Whiskey and Lace: A Vegetarian in Sheep Country

This is another guest post from Tripper, Joya. Here she recounts what it was like being a vegetarian staying with a local hunting family on the North Island of New Zealand - a true experience of cultural exchange... 

The air is fresh and cool but with a hint of must, the kind you're likely to find in your grandmother's attic. It is quiet with the stillness of the country and filled with sounds that have gradually, in delicate increments, become white noise.

The man of the house, "Boss" as they call him, is coming in form an afternoon ride with the new pony in tow. He's been out near the West Gate, scouting spots for tomorrows pheasant shoot. 

The tinkling of old china sparkles inside as a collection of spoons and sugar bowls from the motherland go about their business, and the distant hum of a tractor softens the spaces in between.

The tea is dark and rich, English Breakfast of course, turned to candy with a pour of milk from Harry's stock down the track and several grainy cubes of sugar. Tea, you learn, is never to be served without "bickies" and vise-versa. They're homemade shortbread that don't pretend to be anything but butter, kept in an old tin that has served witness to decades of meaningful conversation and farm gossip. A lace doily lines the bottom. It quietly occurs to you to be pleased to have been party to some of these, if only the latter - and who's to say the house cleaner's marital problems aren't more important than this month's wool price? The doily absorbs all.

Shall we go ask the Boss how the pony's doing with her bridle?

In the middle (and yet still on the edges) of a crowd in constant motion, you search the room for an abandoned corner or space by the fireplace. Unsuccessful, led practically by the hand, you are introduced to men of all ages, dressed in waistcoats and breeches with tasseled socks pulled up to their knees. One even has today's sacrifices printed all over his designer knikerbockers.

They drink whisky, mostly. The room sounds warm, roars of rosy-cheeked laughter rise above the kindly din of camaraderie. Today's shoot was a success, and we are all being rewarded. On the way to the estate one of the guests bought a stag from a man in a pub, and the English spaniels share a leg for all the restraint they've shown today.

Inside though, everyone prepares for a feast of a much more refined creation. The table is set, and the first course comes out. Servers present delicate plates of baby greens, goat cheese and cherry tomatoes. You try to build up courage with wine, but the dread is distracting. You know what must come next.

You smile into the salad, answering kind questions about home and country, love and travel. You pray both that it comes up, and that it doesn't. What to do either way? A gracious gentleman across the table invites you to stay in his summer home by the sea. Perhaps they are overly charmed by your exotic accent and strange clothes.

At last it comes out, a display of herbs and potatoes on an elegant plate considerably larger than its contents. Juice, tinged red, runs innocuously as the plate is tilted, smoothly blending animal and vegetable. The shape is undeniably handsome, the layers of flesh changing color and consistency as they get closer to the bone, a tibia centerpiece.

This celebrated slice is the heart of this room, this community, this country. It is the subject of conversation and the foundation of friendships and feuds. To call it mere food would be an insult to an entire way of life. But how to eat it?

Looking around the lively table, faces show you that they are melting chocolate in their mouths at this very moment, when you must palate succulent, gelatinous sheep.

A bit is rudely sliced from its place of origin. A bite. Your tongue avoids it without instruction, but chew you must. Supple and soft is dissipates quickly, suddenly swallowed. Triumph! And what a surprise: it only tastes like lamb.

But that is enough.