Confessions of a converted meat-eater

I ATE a roast beef dinner this week. Very good it was too.This may not seem extraordinary to most of you, but to those who know me personally it will come as a startling confession.

I ATE a roast beef dinner this week. Very good it was too.

This may not seem extraordinary to most of you, but to those who know me personally it will come as a startling confession. A shock. An unexpected baring of the soul.

For eight years – long enough, so I'm led to believe, for every molecule of my body to be recycled, or "cleansed" – I have been a vegetarian.

Not, I admit, a veggie of the strictest kind because I never gave up eating fish. (And you'd be surprised how much scorn that can bring you – even from folk who are quite happy to guzzle the foullest animal products themselves.)

But from the summer of 1995 until a few weeks ago my diet was strictly meat-free.

Now, maybe once a week, I will indulge with pleasure in a piece of beef or lamb. And I feel both these decisions – to give up meat, and to start eating it again – are worth public scrutiny.

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Both decisions, as it happens, were made in France. The first occurred on a press trip to Strasbourg, where I became bloated, and revolted, by the sheer quantity of muscle and fat that was dumped on my plate, meal after meal.

But that disgust was only the last of several factors. And though my eating habits have changed, my essential outlook has not.

Human beings evolved to eat meat – as much as our ancestors could hunt, but nowhere near as much as the modern Western economy can farm.

It's a bit like sugar. We like it because it's good for us, but efficient factory methods mean we can now indulge so much it's bad for us. And because we can, we do.

One of the least palatable facts of modern life is that the average American always has several pounds of undigested beef in their guts.

Not very nice. Not very good for them either. Maybe not very good for the cattle – and certainly not for the buffalo who use to live on the prairies where the cattle ranches are now.

It may be too late for the buffalo. But, I reckoned, it wasn't too late for me to clean my system out.

And it may not be too late – if we're very lucky, and very good – to rid the world of the horrors of factory farming.

And before I'm accused yet again of being anti-American, let me point out that Europe is not much better, and in the evils of exploitative agri-business may actually be worse.

The Germans, the French, the Dutch, the Danes, the Italians eat enormous quantities of pig meat. But travel through those countries, and how many pigs do you actually see? It makes you wonder what kind of conditions the creatures live in, doesn't it?

And then came another trip to France this summer, and my vision on the road to Autun.

There, in the idyllic fields of Burgundy, were cattle. Not massive anonymous herds as you sometimes see here, but cattle in small family groups.

It was the sight of a Charolais family – bull, cow and calf – quietly grazing together under a leafy chestnut tree that gave me pause.

This was farming as it used to be, and as it should be. These were not units on a production line, but individual animals with a life worth preserving.

And the bottom line was this: If people stopped eating beef, these lovely beasts would simply cease to be.

My filet de Charolais under the cathedral wall at Autun the next day confirmed the suspicion that a happy cow makes good beef. Very good beef.

And so my new resolution – not to avoid meat entirely, but to eat it occasionally and choosily, as I think we all should.

I won't support the mechanical nightmare that is the fast-food industry. I won't eat pig in any form, or chicken, unless I can be certain it's genuinely free-range.

But I have been assured by someone who knows, and who isn't part of the propaganda corps, that if you stick to lamb, or British beef, it will have grown up in a field, not a factory. And that's good enough for me.

On the other hand, I've belatedly given up cod because of over-fishing. I steer clear of tuna unless it's reliably certified dolphin-friendly. And I have regretfully given up sea bass since I learned of the thousands of dolphins that die in the bass-fishermen's nets.

A society that makes it easy for so many to over-indulge also makes it possible to make decent choices.

Mint sauce, anyone?