Surely it’s easy enough to be a butcher? Chopping up bits of meat all day – how hard can that be?
Ah, but there’s more to it than that. Much more! Let me explain a little bit about the ancient and venerable craft of butchery ... a craft that is disappearing fast, incidentally, as more and more places switch to faster, cheaper machine cutting.
There are two main ways to become a butcher. You can start working in a butcher’s shop and basically learn on the job, over a few years, or you can do an official apprenticeship. We run our own independently audited Apprenticeship Scheme here at Donald Russell, because we believe strongly in keeping the skills of traditional butchery alive. Our apprentices – both male and female - learn by doing a series of modules over about three years, under the watchful eye of Master Butcher Sandy Wyllie, and end up with a recognised SVQ qualification.
Before you even think about chopping meat, a butcher needs to learn about hygiene and Health & Safety – safety is obviously of the highest importance in a trade like butchery. You need to study the anatomy of the animal – for instance, where the bones and the different sets of muscles are, as well as all the different internal organs – for each of the many animal types found in your average butcher’s shop.
You have to learn how to select a good carcase, by looking at the conformation (the shape of the animal), the weight, the fat covering, a good level of creamy marbling and a nice firm texture to the meat. How the animal has been reared is important, too – for instance, grass-fed beef will always taste better than grain-fed. Once you’ve got a good bit of meat, you then need to mature it, so that the flavour deepens and the texture becomes more tender. Maturation is practically a science in itself – each cut takes a different length of time, under strict temperature and humidity controlled conditions, and it can take years of experience to judge the moment a cut is at its delicious best.
Then there’s the basic knife skills – these take many years to master completely, so most butchers would start on the easier flank or shoulder cuts before working up to cutting a fillet steak. As well as getting the knife to do exactly what you want it to (no mean feat when you’re boning out a roast or cutting the perfect chop), you have to develop an eye for weight. Our expert butchers are so experienced that they can tell the weight of a steak to within just a couple of grams before they even put it on the scales. That’s right – as well as cutting by hand, we hand weigh everything too!
You have to learn about all the many different ‘cuts’ of meat – where they are in the carcase, how to separate them cleanly from each other – and which bits you simply don’t want to eat! You need to be able to ‘feel’ for the right place to cut and to know which direction the grain of the meat is running in – cutting ‘with’ the grain rather than across it will always lead to tough meat.
You need an interest in food, too – until you know how things taste, and whether a cut works best slowly braised or flash fried, you won’t be able to get the most out of it. Your interest in texture and flavour has to extend even further if you want to go into making sausages, burgers, meatloaf and all the other goodies that come straight from the butcher’s shop.
All this takes years to learn, especially if you don’t believe in cutting corners and are passionate about quality, like we are here at Donald Russell. Believe me, no matter how long you practise the craft of traditional butchery for, you never stop learning on the job!
All the best,
PS. I’m always happy to answer your questions. Want to know more about traditional butchery skills? Need some advice on a certain cut? Want to know how I’d recommend cooking it? Just get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org, or give our advisors a ring on 01467 629666. Here at Donald Russell, it’s all part of the service!