Cutting edge skills from snout to tail… and beyond
Faced with the chilled carcass of half a pig, would you know what to do with it?
Now, I consider myself to be fairly adept in the kitchen. After all, I love to cook and know most of the joints and cuts of meat. But as to where on the beast they are located and, more importantly, how you create them from a dead animal with a tail, ears and trotters… Well, I simply haven’t a clue.
So when Charles Baughan of Westaways, one of the South West’s largest sausage-making companies, asked me if I wanted to get all Hannibal Lecter on what had once been a sow (OK – that’s my paraphrase) I couldn’t refuse.
Given that when I am not reporting for this newspaper I’m also a food writer for the Foodies South West blog, I thought I’d better not pass up the chance to enrol in meat school.
And so, one blustery, wet winter’s morning I pitched up at Westaways’ headquarters in Newton Abbot to be confronted by a trio of men with excellent moustaches.
First up was Mr Baughan, who has turned what was a family butcher’s shop into a business supplying quality sausages across the UK and indeed the world.
“We export to more than 40 countries worldwide these days,” he told me.
He explained that, not satisfied with world domination in the sausage arena, his latest venture is to teach people how to prepare their own meat. He’s keen to help us get to know our food again – where it comes from and how to deal with it.
“It’s not all about relying on cellophane-wrapped cuts from the supermarket,” he explained.
Charles and I, it transpired, were to be the guinea pigs, allowing him and the firm to work out what could be done in a day when they start running butchery classes.
That was where the second man with a moustache came in. Marc Berry has the look of a prospering continental butcher but the accent of an extra in Coronation Street. He trained in Germany and France as a boucher (butcher), charcutier (maker of meat products – hams, bacon, etc) and traiteur, which translates (badly) as a type of delicatessen owner.
He has in the past appeared on screen and radio for the Rick Stein’s Food Heroes series, Countryfile, Hairy Bikers, Radio 4’s The Food Programme and Farming Today.
It was his job to turn a group of us from cack-handed knife wielders into people as comfortable with sharp blades as D’Artagnan.
“Don’t worry, it will be perfectly safe,” he assured me with a broad grin, as he sorted out a formidable array of knives and cleavers.
The third moustache, incidentally, belonged to Alistair Handyside, chairman of South West Tourism, one of Charles’ other guests. Alistair was here because he knows how important food and eating out is to the tourist economy in our region.
“It is one of the top reasons people come here,” he explained. Plus, I suspect, he just adores eating meat, as I do.
In a clean room away from the production of sausages, after donning protective clothing (and nets for those moustaches – it’s quite a look), Marc showed me how to cut up the carcass. “Start at the head and work your way down to the ham,” he explained. I learn that in this context, a ham is the top of the back leg but can be used to describe a cured meat from any part of the pig.
We were shown, and then tried for ourselves, how to separate the shoulder, ribs, belly, and ham. I discovered for the first time where exactly the meat that becomes bacon comes from. Answer: roughly between the ribs and the hip, where a human’s kidneys are.
It was fascinating, partly from this new knowledge but also from learning skills I had never really thought about. Such as knife-craft.
Marc was able to show me how simple things like holding a knife correctly and cutting in a certain way made the act of butchery much less hassle.
“Use the point end of the blade and don’t saw at the flesh,” he told me. The result was cuts of meat that didn’t look like they’d been mauled by a pack of dogs. I was rather pleased.
After we had successfully butchered the pig carcass, it was into post-production, if you will. A ham is, after all, only a lump of pig haunch until it is cured.
First up was an Italian-style coppa ham, cured with garlic, celery salt and herbs. After being sealed in a bag with the salt and other flavours at Westaways it spent three weeks in my fridge at home.
It is now air-drying, rather eccentrically, in my spare wardrobe for another three weeks, wrapped in muslin.
I also made some excellent thick chops, bacon, Chinese-style ribs and a huge belly pork roll. In fact, the one thing I did not have time to make was sausages.
Charles explained that there was an economic point behind what were doing, as well as the sheer satisfaction of creating delicious food. After all, butchers are businessmen and women just like any other.
“The act of butchery, and of curing meat, adds to the value of the product,” Charles explained.
Take my coppa ham, for example. As a simple cut of pork shoulder meat, it was probably worth £5-£6 by weight. Curing it into an Italian-style finished ham vastly increases the value. If professionally done (ie not in my wardrobe) and using the finest-quality pork and ingredients, it could fetch up to £100 per kilogram.
I begin to wonder about starting a micro-butchery business.
At the end of a fascinating day, I walked away from Westaways feeling satisfied that I had done a decent job – and with a big bag of meat. And I felt extremely tired. One of my biggest discoveries from the day was just how much hard work physically it all was. Cutting, sawing and lifting heavy joints of meat all day is actually quite a workout. Maybe that butchery business will have to wait after all.
By the time I arrived home in the evening, I was shattered. I barely had time to pan-fry some bacon before sliding contented into bed, a very happy carnivore.