Last month I wrote a short blog piece about spending the day with a butcher.
Here is the full article from Home Farmer magazine whose ethos is simple, effective and close to my own heart:
‘Not everyone can keep a cow, but everyone can make cheese. Not everyone has a field of wheat but we can all make our own bread.’
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The Butcher’s Apprentice
‘Right, I’ve got one final job for you,’ says Miles Nicholas, head butcher at Gog Magog Hills Farm Shop, just south of Cambridge. ‘The butcher’s block needs sanding down.’ Although an apparently unglamorous job, it’s one that is deeply pleasing.
There’s something wonderfully symbolic about tossing a few handfuls of sawdust over the wood and cleansing it of the day’s detritus. In an age where technology rules, these small constants that have endured for so long are not just important, they are essential.
I was lucky enough to spend the day with Miles and the Bradford family who have been selling locally sourced produce from their farm for almost half a century.
For a long time ‘butchery’ was used as a byword for a job done badly but surely this isn’t a fair summation? Indeed, learning the skills necessary to turn an animal carcass into parts that the consumer will recognise, and buy, can take a lifetime.
‘You’re always learning something new,’ Miles tells me. ‘Different butchers do things in different ways and I find it fascinating to spend time with butchers who’ve developed their own methods. You can never know everything but you can always learn something.’
This passion and interest is keenly apparent when watching him work. It appears effortless, with an ease and fluidity that only comes with years of practice.
‘I’ve been doing this since I was fifteen. I started as a butcher’s apprentice on the bike and haven’t stopped. It was this or become a builder.’
I ask him if he has noticed a change in the attitude towards butchery. ‘Oh yes,’ he replies earnestly. ‘I used to be embarrassed to tell people what I did. Now I’m proud of it.’
And understandably so. The more time I spend watching, the more the skill and dexterity required became evident. The more it became obvious that this is an art form in itself. But couldn’t a machine do this?
‘A machine doesn’t have a sense of smell or a pair of eyes. All animals are different and we’re not just cutting them up. It’s important to touch the meat, to smell it and to look at it to make sure nothing is wrong. We are constantly checking it every step of the way.’
This is reassuring, especially considering the quality of the meat that is being dealt with here: free range, rare breed high welfare animals.
What sort of problems are they looking for?
‘Any abnormalities at all, anything that means the meat is less than perfect. Arthritis for example, or an abscess. I can see these immediately and the meat goes back. We won’t sell it to our customers because it isn’t perfect. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s essential that it’s spotted.’
I see this firsthand when I am entrusted with a boning knife of my own and an entire leg of Gloucester Old Spot pork. Any mistakes made here can cost money.
Following Miles’ lead, I follow the leg bone up until I feel a noticeable indentation - where the point of the knife is to go in. Just before I make the first cut I’m offered some valuable, and sobering, advice: ‘Follow the bone as closely as you can. Keep your fingers well out of the way. And don’t cut towards yourself.’
Having only just recovered from nearly losing a fingertip at Christmas, it was advice that went heeded.
Once the leg had been divided, the ‘H’ –or hip – bone has to come out, a fiddly task for the beginner thanks to its awkward shape. Only after five minutes of making deft little cuts, and a little help from my mentor, was it possible to get underneath it and start using the weight of the meat to ease it out.
But it wasn’t to be.
‘You see there?’ says Miles, pointing to a slight discoloration in the meat that I would never have noticed. ‘That’s what I was talking about earlier, that’s what I’m looking for. I’ll send that back.’
I’m given another on which to hone my skills and finally manage to completely bone out the leg. Pleased, I look across at Miles. He’s done four in the same time, and the bones have considerably less meat on them. Mine seems to have about a dozen sausages’ worth still left on it. ‘Don’t think I’ll be giving you a job,’ he jokes. At least, I think it was a joke.
After the pork, it’s time to move onto the beef – a colossal hind quarter that dwarfs the leg of lamb it’s next to, making it appear no bigger than a chicken leg. Intimidated by the size, it was surprising to learn that the process is almost identical.
‘The anatomy of lambs, pigs and cows is virtually the same, the only difference is the size and the number of cuts you get off each.’ Only when I see the bones in comparison is it possible to truly grasp this fact.
Feeling less confident, I stand clear and watch the expert turn this huge primary cut into joints of meat, the shapes of which gradually became familiar.
Silverside, rump, topside and leg are all neatly cut, rolled and tied with the famous butcher’s knot, another skill that appears to take much practice to master: ‘I was given a milk bottle to practice on,’ he says.
Seeing my own cack-handed efforts on the pork, I wonder if I should have done the same.
By the end of the day, I’m tired. My wrist and feet hurt and I’m in awe of the skill I’ve witnessed first hand.
With the ever-present march of the supermarkets and industrialisation of meat production constantly threatening to swallow up small, independent business, it can be a depressing thought that we might lose these expertise for good.
But as long as there are a few experts out there, and a growing army of consumers unwilling to accept pre-packaged, sub-standard meat, happy to think more closely about where their produce comes from and take advice from people like Miles, we might just be able to preserve these skills and allow them to flourish once again.