Dinant is fucking far. But it’s the only place in Wallonia to find an artisan ostrich farmer. Which is why I found myself lost at 7 a.m. on Monday morning, cursing Amélie’s 1989 Mazda (275,000 km and counting!), which, even at a full stop, trembles so furiously that reading a map is impossible without shutting the engine off. Obviously, once I got to the farm, it was instantly identifiable. Long, beaked stalks stood silhouetted against the rising sun, the fat feathered butts underneath stiffly anchored to the, uh, Belgian...savanna.
I’d been instructed to pull up to the parking lot and honk. This is when I first met Mr. Reginald Michiels, artisanal ostrich farmer. Mr. Michiels is an Ichabod Crane of a man, tall, lean, and wiry, even though by his count, he eats seven meals a day, beginning each with a liter of soup. He shook my hand gravely and, without cracking a smile, said, “Come. It’s ostrich-feeding time.”
The ostriches at L’Autrucherie du Pont D’Amour, for your general edification, are fed a mixture of froment, barley, oats, epautre, peas, corn, and luzerne. They don’t eat for the first five days of their life, but on the sixth they receive water, and on the seventh, little pebbles that settle in the first of their stomachs and serve to grind their food, since ostriches lack teeth. On the eight day, they’re given twenty grams of food, and every day their portion is increased according to a graduated system until they’re eating 2.2 kg a day at the age of nine months.
Mr. Michiels entered the pen holding a bucket of grains and a pole with a metal arc at its head. “Go distract the male,” he said. “Just talk to him, otherwise he attacks me.” Already 19 people in Belgium have died at the clawed toes of an ostrich—-Michiels has twice received phone calls from desolate wives requesting the pickup of the family ostrich, who has killed their husband. “Hi, ostrich,” I said. “Come this way, baby.” The ostrich knelt, in the awkward, broken way that camels do, and spread his wings for me, bobbing his head. “He likes you,” said Mr. Michiels, dumping grain into the trough and backing away from the female, pole outstretched. “That’s his love dance.”
It was still only 8:30 a.m., but the day would become far more bizarre. Mr. Michiels and I drove up to Flanders with two ostriches in a trailer hitched to the van. The ride lasted over two hours, which was perfect, because I had a lot of questions. Chain-smoking, Mr. Michiels answered them all, cigarette dangling from his lower lip as he spoke. The Belgian countryside, flat and pleasant, unfurled alongside: piles of resting beets, shorn cornfields, cows. The landscaped accoutrements of rural mid-October.
Michiels began his professional life as a photographer at the slanted bunker behind the citadelle of Namur. This bunker, a relic of WWII, has become a tourist attraction because, as a result of shifting ground-soil, it now skews into the ground at a grotesque angle. For twenty-six years Michiels took photos of tourists—-families on their Sunday outings, retired couples doing Belgium by caravan, honeymooners—-smiling in false surprise at the crooked angle at which they suddenly found themselves. Working seven days a week, eight months of the year, he snapped shots all day and developed the films at night. (In the winter he took long solitary horse rides in the Ardennais forests and prairies, taking off abruptly and returning an hour, or two days, or sometimes a week later, a hobby he calls ‘going off on a raid.’) After having taken over four million of the exact same picture, he realized he was sick of always being bent over and in the dark, and decided to switch careers. The choice came down to raising poisonous snakes or ostriches, and as his wife ruled out reptiles, he bought a few books on ostrich farming and five South African birds.
Things weren’t easy for the Michiels. Because, among other things, Belgium is a socialist country, twenty percent of its population works for the government, and according to Michiels, not a single one of them wanted to hear anything about ostrich farming. The red tape he wades through is extraordinary: since ostriches make red meat, the animals are considered bovines, but their feathers make them poultry, too, and the fact that they are running animals (“coureurs”) puts them in the same category as horses. This means that any health scare—-mad cow, salmonella, e. coli—-officially shuts down his production for several weeks, even if the disease in question doesn’t occur in ostriches (there’s one of these every year). The only slaughterhouse in which he’s allowed to kill his animals is 220 km away, and every time he goes there, there are eighteen documents to fill out. At one point Belgium boasted over four hundred ostrich farms (mostly in Flanders), but the bureaucratic obstacles are so difficult to surmount that only about ten remain. There’ll be one less if this year’s holiday season is slow—-le Pont D’Amour is on the brink of bankruptcy. Michiels himself has already punched in the face two bureaucrats (“c’etait folklorique!” he says of the occasion) and pulled his shotgun on another. “If a dance is necessary,” he says of his sometimes violent behavior against officials, “there will be a dance.” He rolls another cigarette and stares grimly through his smoked yellow glasses at the road ahead.
We get to the Schlachthuis (it’s Flemish, yes, but the word just looks menacing), and I’m a little nervous. I get out of the car to guide him as he reverses the trailer. “The hardest part of the whole slaughter is backing this thing up!” he chuckles. Now I’m nauseous, trembling, and I haven’t even seen a drop of blood.
We watch at least thirty cows die before anyone’s even talking about ostriches. (Skip this paragraph if you’re easily grossed out.) The cows, lumbering and obstinate, are led down a narrow corridor at the end of which a door closes behind them. A cheerful-looking Santa type shoots them in the head (he sees me watching and motions, “want to try?”), and they collapse heavily into a trough. A chain hauls them up high by one leg, and a man slashes their throat, jumping back to avoid the torrent that pours out. After the initial gush the cows dribble for a few minutes into a bath of roiling red blood, off of which steam rises. A man who looks like a serious sexual offender cuts the skins off their faces, and another hacks off their horns and hooves, tossing these into a tube like basketballs. Both legs are hung on hooks, and the carcasses are trimmed strategically for skinning. A machine is clipped to flaps of skin on the legs, and the hanging cow is peeled like a banana, the carcass bouncing back from the resistance once the last piece of skin is finally liberated from the muscle. Their bodies steam. A man cuts off their heads and hangs these in a closet, tests the brain for encephalo-bovine virus, and cuts out the tongues. He then sends the heads along on a rack, where they come to a stop once they knock into the rest of the heads at the other end. Another eviscerates them, tossing offal into a bin below. A man on a platform that raises and lowers pneumatically uses an enormous stainless-steel saw to cleave the cow in two, at which point I guess it officially becomes a side of beef. The fat, a thin coat of bumpy yellow, is removed, and the meat is sent to humungous refrigerators before being sold and sent to butchers and meat processors, and sold again and again until we eat it.
It takes about fifteen minutes and ten people for one cow to go through this whole assembly (dis-assembly?) line. It smells like warm cow in there, and the place is covered in blood, skin, and shit, but the sounds are sterile: pumps and motors and the occasional clang. The workers, all men: unashamed, professional, deeply concentrated. I noticed no disrespect for the animals, only a solemn proficiency, practiced gestures—boredom, almost.
Santa gestured: it was ostrich-slaughtering time. Michiels put a black hood on the bird’s head and led it between two metal poles, where he held its beak, shot it in the head and slit its throat. It died quietly, but spasmed for a few minutes afterwards, great two-toed legs pumping wildly, as if running away from its reality. He hung it up by a leg and cut off the head, which held a microchip he recuperates for birds not yet born. We tore at its feathers and tossed them in a bin. Some were long, with thick stalks, and others very downy, all warm. I knew the ostrich was dead, but it still seemed like a painful thing to do. Deplumed, it hung like an oversized chicken, little goose bumps in the place of its ripped-out feathers. The ostrich passed down the assembly-line of men right after the last cows (the five stages of slaughter: kill, deplume, skin, eviscerate, refrigerate). In the end, since the carcass has to be cooled for at least 24 hours, the only thing we took home with us were the skins; apparently, ostrich skin is the second most prized. Michiels would butcher that Friday, cutting filet, steak, liver, heart, brochette, and ground meat. “I’ve pushed ostrich butchering to the extreme,” he said. “It takes me five hours when others can do it in twenty minutes, but I’ll yield 32-33 kg of meat off a 95-kg beast.”
We still had a two-hour drive home. I’d been wearing a white coat, but my pants and socks were spattered in blood and soaked with water. But there’s nothing like team ostrich-killing to put people at ease with each other and make them forget petty shit. I asked Michiels about his childhood in the Ardennes. He told me about learning to write with an actual feather, dipped in ink, and taught me a few expressions in wallon patois. And, possibly the highlight of the day, he revealed his recipe for cooking porcupine, which I thought only Appalachians and southerners did. Pat it thoroughly with lots of clay mud, he said, and put the package it in the fire. After an hour, crack the clay open with a hammer or a rock. When it breaks open, the spines and skin will stick to the clay, and the viscera will be cooked and steaming. Mmmmm. Or not.
His French was very correct, even if his accent was one I’d only ever heard in parody. We engaged in a gender-role debate; for him, men and women remain biological animals: the male’s duty is to protect the female, and the female’s is to continue the race. (Even if, in his opinion, most men today are “lavettes,” dishrags.) Still, I’d rarely heard someone evince such respect for a spouse as he did for Martine-Anne. But it was when we brought up the eternal conflict between the state and its small farmers, a subject that recurs every time I talk to one, that he spoke most fervently. In 2005, new health laws take effect rendering illegal certain artisanal products, among them some smoked ham and foie gras. A task force of 220 agents (all under age 30), currently in training (“brainwashing!”) will patrol the country on the lookout for outlaws. “Repression!” spat Michiels. “They’re turning artisans into criminals. But we’ve been making these products for millennia, and we’re not going to stop now. We’re going clandestine, my friend. On rentre en periode de guerilla.” He was almost beautiful, wearing his ranger hat, cigarette still dangling, practically foaming at the mouth with militant passion: The Che Guevara of pâté de terroir. “There are going to be accidents,” he said ominously. “Some of those agents are going to get plumbed.”
When we got back to the farm Martine-Anne and he invited me to dinner; Martine was making carbonnades flamandes, a typical Belgian dish, but made with ostrich. I was delighted to accept, so we salted the skins, fed the babies, and went home. It was hard to taste the ostrich, because the beer sauce was pretty dominating, but I mean, it was all right. And then I went home and met up with Ame, which is a whole nother story. What a day.
Oh, and by the way, the head in sand thing is a myth.