Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Finally an Answer to " Where's The Beef?"

In which the previously slaughtered cows complete their transformation into hamburgers, roast, strip loin and the like.....emphasis on LIKE.

Oh, and yes, this one has lots of raw meat in it too, in case you are squeamish about that! 

So.... a couple of weeks ago a bunch of us got together for the "jijiglex" (a.k.a. butchering) party.  It was a lot of work - amazing how much meat there is in two cows...but everyone pitched in and by 2:30 or so it was all in the bag.  Literally.

It was a wonderful cross- cultural event.  Our neighbours at the ger were very very interested in watching ( and helping!!) the "western" way of smallifying the meat ... and yes, that is the verb in Mongolian for butcher..."to make small"  I like it.

The first order of business was to check out the meat where it was hanging and sharpen the knives....

And then get the meat out of the shed and onto the heinig cart.  It was a big job.  Some of the guys really put their back into it........

...and some of them supervised!

Once the beef had been loaded onto the heinig ( cross between a yak and a cow) cart, it was time to move it 500 meters or so across the steppe.  Heinigs are big and strong and can pull the cart with ease...but they are a touch cantankerous and it seemed like a lot of work to hook one up for such a small job....so we just made do...

....and really, at the end of the day, a heinig by any other name....
Once we had the meat at the butchering station, the fun began.  Our friend Scott, a butcher in his previous life, very graciously spent the day labouring on all of our behalf.  It is soooooo wonderful to have beautiful steaks, roasts, etc. etc. all labelled and recognizable.  You have to understand that in Mongolia, not only do they not hang the meat ( making it very tough and gamey!) they cut the animal apart based on where the joints are. Essentially they just "hunk" it up...making the identifying and cooking of it pretty tough.
...although there was still some "hunking" that needed doing - getting the ribs to an appropriate size required something a little less subtle than the butchering knives our friends had brought along with them.
The knives, and the precise way they were being deployed really intrigued our neighbours.
However, in true Mongolian fashion, whenever and however they could, they jumped in to help us out.
...and really, he was just waiting for more ribs...nothing at all sinister. Promise!
The ever- increasing pile of cuts needed to be processed and we had a bevy of willing volunteers who bagged, labelled, and weighed each cut then "filed" it into its own pile so that later each person who had bought some of the meat would be able to assemble their order.

And I had to include this picture for posterity.  If you look closely at the knife you can see the name 'Jared Veloo' carved into it.  This lovely knife was made for my eldest son by my Dad and, by accident, we brought it with us to Mongolia.... and when they needed another knife for the butchering I knew that my son, a confirmed carnivore, would appreciate having his knife used by our neighbour at the ger to help get the meat to the table, so to speak.

While Jared's knife was warmly welcomed, some of the other knives were so much bigger and sharper than the locals were used to, they appeared to cause some degree of consternation and confusion.
At the end of the day, this is what it was all about.  Beautiful, grain fed, free-range beef . Well slaughtered,  well aged and, thanks to Scott and Nigel, ( ok ...and the other apprentice butchers we had on sit that day!)  tremendously well butchered!   A real rarity (read non-existent!) in Mongolia.

 So, thanks to the efforts of friends and neighbours, we, and a number of other families, will certainly be eating well for the winter. As a matter of fact,  this experience of slaughtering and butchering our own meat has so greatly impressed me that I don't think I will be going back to Safeway and their little white styrofoam trays.  I much prefer knowing where the meat came from...and you just can't beat the flavour~  

So, another example of change coming from an unexpected direction.  I seem to be getting a lot of that...here, at the end of the earth.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Horseback Adventure Begins in Earnest....

It's official.  I am an equestrienne. I mean, I must be.... I have my own saddle. That makes you a professional.... doesn't it?   Last week I decided that if I was going to carry on learning how to ride, I had better get some of my own gear so that I could set it up as I liked.  One of my friends from the ger was in town and very graciously helped me pick out a saddle at the Black Market, the largest open-air market in all of Asia and (someday!!) the topic of it's very own blog!

Here it is!!  Isn't it beautiful???  The first thing you notice about it is, of course, that it doesn't  quite look like this guy's saddle...

His, of course, is the traditional Mongolian saddle ( and yes, this photo was taken about 200 yards away from our ger which kind of makes me think we may have moved into the wild west!!...hmmmnnn..) but that doesn't mean mine isn't Mongolian.  It was, in fact, made right here in Mongolia....but to be truthful, I don't think many Mongolians would actually have bought it. It seems like they all prefer their traditional wood saddle.  Yup, it's wood.  Essentially no padding either!!  My saddle, on the other hand, ( with the addition of just a touch of memory foam!) is wonderfully comfortable and has already allowed me to really get to some truly astonishing places with some wonderful people- in comfort!

My first ride with the new saddle....a 3 hour trot being led by my lovely neighbour and horseback riding  guide / instructor really taught me a lot about the rhythm of the ride and balance.  Oh, and about the joy of posting....for three hours.  If you haven't ridden it is hard to describe really what that means.  Three hours of posting is kind of like 26 hours of hiking, or 2 hours of stair climbing, or 1,376 jumping jacks, or boot camp or .... well you get the idea.  It is about finding the  point at which your muscles are completely exhausted ...and then doing it for another hour.  Surprisingly, although I was tired at the end, the next day it was pretty much all good.

And yesterday, with a little help from my friends, using the balance that I learned on the three hour trot, I even progressed to the point where I can make my horse do pretty much what I want...start, stop, slow down, speed up (well...to a trot so far - haven't had the guts / practise? yet to work up to a canter or a gallop!), go left, go right, cross the river ( HOORAY!! that was a tough one!)  or even just walk fast!!  I felt very chuffed about it all!  Mostly because there are just so many wonderful spots to explore on horseback here and with every step I make toward being able to ride alone more and more spectacular opportunities arise!
The view from the top of the hill!  Yesterday was the first time that I got to the top of anything without being on a lead and having a Mongolian guide drag my horse up the slope.  Lovely knowing how to make that animal go!  And stop - after my horse bolted a half a kilometer or so across the steppe the first time out, I am particularly pleased about knowing how to make it stop..... just sayin'.

Me, along with one of the girls in my group yesterday and my neighbour at the ger acting as the guide for our ladie's horsback riding morning.  Once a week we head out to the countryside to go horseback riding, hiking, sightseeing, or just plain relaxing by the river.  Some ladies ride for two hours, some for one, some for twenty minutes.  We have been at it since the first week of September and everyone, so far, is loving it!! Especially me  - which is good really, because I set up the riding group as a clever way for me to get the chance to go riding on a regular basis.  Completely self serving.  But fun!

Yesterday we went up hill and down dale ( so steep we had to lead the horses..!!!) crossed the river several times, ambled through the beautiful greenery beside the river, and just generally thoroughly enjoyed the ride!

And while it is true that sometimes in Mongolia with the crazy, busy life that we all seem to live you often don't know if you're coming or going, somehow when you are out on horseback, it all very nicely gets put into perspective.
 ...Speaking of perspective...
 And yes, that is me out on the steppe with a ger in the background - my first day with my new saddle.  The adventure has begun.   Again.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Meat, the Old-Fashioned Way.

Recently I had the pleasure (well....not technically pleasure) of witnessing the traditional age-old Mongolian / Khazakh method of animal slaughter.  And yes, that is what this blog is about....soooo, if you are squeamish or the like, I really ( no...really) suggest you don't read on. I have tried to keep it tasteful ( please...pardon that pun!) but some of the photos that follow will likely offend some of you. Sorry , but I think it is more important to show all of  you who are used to finding steak in the meat section of Safeway, nicely wrapped in styrofoam and plastic, how it really comes to be on your plate.  Plus, I think a look at a practise that has formed the backbone of  our food chain for thousands and thousands of years might put a little of the modern world into perspective.  Chances are, if you yourself have never killed an animal and then eaten it, your parents or grandparents certainly have.  And every other antecedent back to the dawn of time....or you wouldn't be here now.

So, let's begin.

How do you kill a cow in Mongolia is the first question.    Well, our cow killing adventure started when one of the neighbours at the ger asked us if we would like to buy one of his cows as he had four to slaughter for meat and his family couldn't possibly eat that much...besides, he needed the money! When he agreed to hang the meat for us - a process which is essentially not practised in Mongolia at all...making all the beef you get here very very tough , we jumped at the chance.  And not only us, many of our friends expressed and interest and so, in an effort to raise some funds for charity, we opted to buy a second cow as well, and sell it to  our friends.

First things first though - when you want a tender steak, here at the end of the earth, the first thing you have to do is choose the cow, catch it and tie it up....

...and then....
..... wrangle it over to the killing spot.  Seriously.  They have a killing spot.  As it turns out, it is exactly where they usually make a large bonfire whenever they cook outside.  That way, the blood is contained in one spot and is burnt away with the next fire.  Makes sense really, when you think about it.

The logistics of killing such a large animal are pretty daunting. Fortunately, the cattle are used to being handled and so once you get them where you want them it isn't too hard (well, I guess I should say it didn't look too hard) to tie their front legs together.  That done, the next step is to take the lead rope and wrap it around the cow's nose ( muzzle?), back to its midsection and then using physics.....
...and a great deal of muscle power, the cow is downed.

Actually, the cow didn't much seem to mind the downing part...however, I am pretty sure she wasn't too keen on what came next.

And yes, I do have a multitude of seriously bloody shots of what came next, but, in the interest of decency I am going to move on to what I think is really the most interesting aspect of this story.
First of all, it was a whole neighbourhood event.  Several people came around and helped, or just watched or stopped by to chat as the work on the cow progressed. A social occasion.  And pretty clearly a normal part of the fabric of their society.  No one was shocked or amazed -- I take that back -- they were all kind of shocked and amazed that I was taking photos...but not by the killing or skinning that was happening.
And that includes the littlest of the little ones.  This is what it means to grow up a country kid in Mongolia.  For all those of you who grew up as country kids elsewhere, it probably is not at all surprising.  
She's been seeing animals slaughtered her whole life.  She knows for sure that steaks don't come in plastic wrap from Safeway!
...and there was lots of fun to be had by wrapping yourself up in the lead rope they  had used on the cow...
We were very lucky to have a couple of vets on site to supervise the slaughter and skinning and gutting - oh, and to do an autopsy as well to assure us that the animals were, in fact, as healthy as they had looked. The dogs were remarkably well behaved as well...they just waited in the wings until someone threw them a scrap.

One of the necessary jobs was keeping other cows away from the site.  They were, unsurprisingly, not all that keen about us butchering one of their own.  Either that  or they were just curious.  We didn't let them get really close enough to figure out which one it was.

In the manner of a well scripted ballet, as soon as the intestinal sac was extracted, enter the women...stage left.

A small and beautiful moment I caught on film (such as it is...).  I noticed our neighbour cutting off a small piece of the tail of the cow and twisting it into something like a piece of string which he them whirled into a slip knot.  I guess he realized I was wondering what he was doing, so , as he tucked it into his side pocket he explained.  "This was my cow.  I keep a piece of each animal that I kill.  I keep them together in my ger." Throughout the entire process to this point, he had been very business like.  His eyes, as he told me this, however, were full of emotion.  I realized then that this had been a cow he had likely seen or helped deliver and "known" for years. And he had just killed it.  Very tough guy.
And speaking of tough guys, I looked up to see our other neighbour walking the next cow over to the killing place....on a leash.  Like a dog.  A very big dog..and powerful.  Another tough guy.
Winded and sweating..but victorious.  He had got the animal to where it needed to be. I found it very interesting that they didn't want to kill the cattle close to where they would be hung, although it made epic sense to me.  I mean, that way, you don't have to move the meat very far once you have it ready to hang..but to them, the most important thing was that the bleeding happen at the place where the bleeding is always done.
Something eerie about moving the remains of one animal out of the way so you can get to the second one...but the heinig cart was a life saver!
Meanwhile, the little one is learning from her mama and her grand mama....oh and licking her hands...yes, she was just playing with the guts....good for the immune system!!
I LOVE this shot.  The chain of womanhood stretching back to the beginning of time..and, it looks like, all the way to the future too.
But...just because you do it, doesn't mean that you like it!!
And we (the expat photographers!) weren't completely useless.  We want to tan up the hides and use them as well, so salt was in order to help keep them until we can find someone to process them.
We hooked the vet up to the heinig cart and worked together to pull one cow across the steppe to the hanging shed (the other one rode in my car..but that, dear reader, is another story!!) and then to the eternal amusement of our Mongolian friends, proceeded to hang the meat up to age.
So, here we are surveying the future steaks, roasts, and burgers.  Hmmmnn.. can't see any styrofoam anywhere.

This is the "cool room"... also known as some body's house...somebody who has left for the winter and doesn't mind us using it as meat storage...

This is what beautiful, freshly killed meat looks like.  A real testimony to the work that it really does take to keep a family fed...when there are no grocery stores in the area.

So, at the end of the day here we are with the guys who did the work.  And work it was!!  This is a very labour intensive process- and not without emotional burden.  No one likes killing, even when you know it is necessary.  I have tremendous respect for these guys. They worked very, very hard, and I feel blessed, really, to see first hand and close up one of the threads of society that has, for thousands of years, made up part of the tapestry of life.  

Ok, that was dramatic.  But it was how I feel.