The butchers shop has gone through a great change over the last few decades; carving is done behind-the-scenes, van delivery is customary, and the preprepared, take-away meat meals are evermore preferable with the rush of life. I went to visit my local butchers shop - a family-run butchers spanning more than 50 years in the profession - to learn, first how to butcher a lamb, and secondly, how butchery for them has changed over the course of their lives.
My local is a typical British butchers shop; fronted by friendly faces, incased in white walls, exposed in bright lights, and decorated with rows of gleaming meat, wonderfully arrayed in the front counter. I arrive through the glass doors and soon greet Nick, a butcher who has been butchering over ten years. He quickly ushers me in and guides me round the counter to introduce me to the rest of the team. All seemingly awake for an early morning start, I meet Joe, James and Brian, all with a combined butchery experience of nearly a century. But as soon as introductions were over, it was down to work. Nick and James were off and out the door, where I came in not ten minutes ago, doing the rounds of deliveries from the week’s internet orders – something that I learn is a new and ever-increasing trend for butchery nowadays.
Back through the doors, Brian gives me a quick tour of the place. Both with apron on, we head to the back of the butchers shop to a single room half the size of the main front room. Spotlessly clean and filled with gleaming chucks of stainless-steel equipment and a long table aligned with sheets of sharpened knives, Brian tells me that this is where the behind-the-scenes carvery is done. He notes that only a decade ago you could just bring the carcasses out to the front of the shop to carve, but nowadays customers don’t like seeing it done in front of them.
Brian gathers this thoughts and steps into the walk-in fridge beside us to pick up a lamb carcass and place it down on the table in front. He starts to run his hands over each part of the body, noting exactly where each cut is taken. As he opens up the cavity, pointing out each muscle, tendon and main artery, effortlessly moving the carcass around, trimming off the odd bits of fat here and there. Brian tells me that he has been doing butchery for over 40 years, something that has become second nature to him. Much quicker than expected, he speeds into action cutting the main carcass into three sections - the leg, the ribs and head. For each cut, he uses a very sharp slicer for the first incision, a saw to crack the bone, and then a steak knife to finish off the tough outer skin. Once the bone dust has been removed, we were straight onto sizing off each section and dressing them accordingly.
I try my hand at cutting the primes off the three sections, removing unwanted pieces of fat and trimming the meat to size. Over the next few hours, I dress the shoulder and scrag, ‘French trim’ the best end of neck, separate the loin and create a ‘guard of honour’. Once I had finished my cuttings, I would head over to the front of the shop and proudly place my offerings into the chilled counter.
A butchers apprentice takes five years to complete, however, I soon find out from the butchers I've meet that you only really get the hang of butchery after ten years in the industry, or even more. We discuss all things to do with butchery, from what happened with the foot-and-mouth disease to intercontinental butchery with their different techniques of cutting and preserving their meats. Working alongside and talking to these butchers really shows how passionate they are about their craft. These lives are a vital part to the British community and tradition, and we need to support them the best we can by buying their local and sustainably-reared meat.
Words & Photography by Angus D. Birditt