How to choose an old-fashioned butcher

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How to choose an old-fashioned butcher
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There are a few personal commercial relationships that you need for a happy successful life as a food lover: a regular restaurant that welcomes you with open arms; a supermarket to fulfill daily and weekly shopping needs; a fish shop that doesn’t actually smell of fish and a butcher who cuts meat straight from the carcass.

How to choose a butcher
Proximity is key: The butcher has to be close enough to walk or drive to. If it is too far away it’s what we call ‘destination shopping’. You need to think twice about it and when that happens you’ll end up buying somewhere else that may be more convenient but may sell meat that is not of the same quality or freshness.

Can you have a good chat with your butcher: Part of shopping for meat is the ritual of discussing your life and the life of the butcher. You’ll know when they have had a hip operation from lugging large carcasses from the cold room to the butcher’s block, when they’ve given up the red wine because their gout is at them (best not to mention that the purine in the offal they undoubtedly eat may be a contributor) and when they have a lovely piece of stuffed roast pork just the right size for your family. If you don’t chew the cud at the counter you’ll miss out. They’ll know from talking to you that you are just back from Paris and you want to make Jambon Persillé and before you can say Boucherie you’ll see them disappear into the cold room to find a pig’s trotter. (Be sure say that it’s a bit like Irish brawn if they are not a fellow francophile). A kind butcher will round down the money to make it an even tenner even though they seem to have given you more round steak than you asked for (after saying ‘it’s a bit over, is that allright’).

The cardinal rule of buying meat: If you can’t see the carcass, or at least know that it has been somewhere in the building where you buy the meat, how can you judge the provenance and quality (unless you travel to the production plant?) Meat needs to be fresh and not covered in cellophane and to live and breathe and age in the cold room. Good butchers dry-age meat as a matter of course until it feels right to sell. It’s a craft and it takes commitment – it’s not a marketing concept that you pay extra for. A skilled butcher won’t even mention it, they’ll just do it.

The craft of the butcher: The only way to judge the craft of a butcher is to see them cutting meat on their butcher’s block; notice how they only show a small quantity of freshly cut meat in their window or fridge, how they never repackage meat in plastic or slather it in bought-in sauces so you can’t see what’s underneath. (By all means buy meat and a sauce from the butcher but you need to see the meat without sauce before you buy it.) A fine butcher who is proud of their wares will cut something especially for you and mince meat to order so you can see what goes into the mincing machine.

Ask where the animal lived and what the animal grazes on: It will affect both the quality and nutritional value of the meat. A lamb that grazes on a mountain in Kerry or Mayo will taste differently from one in Meath (all splendid). That’s a good way of fine-tuning your palate and working out what meat works best in different dishes. See it as a geographical culinary journey of Ireland.

Buy in bulk and freeze good meat: It makes more sense to defrost a good piece of meat than to buy a lower-quality fresh piece. You can buy whole animals online from Ring of Kerry Mountain lamb to Achill lamb to smaller quantities of meat and even beef dripping from James Whelan. Do a search on Google and you’ll be amazed at the good value you get from buying a half or whole animal delivered to your door ready to freeze. The definition of wealth in our opinion is a freezer full of decent quality meat. If you have the space it’s worth buying a small freezer for the garage especially.

Source the meat based on provenance. Are those chicken breasts actually Irish or do you just assume that they are? Were they frozen before they began their journey to come to Ireland and defrosted and if so how old are they? These are the questions you need to ask your butcher if you are unsure. And if you are unsure enough that you need to ask perhaps it’s the time to find a new butcher?

VIDEO: HOW TO BUTCHER A COW – See the craft of the butcher in action in this BON APETIT video of Jason Yang breaking down half a cow into the round, loin, rib and chuck. Really useful if you would like to know where each cut comes from.

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