Friday, 1 May 2009

The Cheap Eats - Buying meat in a credit crunched climate

I recently wrote a piece for a regional magazine here in the UK about how tighter budgets don’t necessarily mean that we have to shelve our ethics when it comes to buying meat.

Here it is. Comments and thoughts appreciated.

With consumers having to tighten their purse strings thanks to the economic downturn, many of us might be tempted to head towards the budget aisles of the supermarkets and start filling our trolleys with meats of dubious origin in order to make savings.

Of course, thanks to Hugh and Jamie et al we know about the plight of the ‘three-quid’ chicken and continentally raised pork. But when it comes to the bottom line, many of us are hampered by simple economics.

But the answer doesn’t necessarily lie at this end of the market and the good news is that we don’t need to temporarily shelve our principles in order to enjoy meat on a budget. There is, in the words of chef Fergus Henderson – advocate of a more holistic ‘nose to tail’ approach to meat cookery – a world of delights ‘beyond the fillet’.

Before you switch off entirely, we’re not talking about offal here, although liver, kidneys and their ilk remain a very cheap option for those that aren’t squeamish about such cuts. The answer instead lies in the ‘forgotten cuts’ that for so long have been unfashionable but are making a swift and timely return to the fore.

‘There is some wonderful meat that is so cheap it is almost unbelievable,’ says Miles, head butcher at Gog Magog Hills Farm Shop. ‘For a while it has been hard to sell, but we’re finding that they are getting more and more popular.’ They are the cuts whose very names evoke an earlier age of cookery and thrift, ones that perhaps your grandmother would have made the most of.

Kevin from Andrew Northorp Butchers on Mill Road agrees: ‘The one cut we’re selling a lot of is pork belly, people love it and we’re selling more than ever. Brisket is brilliant as well, it makes a great and economical pot roast.’

Pork hand, cheeks (both pork and beef), beef shin, and chicken thighs are also all ideal for a credit-crunched menu. And what’s more, as well as being staggeringly cheap, they are supremely delicious: far tastier than fillet, loin or chicken breast in many cases.

Although they may lack the convenience of the more familiar pieces of meat – you certainly can’t cook beef cheeks as you would a fillet steak – they invariably lend themselves to near effortless slow cooking, a process as close to culinary alchemy as it is possible to get without donning a wizard’s hat.

The animal perhaps most synonymous with this time of year, though, is undoubtedly lamb and that too has no shortage of cuts ideal for those looking to cook on a budget. Lamb neck makes a better curry than almost any other meat and, left on the bone, adds an unsurpassed flavour and richness that lends itself beautifully to spiced dishes. Perhaps slightly more unusual is lamb breast which is the cheapest cut on the animal. Similar to pork belly, it is delicious rolled around rosemary and garlic stuffing and slow roasted.

Although they may be hard to find at the supermarket there are many excellent butchers throughout the region (see for more details) that would be delighted to talk you through these wonderful pieces of meat that are well worth hunting out for both economic and culinary reasons.


rich (them apples) said...

Spot on - very good article.

I'm cooking a lot at the moment with cheaper cuts, especially pork. Belly is cheap and utterly delicious.

I had a wonderful piece of beef brisket the other day too...the way the butcher had rolled and tied it was a work of art, and the meat was marbled with fat. It just bubbled away with no effort from me for a whole afternoon and then fell apart when I snipped the string. About a tenner's worth of meat fed all four of us, with plenty left for stealing from the fridge late in the evening.

Beef shin also - my 'go to' meat for any kind of long slow casserole involving beer and dumplings.

Angry Brit said...

Great article. I love going to the butcher. I love the personal touch they give us. I asked a butcher in Switzerland for beef bones once and he looked at me like I was crazy. He sawed them into pieces and charged me 1 Swiss franc for them (less than a dollar). It was so clear that he was doing it just to humour me, but I appreciated the effort on his part.

The Ample Cook said...

Unfortunately we have now become a nation of ignorant people who do not have a clue about cuts of meat and how they relate to an animal. They think all meat comes in a plastic white tray - and all they buy are the prime cuts: chops, steaks etc. Offal isn't even on the agenda.

Really good article.

Ollie said...

Terrific article, Alex. You're absolutely right: one of the best things about the recession is that it encourages people to eat the more unusual cuts. Brisket's great; I also love lamb breast and pig's trotters, and they're never more than a few quid.

Just Cook It said...

Rich - Thank you very much. You're so right. Cheap and darn tasty, what's not to love?

Angry Brit - I love it when you find a butcher you can have a bit of banter with as well as absorb their knowledge. Great story

Ample Cook - I totally agree, a very sad state of affairs. Thank you for the kind words

Thanks very much, Ollie. I have a nasty feeling that prices of these cuts are going to start creeping up though. The lamb shank effect...

Ryan said...

Ah, to have a local butcher. Great piece!