs in half down the middle and then in to quarters so that they could be carried into the house where they would be butchered into cuts of meat. They skipped this part in the DVD. This first step took two hours. I was pretty bad at sawing. The handle got slippery with pig fat and it was a very awkward task, moving in and out of the gutted body cavity, but I tried. Zach picked up where I fell short. (Thanks, Zach!) I do think that we will raise and butcher our own pigs, but I am also keen on getting a fancy electric saw to make the job a little more bearable.
Once inside, we were set up so that Zach and I each had a half a pig and Lyndal had two halves. She would demonstrate on one half and we would watch, then we would each make the cuts on our pig. After staring at my pig for a few seconds, I had a Eureka! moment, “OOH! I think I found the tenderloin!” I did a little dance and pointed at it, nestled next to the ribs. I was very proud of myself for recognizing it from the DVD. “Cool, cut it out!” Lyndal told me. What? Stop. These pigs are their livelihood. They will provide meat for the next year, and here she is telling me, a totally inexperienced non-butcher, to go cut out one of the most prized cuts of meat. Just go do it. You’ll be fine. If you need help, just ask. That is kind of how they run things around here. They trust us to do a good job and to ask for help when necessary. It is wonderful to be trusted, but I often feel like, Who? Me? Do that? Okayyyy…. Which is exactly how I felt as I carefully cut away the connective tissue that held the tenderloin in place.
We cut tons of bacon sliced noisettes, deboned hams and removed ham hocks. We trimmed cuts from the belly and back and rolled them up for roasts, butterflied loins that would later but stuffed with pate, and cut up bits for stir fries, stews, and sausages. They butcher for the cuts of meat that they like to eat, which meant no chops and no ribs. Because they had not had good ribs. Okay, fair enough. But I make good ribs. So I took on making convincingly good ribs and Lyndal let us butcher them out.
This went on until both carcasses were gone, which was about 7pm. The sun had gone down and the foot and a half tall piles of bacon were threatening to fall over. Cutting boards and piles of fat littered every imaginable surface and each of us just stared at each other, knives dangling beside us, totally exhausted. Time to call it a day.
I by saying that this experience was intense and challenging. Carrying a quarter of a pig, or sawing through bone requires strength and the tiny knife work it takes to debone a piece of meat requires focus. It is no wonder that I was wiped out at the end of each day. I just had no idea how much work went into making something as commonplace as bacon. Just throw it in the pan, right?
We feasted on plates of huge ribs, mashed potatoes and Caeser salad. After a few bites, Lyndal pointed at her bone and said. “I like these.” Simple as that, and yet it meant loads to me. I represented Amer’ca well and won the approval of a farmer, our teacher, and fabulous chef.