I have always liked the idea of being a butcher. My large collection of super-sharp knives would seem less fetishistic, for a start. There always seems to be something strong and dependable about butchers – though I suppose if you haul carcasses around for a living, you’re also likely to develop a certain macabre grit. I love to know how something works – how the different parts make up the whole – and butchery allows you to simulate the engineer’s exploded view of a beast.
I am not of the opinion that anyone who eats meat should be able to kill the animals they consume; that’s far too macho and reductionist. However, I think that there is something fundamentally crucial about understanding the food we eat. In the supermarket recently, The Boy pointed to an ‘oven ready’ chicken and started clucking. Cat and I were concerned at first, but have ultimately concluded that it is important for him to know that meat comes from animals.
I know that the mornings are early; the money is average at best; the traditional high street is dying; the chances of losing a finger are marginally higher than at my desk job; and yet… I am attracted to the life of the butcher. I want to supply a community with well-reared and well-handled meat; I want to make pies and cure bacon; I want to win obscure prizes for my sausages.
I am happiest when I am learning a new skill – all the better if it relates to food. My obsessive streak is nourished through finessing repetitive actions, and it is always satisfying to share the fruits of my newly-acquired knowledge. It will be some time (possibly an eternity) before I am a master butcher, but I took the first baby steps this weekend – learning some basics at the Edinburgh School of Food and Wine’s Introduction to Butchery.
The course aims to teach transferrable skills, so there was no hacking into whole cows (which, on balance, is probably for the best). We got hands on with a chicken and a rabbit, and I was fortunate enough to take a fillet off a saddle of venison. Once the meat had been broken down and boned out, we spent the rest of the afternoon cooking it.
A fresh and crunchy chicken Caesar salad was lifted to new heights with crispy baked chicken skins (it’s so easy – scrape it flat, sandwich it between two trays in foil, and bake for 15-20 mins). The venison fillet was seared simply, brushed with English mustard and rolled in crushed toasted black pepper, coriander seeds, and dried juniper berries. Sliced thinly, and served with sautéed giroles, a blue cheese cream, and shards of crisp rye bread toast.
The highlight, though, was a ballotine of rabbit, wrapped in parma ham, stuffed with sun-dried tomato pesto, and served on a bed of fresh pasta. It really was heaven. There was wine on the table with each course (though, of course, I wasn’t partaking), and it really was a lovely convivial atmosphere.
The course was really fantastic – with plenty to keep a keen chef occupied and learning all day! I came away having learned so many techniques, and I have already been applying them to good effect at home. This is not an advert for the school – Cat gave me the day as a Christmas present (largely to shut me up about becoming a butcher) – but I cannot recommend this course and the school highly enough. They run all sorts of classes, meals, and events, and it’s a great gift for the foodies in your life! Look out ESFW; I’ll be back!