Meat-eaters know how great it tastes on a plate, but how many of us know our way around a cow or a lamb? Diana Pilkington gets to know the cuts during a crash course in butchery, and picks up some tips from real-life butcher (and one half of TV's Fabulous Baker Brothers) Henry Herbert. Plus, some tasty meat recipes.
By Diana Pilkington
You don't expect to walk into your local butcher's shop and see a glamorous TV star behind the counter.
But Henry Herbert, one half of Channel 4's Fabulous Baker Brothers, is juggling his TV career with running family business Hobbs House Butchery in Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire.
And he has seen such a rise in people who want to learn some basic butchery skills that he's in the process of opening a school to teach them.
"There's a thirst for people wanting to learn how to do it themselves," he says.
"They might not do it every time, but understanding the skill behind it helps you appreciate what the trade involves. It's like when people want to do a bit of DIY at home but won't necessarily do the whole house.
"If you cook a leg of lamb that you had boned out yourself, there's kudos in that."
There can also be financial benefits to getting handy with a knife at home.
Herbert says: "A small chicken is about £5. It's about the same price as two skinless chicken breasts, but there's quite a big difference in size.
"It's so quick to learn how to chop that chicken up and get two breasts, two legs, wings and a carcass to make a soup, so suddenly you've gone from two meals to five meals. I could teach someone that in five minutes and they've got that for life."
Even if home butchery is not your thing, the star is supporting a campaign to encourage people to use their local butcher and tap into their expert knowledge about which cuts to buy and how to use them.
After all, trained chef Herbert took over his family butcher's in the first place to help keep the trade alive when the shop became vacant.
The number of butcher shops in Britain has declined sharply since the Seventies, dropping from 25,300 in 1977 to just 6,811 in 2006. However, according to Eblex, which represents the English beef and sheep industry, the drop in numbers is tailing off and there are around 6,600 today.
"I felt it was a real shame to see another butcher shop that had been trading for 150 years close down and become a card shop or a charity shop," he says.
"I thought even if I can breathe some new life into it and help inspire someone at least I've done something rather than watch it shut down."
A butcher's at how it's done
I admit it, I love red meat. But I don't think I'm alone in being a bit clueless about how a juicy sirloin steak or comforting Sunday roast correspond to the animals they start out as.
With this in mind, I take a trip to the Donald Russell butchery in Aberdeenshire, proud holder of a Royal Warrant, for a tour of the premises and a crash course in butchery skills.
Led by the aptly-named Steve Lamb, I wander through the ice-cold maturation room, where hundreds of headless carcasses hang side by side. Beef is typically hung for around 28 days to give it maximum flavour, and lamb, which I learn is anatomically very similar to a cow, is hung for up to 10 days.
Throughout the factory are a staggering number of white-coated people hard at work, some carefully weighing and portioning the steaks, others chucking meat into a mincer, lining pastry with sausage meat or packing up the cuts.
They all carry out their tasks with impressive speed and precision. And then it's my turn.
In the demonstration room, I watch as butcher Dave Bergin uses a saw and various knives to break down the 'roasting' (a side of beef) into the four main cuts of rib, sirloin, fillet and rump.
It is quite a transformation, and what starts out as a generous, multi-coloured bit of fillet, for example, is trimmed down into a sleek piece of pure red meat that resembles a fish to look at.
Next is the fun part. With my left hand encased in a chainmail glove, I have a go at cutting these newly-butchered slabs into steaks. It's satisfying to sink the knife in, but my task - to chop them to an optimum 220 grams - is not easy, and I keep missing the mark. Fellow butcher Andy Grant, on the other hand, gets it right every time.
There's also a baffling array of words to come to terms with. As well as the familiar steaks, I hear terms like "pave", "picanha" and "tafelspitz" bandied about. More confusingly, some are different words for the same thing, but the butchers navigate the language with ease.
Despite a growing interest from the public in butchery, the team at Donald Russell tell me that they have struggled to find young apprentices to go into the trade.
"Nobody wants to get up at 4.30am to come to a cold factory and cut up steaks," admits Grant, who has done the job for 20 years. "But it's given me a good life. It's a job I feel passionate about and I enjoy it." Impressed as I am by his skills though, I think I'll leave him to it.
Here are some meaty recipes for you to try at home.
Slow-cooked beef with gnocchi
450g lean boneless shin or chuck steak, cut into 2.5cm cubes
Salt and freshly milled black pepper
½tsp cayenne pepper
2tbsp sunflower oil
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped or crushed
2 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes
200ml good, hot vegetable stock
1 cinnamon stick, halved
1tbsp light brown sugar
1tbsp tomato puree
1 x 400g pack fresh gnocchi
2tbsp freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley, to garnish
Place the beef in a large plastic food bag. Add the seasoning, cayenne and paprika; seal, shake well to coat the beef in the spices.
Heat the oil in a large non-stick frying pan. Cook the beef for 4-5 minutes in batches until brown on all sides. Transfer to a 1.7l/3pint heatproof casserole pot.
In the same frying pan, cook the onion and garlic for 2-3 minutes. Spoon into the casserole pot.
Add the tomatoes and stock, cinnamon, sugar and tomato puree. Bring this to the boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 2-2½ hours.
Add the gnocchi 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time.
Garnish with the parsley and serve with crusty bread.
Tip: If preferred, substitute the gnocchi for freshly cooked pasta shapes.
:: Recipe from www.simplybeefandlamb.com
Slow-cooked Shoulder of lamb
1 whole shoulder of lamb (1.75kg)
Salt and pepper
2tsp olive oil
1 onion (chopped)
4 cloves of garlic (sliced)
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
6 sprigs fresh or dried lavender
5 tomatoes (cut into wedges)
125ml white wine
250ml chicken or beef stock
Allow the meat to come to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 140°C/285°F/Gas 1. Season the lamb shoulder with salt and pepper.
Preheat a large, flame-proof braising pan. Add oil and butter and brown the meat on all sides until nicely caramelized. Remove the meat from the pan and leave to the side. Add mushrooms, onions and garlic and braise for 5-8 minutes. Return the meat to the pan. Add all the remaining ingredients to the pan and bring to the boil. Cover with the lid and place into the oven and cook for 2½ - 3 hours. After 2½ hours test the meat. It should be tender and sticky.
When the meat is tender remove the pan from oven. Place the lamb on a warm serving platter and allow to rest for up to 20 minutes. Remove the remaining pan ingredients and arrange around the meat for a nice presentation. Use the delicious juices to make a gravy.
To serve carve the meat straight from the bone and arrange on preheated plates. Serve with green beans and potato gratin.
:: Recipe from Donald Russell (www.donaldrussell.com)
Spiced rib of beef with red wine gravy
Rare: 20 minutes per 450g/1lb plus 20 minutes
Medium: 25 minutes per 450g/1lb plus 25 minutes
Well done: 30 minutes per 450g/1lb plus 30 minutes
1 x 2.7kg lean boneless rib of beef, sirloin or traditional rump roast
Salt and freshly milled black pepper
2tsp ground allspice
2tsp ground mace
1tsp ground nutmeg
40g light soft brown sugar
For the red wine gravy:
1tbsp plain flour
300ml good, hot beef stock
300ml good red wine
Preheat the oven to 180-190°C.
In a small bowl mix the spices and sugar together. Place the joint on a chopping board; make several slashes over the surface of the joint, taking care not to cut the butcher's string or elasticated meat bands and season. Coat on both sides with the spice mixture. Place the joint on a rack in a roasting tin and open roast for the preferred, calculated cooking time. Cover with foil if browning too quickly.
Ten minutes before the end of the cooking time, remove the joint from the oven and brush with the port. Return to the oven for the remainder of the cooking time.
Remove the beef from the oven, cover and leave to rest for 15-20 minutes. Meanwhile, to make the gravy; spoon off any excess fat from the roasting tin and discard. Place the tin over a medium heat and sprinkle with the flour. Stir well with a small whisk or spoon, add a little stock and stir again, scraping the base of the pan to release any rich, beefy sediment.
Add the remaining stock, wine and any meat juices from the platter. Adjust the seasoning, if required and simmer for 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally or until reduced to a well-flavoured gravy. Strain before serving.
Garnish the beef with fresh rosemary leaves and serve with seasonal vegetables and the gravy.
:: Recipe from www.simplybeefandlamb.com
:: For more information on Donald Russell, visit www.donaldrussell.com
:: Henry Herbert is an ambassador for the Quality Standard Beef & Lamb Master Butchery campaign, helping people get the most from their butcher. For more information, or to find out about master butchery classes, visit www.simplybeefandlamb.co.uk/quality-standard