Butchers to look out for

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Guest blog by Gerry Danby

Posted on: Nov 05 2012

Our guest blogger, Gerry Danby, is a barrister with a strong commitment to supporting artisan and small scale independent food producers and retailers. He writes two blogs: www.pauseforfood.com and artisanfoodlaw.wordpress.com. The former aims to stimulate thinking around current legal and policy issues which impact on artisan and small scale producers, occasionally highlighting a great producer, while the latter provides more straightforward information about food law and related matters. He's written a post about why we should all go back to our local butcher.

For everything you need to know about meat, simply ask your local butcher!

On a day when I read that 1 in 5 adults think parsnips grow on trees and hear that 76% of our local butchers, some 19,000, have closed over the last 30 years my level of despair plummets. I am neither a butcher nor grower of parsnips, but I almost wondered whether it’s not time to give up and simply hand over the shop keys to Tesco accepting, as the Financial Times put it earlier this year, that it was time to let the British high street die. That took a mere second because I don’t give up on the things I cherish, especially where food is concerned, not ever!

I long ago learned that specialist cheese shops were intimidating places from a friend who happens to run the best supermarket cheese counter in the UK, but only if you are lucky enough to live in the North West. He explained what I could not see, how specialist cheese shops were intimidating for people with little or no prior knowledge of cheese. It was simple, people don’t know what to ask for, are afraid of being embarrassed for asking a silly question and fearful they will end up spending more than they ever intended. So much so that even some of those interested will not step foot across the shop threshold. But could the same apply to my unrelentingly cheerful and ever helpful local butchers Chris and Steve? Surely not?

A recent survey undertaken by producers of Welsh lamb suggested 25% of people avoided going to the butchers and 1 in 10, especially the young, found going to the butchers to be intimidating. Reporting on these findings the BBC undertook a vox pop which further revealed how poor was the knowledge of some shoppers about basic cuts of meat, some could not even identify a lamb chop! Click here to see the basic beef, lamb and pork cuts.

We all know supermarkets try to make things easy, but anything worth having is also worth a little effort. In just about all areas we have lost our connection with food, from where it came and the journey it took to our plate. It’s a few years back that I read an article, can’t recall where now, reporting that school kids thought chickens came from the local supermarket freezer. I know that for many it does, but that’s not what they actually meant. Think about it. It’s also clear that things are very slow in changing for the better.

I am not a great advocate of shopping by logo, you know the sort I mean and there are at least 30 food assurance schemes. Some have a useful role to play but we shouldn’t get hung up about them, better to get to know the people who sell you your food. Ask questions, be curious, find out about what you are shortly to put inside yourself and draw your own judgement. So how about re-connecting with your food and start with your butcher? He or she is a mine of information and will help guide you in getting real value for money.

For those who do make the journey to their local butcher, try and avoid the natural inclination to stay in your comfort zone, sticking to what you know. Lack of knowledge or familiarity with what’s on display should not turn the experience of going to your butcher into a quick grab of a familiar joint. How about exploring those less familiar cuts? May be even, I hesitate at this point, some of those delicious meltingly rich offaly bits?

Nobody has done more for nose to tail eating than Fergus Henderson at the renowned St. John Restaurant, near London’s Smithfield Market, who is noted for his use of offal and neglected cuts of meat. There are plenty of others out there to help you too, including a growing number of food bloggers like Lucy over at OffalyGood who do a great job of showing you what’s really tasty and how to cook it, and can also arm you with a few choice questions with which to quiz your butcher. But generally speaking try questions like: What’s this? What’s that? What do you do with it? All work pretty well, most of the time.

There’s a voyage of discovery to be had which you ought not to deny yourself. And, who knows, before long you may find yourself reaching for a copy of one of my favourite cookbooks of recent times: Testicles - Balls in Cooking and Culture. It should at least bring a smile to your face, it makes a good conversation piece left lying around the kitchen and some of the same in your shopping will go a long way!

So pluck up a bit of confidence. What are you waiting for? Get in there, give the guys and gals behind the counter a big smile, engage them in conversation, go regular and give it time. No one will think you are a fool for asking a daft question, your interest is more likely to be greeted with enthusiasm and you may even make a friend for life! You will also unwittingly have become a member of The Meat Crusade!

Blandine Vie, Testicles: Balls in Cooking and Culture, 2011, Prospect Books may be obtained from Prospect Books, Allaleigh House, Blackawton, Totnes, Devon TQ9 7DL or online here.


You can follow Gerry on Twitter @pundles





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Jay Rayner

The award winning Observer Food Critic and One show journalist.

Jay currently chairs the new Radio 4 food panel show, The Kitchen Cabinet, having recently appeared as judge on Masterchef and The Great British Waste Menu, and hosted Channel 4's magazine show Food: What Goes in your Basket?

Now, more than ever, we need to know where our meat is coming from, and your local butcher is best placed to give you that vital information. There is no substitute for buying your meat from the people who sourced it. They are the ones who know how it was raised, how it was slaughtered and how best to cook it. If we lose our local butchers we lose an irreplaceable part of the food chain.

Tom Parker Bowles

Tom is a food writer and broadcaster with a weekly column in The Mail on Sunday and is Food Editor at Esquire magazine.
His books include E Is For Eating – An Alphabet of Greed, The Year of Eating Dangerously and Full English; A Journey Through the British and Their Food. He also co-presented Market Kitchen on Good Food Channel and presented LBC Radio's Food and Drink Programme.

The steady loss of our local butchers is cause for serious alarm. Just 2 months back my favourite butcher, Kingsland and Son, fell victim to a fierce rent hike and was forced to move out. The whole area is still reeling from the loss. Because butchery is both art and science. Not just in the physical act of separating different cuts from a carcass, but the wealth of knowledge any serious butcher has; where the meat comes from, how long the beef was hung, what cuts are better suited to braising than roasting. Support your local butchers. For the sake of the community, and your taste buds too.

Joanna Blythman

Joanna Blythman is Britain’s leading investigative food journalist and an influential commentator on the British food chain. She has won four Glenfiddich awards for her writing, including a Glenfiddich Special Award for her first book, The Food We Eat, a Caroline Walker Media Award for Improving the Nation’s Health by Means of Good Food, and a Guild of Food Writers Award for The Food We Eat.

We need to cherish the excellent traditional butchers who have kept going valiantly in the teeth of the supermarket takeover of our food chain. As the Meat Crusade puts it, if one in 10 of us returned to our local butcher that would be make a real difference. And if one in five of us did so, even once a week, it could start a revolution.

Brian Turner

A popular face on our TV screens, Yorkshire-born Brian’s career started in less glamorous circumstances - cooking breakfasts at his dad's transport café.

Your local butcher really cares about the meat he sells and the people he sells to. He deserves your support- let’s not lose him now.

Rosemary Shrager

Rosemary Shrager, talented TV chef and cookery school teacher, is renowned for her role on reality TV show, Ladette to Lady. Rosemary has worked for Pierre Koffman at the famous Tante Claire restaurant in London and also for super chef Jean-Christophe Novelli.

Rosemary’s TV career began with series Rosemary – Castle Cook, followed by Rosemary on the Road, both for Channel 5. She is now a familiar face on ITV, following up her Rosemary Shrager's School For Cooks series with regular appearances on The Alan Titchmarsh Show.

It is so important to support butchers, if we do not then they will go and then we really will miss them. These people know where all their food has come from, generally sourcing everything from the local area’s farmers. Support for your butcher is support for the wider farming community.