The verb ‘to butcher’ can be used to suggest ham-fistedness, but, as Architectural Editor John Goodall discovers, such a description couldn’t be further away from the knife skills required to prepare good meat.
The elegant upperndining room of Simpson’s-in-the-Strand is a surprising place in which to confront the ruggedly divided remains of a raw quarter of a cow. This particular encounter, however, fulfils a long-standing ambition to try my hand at butchery. Under the direction of Mark Farquhar, head butcher at Donald Russell for the past 24 years, we work our way through pieces of the animal and convert its lumpen remains into an impressive array of orderly cuts.
As a prelude to the afternoon’s work, I’m provided with a chef’s jacket, its detachable buttons inserted like studs, and a black apron. Mark dons a similar uniform, but wears, in addition, an under-apron of metal disks like chainmail that jingle when he moves— a reminder that his is a dangerous and heavy trade. The sound makes me feel like a squire to this knight of the butchery yard. As if further proof is needed of the perils of cutting up meat and bone, I’m also issued with a fabric glove for my left hand. This, I’m reassuringly told, will protect me from accidental knife cuts, but not stabs.
The tools of the trade, including a saw and various knives, make for a correspondingly formidable display. Mark explains that the precise character of knife blades is really a matter of personal preference among butchers. The chief variable is of flexibility— which might change through the length of the blade, depending on the thickness or breadth of the steel—and that this facilitates different cutting actions.
Having established the relative position of the different hunks of meat on the carcass and discussed the crucial importance of maturing the meat to develop its flavour, we start work on the first: removing the fillet from the back of the ribs. This, Mark explains, is the easiest part of the animal to cut. It is also—as anyone who’s ever been to the butcher knows—the most expensive. So expensive, in fact, that it’s properly the last thing that a trainee learns to cut up.
Mark works with extraordinary speed and efficiency, the blade of the knife apparently an extension of his hand. The meat is cleaned of fat and then gradually broken down into a series of steaks.
My own labours are predictably inept and slow, but subject to a patient flow of encouragement, advice and undeserved praise. As I struggle along, I begin to understand the levels of skill and care this work demands, as well as the importance of touch: the texture of the meat is apparent even through gloves and the process of cutting closely involved with feeling and exploring natural divisions within the tissue.
During a break, Donald Russell’s head chef, the Koblenz-born Stefan Kölsch, introduces me to another aspect of the work. The company, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of its Royal Warrant this year, supplies about 550,000 customers with deliveries of frozen meat. All of this is carefully sourced from UK farms that raise their stock out of doors.
The rump follows the fillet and, by degrees, the hunks of uncut meat diminish. My only complete failure is with a roasting joint. Mark tries to show me how the binding strings are knotted, but the action of his fingers is lost in a flurry of movement. Eventually, I give up altogether and hand the task to him, before observing the final operation: the preparation of a rack of beef. It’s a joy to view the uninterrupted sequence of the work and the way in which the meat first takes on shape and then is tidied for the oven.
At the end of all this labour, there is an additional surprise. As we strip off our aprons and gloves, there comes up from the kitchens of Simpsons’s one of Donald Russell’s creations: an ‘easy-to-carve’ roast. The idea is brilliantly simple: the bone flavours the meat in the oven, but is difficult to carve around. So, in this case, the bone and meat are separated by the butcher and then bound together for the oven. After cooking, the meat can simply be lifted out and cut. Stefan does the honours and the result is superlative.
Particularly delicious is the crust of the meat, which is flavoured with salt and mustard. It’s impossible to resist: good meat, well cut and simply cooked. What could I do but gorge myself?
For further information about Donald Russell please visit www.donaldrussell.com
Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, London WC2. Ninety- minute classes run on selected Sundays by master cook Gerry Rae. £185 per person (020–7836 9112; www.simpsonsinthestrand.co.uk)
Daylesford Organic, Kingham, Gloucestershire. Book in to learn essential knife skills on December 19. £90 per person (01608 731620; www.daylesford.co.uk)
Edinburgh New Town Cookery School, Queen’s Street, Edinburgh. Carving class on December 4, fol- lowed by dinner featuring the freshly carved meat. £55 per person (0131–226 4314; www.entcs.co.uk)
Claridge’s, London W1. Masterclass in carving followed by lunch. £225 per person (020–7629 8860; www. claridges.co.uk)
Brown’s Hotel, London W1. Learn how to carve properly with Mark Hix. £185 per person for two hours (020–7518 4163; www.roccofortehotels.com/hotels- and-resorts/browns-hotel)
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