Grey partridges are very complicated birds. They have a finely tuned social mechanism which allows them to form lasting bonds within their coveys, and as young chicks they learn to connect with other members of their broods so that the group becomes immediately cohesive. Nobody really understands precisely how this works, but the system is totally thrown into chaos when they are reared en masse by human beings. In the wild, a chick just has to remember nine or ten of its siblings, but under a heat lamp, they may be trying to bond with five hundred others. The experience is so traumatic that a fuse blows and they end up without any really lasting bonds at all.
As I understand it, this is one of several reasons why mass-producing grey partridge chicks in large numbers tends to result in an inferior end-product, and who knows what damage is caused to the psyche of a young bird when the intricate, mysterious strands of community and covey life are ripped out and turned on their heads. It’s no surprise that they are very unreliable breeders in later life, and while you can’t see these deficiencies “in the hand”, it’s a tall order to expect a mass-produced bird to replicate the behaviour of a wild one.
In precisely the same way, I felt every inch the yokel walking down Shoreditch High Street towards Bethnal Green on Friday night. After thirteen years away from London, the experience was like a tsunami of bright colours and garish sounds. I found myself looking into the face of every passer-by, smiling, saying “hello” and letting people go ahead of me if they felt I was walking too slowly. I was clearly out of my league and soon became something of a curiosity to passers-by. I was the grey partridge chick, and my extraordinary desire to bond or acknowledge every other human being would surely lead to the inevitable “blow-out” of my social capabilities. Friends who have lived in London for years scarcely look up at other people, and few have much of a desire to chat or make friends on the underground – perhaps this is the only way they can survive in a torrent of humanity that, while thrilling, is unnaturally impersonal and reduces humans into a single anonymous wave.
Despite being a die-hard Scottish unionist, I must confess that the place did not feel like “my” capital city in any way, and while it was an electrifying novelty, I was surprised by the feeling that I was a foreigner in a strange land. London has circled on the periphery of my vision for the past decade. It is almost no exaggeration to say that everybody I know made a beeline straight for the city on leaving university, and I found myself grudging the place if only for the fact that it drained all of my pals out of the countryside into what seemed to be one happy, wondrous cauldron of fun and money. The only reason I didn’t follow them was my abject, head-over-heels devotion to the countryside, and having been manacled to Glasgow for four years as a student, the prospect of more concrete and tarmac was too much to bear.
One of the main reasons for my visit was to take on the restaurant which describes itself as the greatest steak house in Britain. Entering into the world of cattle, I have been looking very closely into meat, butchery and cooking, and recently enjoyed some excellent lectures at the SRUC on precisely why British beef is the best in the world, even down to the fundamental nitty-gritty of chemistry and the conversion of grass into different types of fat. Forever flying a patriotic Scottish flag, I was ready to stand by the galloway and highland beef which has graced my plate in the past six months, but I couldn’t ignore the cocky claims of Hawksmoor restaurant, which swears by steak from longhorn heifers (although I did smugly note that there was some galloway beef on the menu when I was there).
Already several miles out of my league in a world where men have top-knots and don’t wear socks, the Hawksmoor experience felt as if it had come straight out of a Lewis Carroll story. I gazed at my fellow diners in open-mouthed delight as they languidly sloshed their money into the gaping tills, and although the longhorn beef really was exceptional, I was pleasantly grounded by the fact that it wasn’t much beyond the galloway meat I hope to produce in the future. Where the restaurant really shone was in the cooking – the meal provided such a masterclass in how to cook a steak that the beef itself was almost secondary, and I have returned home with the thrilling thought that the same techniques could be used to similar (if not greater) effect on the black hairy cows of home.
Preparations for the arrival of my first heifers continue, and the learning curve remains as steep as ever. My only concern at this stage is that the more fascinated I become by agriculture and food production, the fussier and harder to please I am becoming at mealtimes.