When I found out that I was going to be a butcher for the day the last thing I had in mind was what I would be wearing. But there I was, standing in the changing room at catering butcher Aubrey Allen, wondering which piece of Elizabethan armour I should put on first. I half-wondered whether there was a cod-piece waiting for me underneath the chain mail.
When I finally appeared wearing black trousers, a white jacket, a blue apron and a chainmail vest, I felt completely ridiculous like I was off to fight in the Wars of the Roses. And I was soon topped off by my butcher for the day, Michael Jackson, who handed me a beard snood that I had to wear on my head that covered my facial hair.
When I was finally deemed appropriate and presentable, I looked like something out of Game of Thrones. However, it all had a purpose. Butchery is dangerous and has to be totally hygienic. The knives we were going to be using are so sharp that even the slightest slip in the wrong direction could gut me like a pig. I was also given a chainmail glove to wear on my left hand. Being right handed, the same wrong slip danger applies.
Off we went into the belly of the beast - the main floor. On the way we stopped to see some of the dry ageing fridges which hold hundreds of cuts of beef. The air stuck in my throat due to the moisture being constantly sucked out of the chamber. I learnt that this was crucial to good dry-ageing.
The meats are dry-aged for a minimum of 21 days, in which time the concentration of flavours intensifies and tissues are broken down. The result is a superior taste and appealing texture, I was told.
Aubrey Allen don’t do much super-ageing of their meat. Trendy beef can be hung for as long as 70 days. But Michael explained that 21 days in the right environment is what you need – cold and dry. Moisture is the enemy of hanging meat. The purpose of hanging meat on the bone in this atmosphere is to allow the meat to start to dry. What happens is that the moisture content of the meat gets less whilst the muscle fibre starts to break down, making the meat softer.
Michael explained that if you get the temperature levels and the moisture levels correct then 21 days ageing is a perfect amount of time. Any longer is not going to give you anything drastically different. The point is that meat needs to be hung on the bone and not left to age in plastic – so-called wet ageing.
I was taken past the thirty or so butchers hard at work in the main floor and into a private teaching room with Michael. An entire lamb carcass was waiting next to a large red table. Michael placed three plastic bins under it, two for fleshy waste and one for bones.
“We’re going to do some seam butchery,” he told me. “This a relatively new technique in the history of butchery and involves stripping down larger primal joints into their individual muscles. What we have discovered is that the single muscles can be cooked whole by chefs and because there is no gristle connecting the muscles the meat cooks evenly and doesn’t get tough.”
To prepare a whole saddle of lamb, a cut found right in the centre of the animal, was my task. Both Michael and I had boning knives. Before we started for the meat, Michael ran both through a sharpener that was attached to him at the waist, making the already sharp blades like razors.
The first thing I had to do was skin the saddle, and this was incredibly tough. Oddly, this was done by hand, and it all felt very primal. With the saddle already separated from the rest of the carcass, there was an edge to the skin. Putting all my weight on the centre of the meat and pulling with all my strength, it slowly began to come away. I had to use the knife occasionally when too much of the outer membrane was attached. The skin itself was practically untearable.
Next, separate the two loins from the central bone. I flipped it over and pushed the knife right up against the bone and down towards the table in order not to damage the fillet. I had to get so close to the bone, Michael said, that you should hear a scraping noise of the knife against it. Metal on bone.
Michael separated his two with just four cuts. I rather butchered my first one as there was just so much to deal with all at once. Tissue, flesh, sinews, and bones – it really is much harder than it looks. All so fragile, yet always putting up a considerable fight.
I then removed the backbone out of the middle, listening for that familiar scraping sound so I knew I wasn’t cutting into the eye muscle, the most expensive part of the saddle.
Afterwards I was exhausted but I felt really good about the process. We went on to break down a leg of lamb into seven different cuts and then got to work with a leg of pork. During my time in restaurant kitchens I had seen meat already butchered but had never really worked on it. By doing so I felt I had more of an understanding of where the meat came from, not in terms of the farm, but in terms of the part of the carcass. And by getting really into the cutting of it gave me a greater respect for cooking it.
I left Aubrey Allen much wiser than I went in. I was impressed with the skill of the butchers and the speed of their work. I met Russell Allen, grandson of the founder Aubrey, and he congratulated me on having a go. He said if I gave it three weeks I could be a junior member of the team which is worth bearing in mind. Butchery is a craft and I can see how I can improve as a chef by learning more.