The ancient art of butchery

Butcher David contemplates a side of beef

As I said when I started writing this blog, I’m not a trained cook. I’m just someone who loves good food and I’m feeling my way towards a deeper understanding of the raw materials that I use to try and create authentic Chinese cuisine using the best of Irish ingredients.
I decided to take some time out this month to attend a few cookery courses and demonstrations that might help me improve my basic knowledge and technique.  Last night I went along to an evening butchery demonstration in Avoca Food Market Dublin, home to the Dublin branch of James Whelan Butchers.
Over the course of the evening we were shown how to butcher an entire side of pork before turning our attention to a side of beef. A eureka moment for me was realising that there are a whole range of cuts of meat  that I could be using instead of the ones I am more familiar with. This gives me the possibility of creating even better flavour and getting value for money from lesser known cuts. It is also in keeping with the Chinese way of doing things where every part of the animal is used. So the next time I cook Shananigans’ Crispy Chilli Beef, for instance, I will use bavette of beef rather than the more expensive fillet or sirloin.
While his young colleague David demonstrated his butchery skills, Pat had plenty of useful tips for the would-be chef  but he also spoke passionately about every stage of the butchery process from rearing animals right through to innovative ways of cooking various cuts of meat. He weaved a magical story of how the world of butchery has evolved in Ireland over the years and  emphasised the importance of thinking local – eating food from the place prepared by the people of the place.
What was most striking was the respect he feels towards the animals that he rears on his farm, slaughters and delivers to our table in the form of the highest quality meat. As he put it “the animal dies so we may live. It’s the ultimate sacrifice”. To him the animal and the meat it yields are both things of beauty. It reminds me of a story Fuchsia Dunlop tells in her memoir Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper of coming upon an unusual exhibit in the National Palace Museum in Taipei – a perfect sculpture of a chunk of tender cooked pork, carved in agate and one of the most prized imperial treasures spirited away from the Forbidden City when China was consumed by war – meat as art.
Many of us have an uneasy relationship with the food we eat, especially if we are carnivores. We prefer not to think too much about where the meat came from and the living breathing animal it once was. So much so that I winced when Pat told us that the rump of wagyu beef that I had used to make my Shananigans’ slow-cooked wagyu stew came from a frisky wagyu bull that was beginning to be a danger to his 80 year old Dad and a threat to the chastity of his wagyu cows. And yet part of the need I feel to get back to basics and to understand our relationship with the land, compels me to confront this essential part of the process of getting food onto our tables.
The butchery demo brought back vivid memories of an experience in China last summer where I first witnessed the slaughter of an animal and the insight that gave me into the culture of my new in-laws. None of the photos are too graphic but if you are a vegetarian, or squeamish about such matters, you may not want to read on. Continue reading The ancient art of butchery