Close to the bone

Categories: Features

At a time when most of the meat we consume comes cut, tied and neatly packaged, the ancient art of the butcher is one that is increasingly practiced out of sight and out of mind. Market Life pays a visit to a Ginger Pig butchery class to watch up close some real masters of the craft

George Donnelly smiles at the question. “What do I think about when I’m butchering?” he repeats, raising an eyebrow. “Food. Food, food, food. I think being passionate about food goes hand in hand with being a butcher.” Written down, that seems blindingly obvious—but for one brief moment I am faintly surprised. The transition from a frolicking spring lamb through to a lamb shank on a butcher’s stand is one that for most people has become somewhat shrouded in mystery—even for those (worryingly few) of us who accept that the latter requires the former. If you hang around Ginger Pig long enough you will eventually become familiar with the visceral effect of a carcass being broken down, but the neat, rosemary-scattered beauty of the finished display still makes it all too easy to disassociate the craft of dismemberment from the food that we eat. 

This, I find out over the course of the next few days of speaking to George and his colleague Sal at the stand and undertaking one of the Ginger Pig’s classes, is a travesty. Butchery isn’t just an ancient, skilled and necessary craft: it is breathtaking. Their surgical knowledge of anatomy, the speed and agility of their knifework, the neatness of their cuts and their colourful butcher’s knots, all makes for an extraordinary spectacle—and if you don’t believe me, check out George’s Instagram following. “Butchers got a bad reputation in the past because many of them were no good at all—but butchery these days is really an artform.” The future is bright for butchery—at least for butchery as George now knows it: artisanal, high quality, “slightly more expensive, but you get love and care and quality with it”. Where once butchery was the preserve of a hardened old guard, now young men and women are showing an increasing interest in the profession, and in trying it at home. 

Hence Ginger Pig’s new Borough Market school, the latest development in a relationship with the Market that has grown and evolved over two decades. The school’s hands-on lessons in meat and butchery are a monument to craft, education and flavour. After a dazzling demonstration from one of the butchers, who will break down either a beef or a lamb carcass in front of you, you’ll be treated to a feast with your classmates and prepare your own meat to take home. Needless to say, the connection between farm, filleting and food is present throughout the session, with tips on cooking and storing served up alongside detailed knowledge as to the breed of the animal, and where it originated.

Rack of lamb

Styles and approaches  
Upon arrival at our lamb class on an unseasonably cold Saturday afternoon, my classmates and I are presented with 15 cuts, neatly laid out on the table, and asked to identify them. I get as far as ‘heart’ and ‘mince’ before I let the rest of the group—a remarkable spread of gender, age and profession, who all seem better versed in lamb anatomy than I am—take the reins. 

The class is led by Sal, an Australian butcher who did his three-year butchery apprenticeship down under, then cut his teeth here in Borough Market, where he learned from butchers from all over the world. “I finished my apprenticeship at 20 and thought I knew everything there was to know. Then I came to Borough Market and learned a completely different way of breaking down an animal.” His colleagues—French, Slovakian, English, South and North American—all have different styles and approaches. “The English style is very much square cuts. The French style is peeling each individual muscle out. The Australian style is a hybrid of the two.”

One thing Australia does very, very well, of course, is lamb. “I sold a lot of lamb in Australia. At Easter time at the Market, when we sell 60 or 70 lamb legs over one weekend, I am the one they send into the fridge because I am so much faster at breaking down the hindquarters.” This Sal does by hanging the back end of the lamb on a hook and using his body weight and strength to pull the leg down as he is cutting it along the inside of the pelvis. “It’s the Aussie way of doing it—it is so much less finicky than doing it on the block.” Sheer strength comes into butchery less than you’d think. “Years ago, we would have been breaking down hindquarters or even forequarters of beef and that’s tough, but these days it’s broken down more before it’s delivered,” George reassured me prior to my class. “Deboning a dry-aged side of beef is tough as rock—but anyway, you’re on the lamb class.” Knife skills and—above all—a detailed knowledge of anatomy are far more valuable to a butcher than brute force. 

Ginger Pig butcher Jozsef

Nothing wasted
I have none of the above. I watch in awe as Sal saws apart the rib cage, separates fore and hindquarters, and from these pieces creates racks, cutlets, shanks, neck fillets and shoulders. Little to nothing is wasted: one of Sal’s many skills is in being able to cut as close as possible to the bone. “Any meat left on the bones is ex-profit—but for me, it’s not so much about profit as the fact this is food, and it can and should be used for something,” he says feelingly. Lean trim goes into mince or burgers; the fat around the kidneys has “a more neutral taste than most fat and a lower melting point, so it can be used in pastry or popped into sausages.” Those of us in the class who own dogs are encouraged to take home the bones.

It takes Sal less than an hour to break down an entire lamb’s carcass into separate cuts, explaining with each one how you might cook with it. Though I knew it before, there is nothing like a live demo to convince you of Ginger Pig’s commitment to nose to tail. Sal has suggestions for everything, from the sweetbreads—organ meat from the throat or stomach—to lesser-known leg cuts, which he describes in beef terms: topside, silverside, chateaubriand. “In Australia we sell a lot of cut-up lamb and I like doing this to show you guys,” he explains. In Britain we take a fairly simple approach to a lamb leg—roasted, mint sauce—but cut up for stews and tagines, these pieces are perfect. As for the heart, “butterfly it all open, slicing against the grain of the muscle, then you can stir fry it and have it in a salad or sandwich or whatever—and they cost 50p each,” he points out. Only the ‘paddy whack’—a strong, elastic band-like ligament which holds the animal’s head up—is thrown, after much discussion about the nursery rhyme. “You’d have to do a lot to make that edible,” Sal says, passing it around so we can feel its elasticity and firm, rubbery texture.

Finally, with the lamb carcass in pieces on the table, it’s time to turn to the main event: deboning and rolling the shoulder. Each of us is presented with a shoulder, a spool of string and a boning knife: “Every butcher’s best friend.” Contrary to what you might expect, professional butchers don’t use expensive knives. “They get so much wear and tear, we need to replace them every two years at least,” Sal continues. “You can get these for £15.” That said, each butcher has their own set of knives and, like chefs and hairdressers, are prone to tantrums if they find their colleague has been using their tools.

Ginger Pig butchery class

Scapula, hock, humerus
Whether boned, rolled, or left as is, lamb shoulder is a fine bit of meat. “All four-legged animals are front heavy because their heads weigh a lot in relation to the rest of their body, so the shoulder has more fat and connective tissue,” says Sal. Boning and rolling are some of the toughest things to master—even for professionals. “I could say it’s straightforward, but I’d be lying. There are three bones to remove: the scapula, the hock and the humerus. But the first thing we want to do is remove excess sinew, getting under the fat, scooping it out and losing as little meat as possible.”

I look at the shoulder in front of me, then back at Sal, trying to mirror his movements. “I have tried to do this before, but I didn’t think about the anatomy. I just went at it with a knife,” murmurs the chap next to me who, for all his modesty, is doing a far better job than I am. I despair at the amount of meat I’m removing at the same time as the fat and sinew, but Sal is reassuring. “Don’t worry too much—lamb is a fatty meat and you are going to slow roast it, so I wouldn’t go overboard.” He comes round to inspect my progress. “You’re doing fine!”

We move onto the shoulder blade and I am struck by how often Sal uses his hands over his knife, to feel out the bones or to remove glands and gristle. “If I can use my hands instead of my knife, I will, so I don’t risk damaging the meat—or indeed my hand,” he explains. He uses his fingers to feel out the blade bone, cuts down to reveal it, then steadily scrapes away across the surface of the bone to separate it, angling the knife so that the edge scrapes across the bone, not into the meat. The flesh is surprisingly pale—a notable feature of spring lamb which, by definition, has drunk its mother’s milk and then eaten spring’s new-growth grass. “Now, not Easter, is in fact the right time to buy if you want spring lamb. Spring lamb has only just become available.” I scrape away against the bone, removing slightly less meat this time—baby steps—then turn my attention to the gland Sal has warned us about, lodged deep inside a wedge of fat inside the leg.

Sal Ginger Pig butcher

Ready to roll
At long last I am ready to roll. Free from its bones, the meat is slippery and unwieldy, and I’m reminded of those ‘high tech’ sleeping bags which flatly refuse to roll back into their cases. I enlist Sal, who informs me that, despite its shabby appearance, I’m nailing it. “That’s what the string is for—to make it look neat at the end.” I’m relieved to discover all the meat trim I inadvertently removed during butchery can be tucked into the roll—“no one will know after you’ve roasted it”—and, with one eye on my messy little bundle, reach for the distinctive red and white string.

“This is the hardest part of the class,” says Sal, and I wince. I already feel stretched. “All butcher’s knots are slip knots, but every butcher has ones that they favour. I have a couple I use, but another butcher will tie differently to me.” His hands fly rapidly across the surface of the rolled shoulder—loop, secure, cut, loop, secure, cut, repeat—and we beg him to switch to slow motion, which he does. Then he shows each of us individually, so we can follow more closely. Nevertheless, when I come to tie my roll, it takes me almost 15 minutes to do what Sal can achieve in three.

A sprig of rosemary slid beneath the string to rest on the top of the roll like a green spine and I’m finished. Sal wraps my shoulder into a bag to take home and, to my slight disappointment, puts my name on it. It’s not that I’m not proud of myself, but my classmates’ efforts were significantly neater. I’m not quitting the day job any time soon. “You won’t be able to tell after you’ve roasted it,” Sal repeats—and I am sceptical until, 10 minutes and a quick clear up later, he’s cutting into the perfectly rolled, tender shoulder of meat that had been left to roast while we worked.

It falls apart. It melts. It tumbles into tender, rich, herbaceous chunks of light brown meat and crisp fat—and if there is the odd bit of trim rolled in there, no one knows it. There are dauphinoise potatoes, gooey and bubbling; a crisp, dressed salad; and an array of sauces and jellies. There is red wine—a Bordeaux—and a palpable sense of delight as we raise our glasses to Sal, the Ginger Pig team, and each other: butchers and cooks, students and teachers, food lovers.