I’m right behind the Meat Crusade, the new campaign to save our high street butchers. They have been haemorrhaging of late, and not because someone’s hand slipped with the cleaver.
There were some 22,000 traditional butchers shops in Britain in the mid-90s but by 2010 there were just over 6,500. A few more will have shut up shop forever by the time you read this.
This culling of skilled butchers is not a natural survival-of-the-fittest phenomenon. The old-style butcher’s shop generally sells much better meat than the supermarket equivalent. Most of the red meat in supermarkets is of mediocre quality and pre-packed in modified atmosphere so it stays ruby red. You’ll struggle to find a properly hung, lovingly aged piece of beef there.
And if you have ever tried to get any sense, or a special cut, or even cooking advice from those people kitted out in white pork pie hats behind the supermarket ‘butcher’s’ counter, you won’t have to be a Sherlock to realise that they have neither the knife skills, training or knowledge one might reasonably expect from any practitioner of this craft.
But for younger generations of queasy Brits who feel faint at any sight of butchering in the raw, the antiseptic supermarket offering, divorced from any thing visceral that says ‘dead animal’, allows them to remain in La-La land about the origins of what’s on their plates.
High street butchers have also lost some ground to farmers’ markets, which appeal to people in search of ethical, local meat from real people. You can find some wonderful meat in farmers’ markets, but health regulations mean that everything has to be pre-packed in plastic, not the best medium for storing meat.
The farmers’ market customer also has to choose from what the stall sells, and that can be a bit of a lottery. A well-stocked butcher’s shop, on the other hand, responds to the customers needs. If, for instance, you want 300 grams of stewing lamb, you get it. In the farmers’ market, you may have to settle for a 250 gram pre-pack, or spend more than you want and buy two.
And while many producers at farmers’ markets and farm shops are great at rearing animals for meat, some aren’t quite so hot on the links in the meat chain that come after, such as the ancient art of cutting meat with the grain. Relatively few primary producers have the wherewithal to mature meat in the time-honoured way. So, however good they are, farmers’ markets stalls most certainly don’t make craft butchers redundant.
I pick up quite a bit of minced meat and chicken at the farmers’ market, but for beef and lamb, it’s off to my favourite high street butcher. He knows where his meat comes from and it is always immaculately butchered and properly hung. I can also rely on him for more economical cuts, such as oxtail, flank mutton, feather blade and shin. If I come in with a recipe that requires a special cut, and maybe some tricky boning, he isn’t fazed and neither are any members of his staff. On that front, there are six permanently employed, properly remunerated butchers, plus a cashier. It’s a small job creation scheme in itself. I doubt that the supermarket across the road is as well staffed, even though it’s ten times the size.
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.
First published on Friday 10th February on http://www.joannablythmanwriting.com