Monday, 9 March 2009

The Butcher's Apprentice

Food is a process.

Whether you are eating an apple freshly plucked from a low-hanging branch on a warm Autumn evening or munching through a Big Mac in a harshly lit McDonalds, you are taking part in a process.

An awareness of this should be essential, especially when meat is concerned.

Many of us consume meat without thinking about the full implications of the process required to transform a living, breathing animal into something we can eat.

As a result the process has become convoluted and swollen like a diseased abscess. Now consumers can pick up neatly packaged portions of meat, hermetically sealed and bearing no resemblance to the cow, pig, sheep, chicken or springbok that it was once a part of.

Spending a day learning the basics of animal butchery with a qualified expert is one such way you can restore an awareness of the link between what we eat and where it comes from.

So, that’s what I did.

I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story (full article will appear in due course, once it has been published).

A whole lamb carcass, covered in mutton cloth (meat hates being wrapped in plastic).

I learned the basics of how to butcher lamb, pork and beef but due to technical issues (ahem, did someone say 'memory card'?) only managed to get pictures of the lamb.

The tools of the trade - a boning knife and steel. Knives are sharpened regularly throughout the day. Blunt knives are far more dangerous than razor sharp ones.

Once the mutton cloth is off, the lamb starts to resemble an animal. You can see the kidneys in the foreground like two shiny conkers.

The carcass is then divided into 'primary cuts'...

...before starting to look like more recognisable pieces... this rack of lamb being french trimmed.

The completed rack which went straight into the shop's display, mere metres away, within a few seconds of this picture being taken.

A good butcher doesn't just portion up pieces of meat. Much of the day is spent expertly preparing a range of other items - hams, sausages, brines, bacon or boned shoulder of lamb stuffed with parsley, garlic and olive oil:

You don't get that in a supermarket.

So, what did I learn?

I learned that butchery is a skill, an artform, that is worthy of respect and can take years to master.

I learned that it's hard work.

I learned that there is a world of difference between production line meat of the sort that we buy in supermarkets, and rare breed, well-treated, well-hung meat that is available in butchers' shops.

I learned that butchers have a bigger range and better prices than any of the supermarkets. I came back with cheeks, trotters, tails and lamb breast. Not to mention a promise that anything else I wanted could be ordered in. Sweetbreads, tongue, beef short ribs and many other treats are on their way.

I learned (and I have the sore hands to prove it) how to do a butcher's knot (photo tutorial to follow).

I learned that the anatomy of lambs, pigs and cows is almost identical (no, really).

And finally? I learned that getting your hands dirty is an inevitable and massively enjoyable part of being a food writer.

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Anonymous said...

Wow. I could agree more with your view regrading meat. We have indeed become very disconnected from it as a culture.

Great post and awesome pics. I can't wait to read more about the experience.


Anonymous said...

Great post! Finally someone who wants to know about the truth and doesn't think meat is growing on trees as many kids do today (at least here in Germany) ;-)
I've got relatives in Hungary who live in a small village and still slaughter their own pigs and use all parts of it... tastes totally different from supermarket meat and sausages.

Olga said...

Those photos are amazing! Especially the black & white one of the hones.

Love lamb!!!

Andrew said...

Great post, and what a great experience. Interesting that the lamb, pig, and cow really weren't that different. It seems like while pigs are butchered more or less the same way nearly everywhere, beef varies pretty dramatically across countries.

Just Cook It said...

Nick - Thank you very much. I'll let you know when the piece is published.

Aniko - Thank you, I'm glad you agree. It would be wonderful to have a pig. It is something we've been thinking about. We'll just have to see how it goes.

Olga - Thanks for the kind words. Me too, lamb is a wonderful meat.

Andrew - Thanks very much. I know, I was really surprised by it - the bones that we took out were all identical in shape - only the size was different. And yes, so true about beef - there is real variation in how it is butchered.

Hopie said...

That's so cool! I'm glad you took those photos. Too bad about the memory card. I totally agree that butchering is an art form because every time I try to make the cuts myself, I just end up (excuse the expression) butchering it! I'm always impressed watching the butcher.

Simones Kitchen said...

Great post! I totally agree on the fact that people these days don't see the meat they buy in the supermarket as once belonging to an animal. I'm at the moment following a cooking class and coming saturday we will be butchering a whole chicken. Not a cow or pig... hard to find in the middle of Amsterdam...:)

Anonymous said...

My grandfather was a butcher and although I was very small, I can still remember his shop. My mother can tell a range of stories from picking up a bucket of blood from the farm to make blood sausage to helping to make pork pies at Christmas. He passed away last year and this piece made me think of him fondly and miss him just a little bit more.

Just Cook It said...

Hopie - Thanks! I know, I was so frustrated about the memory card but hey ho, you learn from these things. I'm exactly the same when it comes to cutting things up but hopefully picked up some neat tricks.

Junglefrog - Thank you. It's a great idea to teach people how to butcher a chicken. Instead of just buying chicken breasts it's fantastic if people buy a whole bird and learn how to use everything.

Angry Brit - Sometimes it is the little things that provide the fondest memories. I remember the smell of my grandfather's workshop very vividly. Glad you enjoyed the post.

Anonymous said...

I am just loving your blog at the moment. Another fantastic post. This is something that I have wanted to do now for a long time, just never got round to it. Good butchers seem like a dying breed, and I like to think that posts like this help keep them going.

I for one, never buy meat at a supermarket anymore, and wish I had stopped a long time ago.

Will Critchlow said...

Wow. Looks amazing. I am doing a similar course (just lamb) on Friday. I'll have to take photos and write it up now...

cptnfarrell said...

my only concern with this blog is that you are judging all "supermarket butchers" with the same knife. i'm fully qualified and on my way to being a master and yet i work in a super market. we provide top quality products with top quality service.From my personal experience, we have many awards for our service, innovation and creativity. It is not the shop but the staff that work in it that make it what it is. people should know that there is good if not great butchers working in there local supermarket.Putting ALL supermarket butcher's down is just wrong. the current economic climate means most butchers are leaving there jobs for work or leaving altogether. if a job is in the supermarket then leave theme be. they still provide there expertise and knowledge no matter what. so ask them and give them a chance.