My reason for being there? Butchery. Specifically, The Butchery Ltd, a butcher’s located in the Spa Terminus, an off-shoot of Maltby Street Market and where most of Maltby Street’s original traders are to be located. The Butchery’s customers have included the better-known Ginger Pig and famous chefs such as Raymond Blanc. Specialising in free-range meat from small British farms, it doesn’t just sell meat, however; it offers butchery classes in which people who are interested in where their food comes from can get hands-on with meat and learn about the right way to cut it up.
The class I’m here for is called ‘Praise the Pork, Punish the Pork’ so the meat in question is going to be that of the pig. Specifically, a saddleback pig farmed by a Mr Trumper. We know this because of the label that the abattoir has attached to the carcass which tells us the provenance of the animal (it also tells us when the animal was slaughtered, how much it weighed immediately prior to slaughter and the thickness of the fat – all of which have a bearing on the price). The label, Nathan tells us, ensures that discerning customers who want to know where the animal came from – and Nathan has a lot of customers like that – can find out.
Nathan is our butcher-tutor, an Australian with over twenty years experience in the butchery trade. Today, he’s got a class of five thirty-something blokes (two Irishmen, two Englishmen and another Aussie) who are all keen to get stuck in. I’m happy with the class number – any more, and there’s no way that one butcher could keep an eye on all of us, and the chances of much practical work would be greatly reduced. As things are, this is going to be one very hands-on experience.
First of all, the basics: We kit ourselves out in white butchers’ coats and navy-and-white striped aprons, and clad our non-cutting-hands in grey gloves that will protect them from the blades. Following this, Nathan talks us through the tools of the trade. There are four of these – the saw, the chopper, the steak knife (not the sort of steak knife you use for eating steak, but a foot-long curved blade) and the boning-knife. The latter, Nathan advises, will be the one we’ll be using most – once he’s shown us the basic ways of gripping it. There’s the pointer, in which you hold the knife as though you are using it to point at something, and the ‘murderer grip’.
Then it’s to the cold storage to get the meat. Hanging there are a variety of carcasses – Nathan also has plenty of beef and lamb – and these are all halved animals, which is how he gets them from the abattoir. In terms of the pigs at least, the guts and offal have been removed although the kidneys are still in place (the first thing we do with our carcasses is cut these off). My first hands-on encounter with the pig is carrying one of these half-carcasses to the table. It’s a heavy beast.
The five of us are split into pairs – and, as the odd one out, I found myself partnered with Nathan. Given that he is for the most part using another half-pig as a demonstration, I find myself doing almost all of the cutting, unlike the others who have to take it in turns (on more than one occasion, I’m told by one of the others that I’ve lucked out).
First off, the half-carcasses are split into three – the shoulder, the ribs/belly area and the hindquarters. The steak knife is used for most of this, with the saw being reserved only for cutting through bone.
The first of the three parts that we tackle is the shoulder. I later learn, courtesy of Hugh Flippin’-what’s-his-name’s River Cottage Meat Book, that this can be a massive on-the-bone roasting joint that would feed twenty-odd people. This, though, is not a regular joint and it wouldn’t be much fun for us if it was as we wouldn’t have much butchering to do! We need to take the bones out, turn part of this into a deboned shoulder joint for roasting and use the rest of the meat for sausages. There’s a large plastic tub into which the meat and fat for sausages is going, and it’s starting to fill up nicely. The sausage-making will come later.
The deboning is actually rather fun. Sliding the boning-knife through the meat, I hit bone and run the blade along said bone. Once completed, the finished cuts are put to one side on a counter that is soon filling up nicely with some mouth-watering cuts.
The deboning fun continues with the leg joint. The trotter and hock are separated – the former can be used for stock or gelatine, while I am sure Allison will be delighted with the latter as it can be used for brawn. The fun part of separating the hock from the rest of the leg comes with the ball-and-socket joint, which is prised apart with the sharp end of the boning-knife.
The next part involves separating one of the muscles of the rump which is sliced into pork steaks. Separating the muscle is a delicate job that gives the lie to the notion of ‘butchering’ being associated with just hacking away at something. The rest of the leg is partially butterflied and will be rolled later to make another roasting joint.
Next up is the mid-section, to which the saw is taken in a length-ways cut to separate ribs from belly. There’s only one thing that the rack of pork is going to become, and that’s chops. The trick here is to do most of the cutting with the steak knife, down between the ribs, with only the final part being done with the chopper. To be honest, I’m feeling a little nervous with the chopper and my first go is somewhat awry. Nathan tells us that we can use the saw if we like, but there are no takers for this. We all want to have a go with the chopper, and it isn’t long before the tray fills with plenty of thick pork chops.
With the belly part, we have a choice: These can become a pork belly roast (complete with crackling, of course) or bacon. With the prospect of already taking home shoulder and leg roasting joints, most of us chose bacon. Our pork bellies are thus coated in a cocktail of salt and mixed herbs before being vacuum-sealed. This will need to cure for a week, then be taken out of the bag and kept in the fridge for another week before we need to take it to a butcher’s for them to slice it – although not a kosher butcher or a halal butcher. Obviously.
It’s time for a break, and as there is to be no more knife-work a bottle of red wine is opened.
Post-break, our first task is to roll the roasting-joints, which involves learning how to properly use string to tie a butcher’s knot. My knot-work is a little rusty – I was good at this in the Scouts but that was a long time ago – and it takes me couple of goes to get it right. There’s a difference between the two joints, and that is that the shoulder is the slower roast, and when rolled it can only be distinguished from the leg by its darker colour.
Finally there are twelve kilos of meat and fat off-cuts in the sausage-tub. To this is added salt, pepper, water, thyme, sage and rosemary – the measurements for these are all in proportion to the amount of meat – and then it’s someone’s turn to mix it all up with his bare hands. And yes, that ‘someone’ is me. Then it’s to the mincer, which is kept in the cold room as the process can (slightly) warm the meat. Which is minced three times before it’s loaded into the sausage machine – a contraption with a nozzle at the top which squirts out the meat into the sausage skins (assuming they’ve been properly applied to the end of the nozzle). We all take it in turns to have a go – it’s not as simple as it looks by any means. However, it is not long before a lot of sausages are hanging in the cold room.
After this, it’s time for dinner. Rather surprisingly, it’s a beef stew that has been quietly simmering away while we’ve been busy butchering. Butchering, it turns out, gives you a healthy appetite.
Driving back to East Finchley after a long but highly enjoyable afternoon, my car is laden with over ten kilos of pork – two roasting joints (one shoulder, one leg), some sausage-meat to go in the Christmas stuffing, a vacuum-packed slab of bacon (to be sliced in a fortnight’s time), eight chops, plenty of sausages, four steaks, three trotters, two hocks, and a kidney.
Now that, my friends, was a foodie adventure to remember!