The first rule of learning butchery is that it cannot be taught. I lurked the corridors of Turner & George – from their mafia-esque walk-in cold room and Dickensian shop front, to one of the Hawksmoors they supply – and it took me ages to work out what they were actually saying: we can tell you what we do; we can show you how we do it; we can let you have a go; but between there and mastery is an incredibly long road of maybe a decade. You might just as well try to train as a pathologist in an afternoon.
That isn’t to say I learned nothing; I learned a lot. I learned what a deckle steak is (it’s the kind of curved cuff of meat around a rib-eye) and where I could locate it on my own body. ‘The myology of a cow and a sheep is pretty similar; you’re pretty similar,’ Richard Turner, (joint) head of everything, told me. ‘There’s no way you could get a steak from that bit of my body,’ I said. ‘Well, it wouldn’t be so scraggy on a cow, but sure, I could eat it.’ I learned what myology means – muscle structure – and that when you see pink spots on a pork chop, it’s a sign of how stressed the pig was in its final minutes. It won’t taste as good, partly because, if you’re a proper human, it will taste of your own remorse.
From Sophie Cumber, the 31-year-old butcher who teaches many of the courses, I learned that once a carcass is broken down – separated into its ‘primals’ – when you hit a bone, you don’t just plough on through it. You go around it. This sounds easier than it is. Cumber started her butchery career on sausages; they all do. Doing this for a living, it can be years before anyone will let you loose on a full animal. ‘The difference when you’re teaching people for a hobby is that they’ll be taking the meat home with them.’
Butchery isn’t icky or daunting so much as absolute poetry, when you see it done right
Breaking down lamb is where a butcher would get to after a year, and a hobbyist starts: its primals are shoulder, scrag and middle, breast, best end, loin, chump, leg and shank. I asked John Darlingnash, a 29-year-old who started butchery at 14, who would have a head start: if someone came in who thought they were shit-hot at carving, would they be better placed to separate a shoulder from the rest? He thought for a long time, then said, ‘Anyone who thinks they’re shit-hot at anything is probably not going to learn very fast.’
So, sure, you can learn to distinguish between one bit and another, and a more mathematical mind than mine could retain where to draw the line. But if you want to understand this in a gestalt way, the most enlightening thing you can do is just watch someone who’s been working with meat more than half his life cut up a chicken. The knives have to be sharper than a kung fu movie, but you’re not really cutting; you’re just finding your way in and letting the meat come apart by itself. Its own weight will show you where its seams are. Darlingnash often has the meat half-hanging off the chopping board, the better to read its mysteries.
The walk-in cold room is not for the squeamish or the easily daunted; but butchery itself isn’t icky or daunting so much as absolute poetry, when you see it done right. When you do it yourself, it’s more like a road sign written in Welsh.
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If you’re interested in food and cooking, take a look at our Super-ingredient series, as Fiona Beckett explores the limitless uses of butter and the ubiquitous onion. We’ve also got interviews with chefs like Mauro Colagreco and insights into the latest restaurant openings.