National Butchers’ Week, 10-16 March 2008

This post is an exhortation to go out and support your local independent butcher, not only this week but every week. Even if you are a vegetarian!

Independent butchers have been going out of business in the UK at the rate of nearly 23 a month since 2000 (Daily Telegraph). Supermarket competition, the effects of various food and farming scares (e.g. foot and mouth), public squeamishness about where meat comes from, and ignorance about what to do with it, are just some of the factors leading to this decline.

The public have become so disassociated from the source of their food, that many children don’t know that bacon comes from pigs. The majority of Britons only seem to want to buy cling-wrapped boneless, skinless fillets; anything that will stop reminding them that it came from an animal. What happens to the rest of the animal? It ends up being disguised in processed foods (e.g. the notorious ‘turkey twizzlers’) so they don’t realise they’re eating it.

The concept of nose- to-tail eating is so alien in Britain that it has become an eccentric niche among restaurateurs. This must mystify other cultures, such as the Poles, with their national dishes of flaki (tripe soup) and golonka (pig knuckle). The French of course have their salade landaise (with gizzards), andouillette (tripe sausage), joue de porc (pig’s cheek) and Jacques Chirac’s favourite tête de veau (calf’s head). It’s not cranky – it’s part of the patrimoine. And it’s less wastefull!

It was thanks to the immigrant communities that I was well served by butchers where I used to live in London. It was these groups that still had a ‘food’ cultural identity – and that still knew how to cook. As they were often in low-paid work, they also had to know how to make the best of cheaper cuts of meat. If there’s anything I miss about London, and there’s not much, it’s the diversity of food culture in the local shops (forgetting ‘food mile guilt’ for a moment, of course). No fresh coriander or kafir limes in darkest Kent!

However, it was hard to find a butcher that wasn’t halal (to which some people object on grounds of cruelty) and difficult to find pork outside the supermarket at all… it’s lamb sausages only, in Little Beirut (my name for the area – though by the time I left it was transforming into Little Mogadishu).

My butcher doesn’t only sell meat. I can do a large part of my weekly shop there, in fact: fruit and vegetables, eggs, a good range of smelly cheeses, milk (in a returnable glass bottle), frozen veg (sold by weight) and ice-cream, preserves, leaf tea and coffee beans, biscuits and cakes, and bread (including organic) baked off from frozen on the premises. Although I mainly make my own bread now!  For what it sells, I don’t find the groceries more expensive than elsewhere.

When it comes to the meat, my butcher is definitely more expensive than the supermarket – but I don’t feel the comparison is fair. What it sells is better. If you don’t care about quality – or can’t tell the difference – then you may as well shop at a supermarket. But I think you should care about what you put inside you, and I’ll bet you can tell the difference.

The first time I roasted a chicken bought from my local butcher, I had a mini-epiphany. It was the first chicken I’d eaten in a long time that had tasted of chicken. The one I cooked last month, just as delicious, cost £7. True, it’s twice as much as a supermarket chicken, but worth the extra money both in terms of better taste and a lighter conscience: it was a free range chicken, and hopefully the farmer got a proper price for it. Particularly now I live as neighbours with farmers (in the general sense – not this particular supplier) I don’t want to rob them of their livelihood.

At that price meat changes from a staple to a luxury. But isn’t it better for us, and for the environment, to eat meat a little less often? I won’t start a diatribe against the cheap meat brigade here – suffice to say that having spent £7 on a chicken I used every last bit of it, oysters and all. I used the bones for stock, I got every last bit of flesh off with my fingers and used it in soup, and I fried onions in the delicious fat left in the roasting pan. It fed me all week.

And as for the beef, which my butcher hangs on the bone for three weeks in the cold room out at the back (he gave me a peek) … it’s as tender as anything. I treated myself to a little slice of fillet steak (the beauty of the butcher is that you can buy the portion size that you want to eat, not what the supermarket thinks you should eat). I confess I like my steak so rare it moos, but even at restaurants I’ve never had a cut so tender.

When I used to buy packs of stewing steak at supermarkets, I was so disappointed with the meat that I stopped buying it. It was tough, chewy and gristly. I bought some stewing steak here recently, as the Wine Girls were coming down to visit, and the pieces cooked beautifully – meltingly soft. The beef here comes from the local cattle market and – if I ask – I can find out exactly which farm it came from. Unlike some supermarket beef, which comes from Brazil.

The other good thing about a butcher is that you don’t feel afraid to try something new. There is a wider range of cuts (I don’t remember seeing oxtail at my old Tesco). I would never have known how good rabbit was, had I not bought one on impulse (it’s very cheap for such a tasty meat). If you don’t know one end of an animal from another (and I’m pretty vague) your butcher can advise which cuts are best for which dishes or suggest a cheaper alternative.

So if you are lucky enough still to have an independent butcher, please support him or her. Even if you don’t eat meat, consider buying your eggs there. If you have already lost yours, find out where there is a good one near you and treat yourself to some proper meat. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. If you find it expensive, consider the extra couple of pounds as a community investment.

One customer came into my butcher’s and asked if there was any steak meat that looked less ‘brown’ – no, said the butcher’s wife; it looks a little brown because we hang it for three weeks: if you want it bright red, you’ll have to go to the supermarket. She politely refrained from adding ‘….but it won’t taste as good’.




* * *

“The objective of the week is to encourage consumers to consider the local butcher as their first port of call for all of their meat purchases and to use the butcher’s in-depth knowledge on everything from cooking times, to cuts and menu suggestions to improve their own understanding and expand their repertoire of meats and dishes.” (Meat Trade Journal)


~ by jobes on March 10, 2008.

5 Responses to “National Butchers’ Week, 10-16 March 2008”

  1. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Chris Moran

  2. “The majority of Britons only seem to want to buy cling-wrapped boneless, skinless fillets; anything that will stop reminding them that it came from an animal”

    This is so true! Why is this? I like to think that it is because we all know deep down that killing animals is wrong. We don’t want to be reminded that the meal we are about to eat caused the death of another.

    “isn’t it better for us, and for the environment, to eat meat a little less often?”

    Absolutely! Also better for animals and world hunger.

  3. Hi again
    I’m sorry but I had to comment on something else. You said “Even if you don’t eat meat, consider buying your eggs there”

    Most vegetarians and vegans find the sight of dead animals, even cut in to small pieces, very offensive and upsetting. I think it is unfair to ask vegetarians to buy their eggs from a butcher considering how upsetting it would be to see the animal carcasses and considering this is actually asking a person to support an industry they strongly oppose.

  4. EthicalEating, I take your point completely.

    If I was vegetarian on ethical grounds (and there are other types of vegetarian), then of course I wouldn’t want to buy my eggs from a butcher. However, I don’t see being an egg-eating, milk-drinking vegetarian as a logically consistent, ethical life choice.

    Male calves (even on organic, ‘high welfare’ dairy farms) are killed at birth because they can’t produce milk. Ditto for male chicks, which can’t lay eggs. Veganism seems a much more consistent and defensible philosophy.

    If you are vegan (which I assume from your website you are), I respect your choice entirely. But if you eat eggs, you should eat chicken; if you drink milk, you should eat veal…. otherwise, you’re not vegetarian, you’re just squeamish.

    I don’t eat meat often, in fact. I certainly don’t think a meal is incomplete without it. But – call me heartless – sometimes I want to eat meat. We all have different criteria for our ethical eating choices (and I think we would agree that many people’s aren’t high enough).

    I live in an area where the (beautiful) downland landscape has been shaped by many centuries of sheep farming. It has its own bio-diversity with all sorts of rare and protected species. So when I do buy meat, I try to make choices that are consistent with preserving the landscape that I love and the economic life of the area where I live.

    But with all those farty cows, it’s a dilemma, I agree.

  5. Hi Jobes,
    Thanks for your reply. Yes, I am vegan and I agree that, sadly, a vegetarian diet still causes significant animal suffering. You say “But if you eat eggs, you should eat chicken; if you drink milk, you should eat veal…” I’d prefer to look at it as, if you don’t eat chicken you shouldn’t eat eggs and if you don’t eat veal, you shouldn’t drink milk!

    Good for you for not eating meat at every meal and for buying free range etc. It’s a start! Most people aren’t prepared to stop eating meat completely, so, for some, the most we can hope for is for them to cut down.

    With the current focus on climate change, those farts and burps could end up being what saves the cows!


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