In Praise of a Good Butcher

I can’t claim I never buy meat in a supermarket – expediency and all that – but I seldom do. Picking up a plastic tray just doesn’t enthuse me.  And the so-called “butchery counter”, if there is one, isn’t much better. The choice of cuts is still limited and the staff, for all their stripy aprons and hygienic hats, aren’t that knowledgeable (try asking for a hand of pork or chump ends). I suspect training for the role is minimal.

The weekend before last I went to the butcher for a joint of beef. Now, I normally buy rib but he said he was reluctant to cut the rib he had out the back as it would benefit from hanging for a couple more days, and could he interest me in this piece of sirloin? Yes, I was interested, but it was a substantial hunk of meat for two, even allowing for cold cuts during the week, and probably costing rather more than I had planned on paying. Then he said “I could take out the fillet”, which sounded like a good compromise, so I ended up with a piece of sirloin on the bone – and very good it was too – and someone else presumably got a few fillet steaks or a small, tender off-the-bone roasting joint.

Thinking about it afterwards, my butcher was being very canny regarding that piece of beef; not only was he keeping it intact so that it would go on maturing on the bone, he was keeping his – and his customers’ – options open. There were at least three other things he could have done with it (and probably other possibilities I haven’t thought of). He could have:

  • sold the whole thing as a delicious but rather pricey roasting joint;
  • sliced it into several T-bone steaks;
  • boned it and made several each of sirloin and fillet steaks.

You just don’t get that kind of service and expertise from a supermarket.

[And when I went in on Holy Saturday to collect my shoulder of new season’s lamb, there were kidneys – fresh ones still encased in their protective suet – just right for my signature dish “Kidneys in B Minor”.]

 

 

Food for thought?

I’ve been pondering on food labelling. Whilst I applaud any effort to encourage people to eat good quality, wholesome, responsibly produced and traded produce, it seems to me we’ve got the labelling business arse-about-face:

Instead of some vegetables being described as “organic”, the rest of them should be labelled “grown with the assistance of nasty chemical fertilisers and bee-killing pesticides”.

Instead of some bags of coffee and bars of chocolate bearing the Fairtrade logo, the others should carry a large red label saying “produced by exploiting poor farmers in Africa (or wherever)”.

Instead of some eggs being labelled “free range”, the rest should be in boxes with a picture of a caged hen and the explanation that “these eggs were laid by hens which have spent their entire lives in a cramped, unsanitary, unnatural environment”.

That should make the punters think twice.

Hard Cheese

Last week, against my better judgment and because the choice in my local small supermarket is somewhat limited, I bought a packet of so-called “extra mature” Cheddar produced by one of those frightful cheese factories that churn out millions of rectangular blocks of characterless stuff with a completely uniform flavour throughout*.

Obviously I wasn’t expecting it to be of the same quality as the farmhouse Cheddar I would normally buy but it really was a waste of money. Quite apart from the misleading appellation (if that’s their idea of extra mature I dread to think how appallingly bland the merely mature version must be, let alone the mild one), the flavour was actually bordering on unpleasant. Why is there a market for this rubbish? I shall struggle to find a use for it. And cooking is not the answer, poor quality cheese usually tastes even worse when cooked.

Cheddar is the most abused name in the culinary universe. Sadly it does not enjoy the same Protected Geographical Status (PDO) as Stilton. Virtually any old hard cheese can be called Cheddar regardless of its provenance or quality. Which is a great pity.

Apparently there is a PDO for West Country Farmhouse Cheddar Cheese which must be “Limited to cheese produced, processed and prepared in Dorset, Somerset, Cornwall and Devon, using traditional methods. The product must normally be made from pasteurised cows’ milk from cows grazed in the designated area”. But it doesn’t go far enough – or rather too far geographically – and why the insistence on pasteurisation?

If I had my way, the name Cheddar would only be permitted to be used for cheese produced in the county of Somerset, made by traditional methods from local cows’ milk (preferably unpasteurised), shaped into a truckle covered with cheesecloth and matured for an absolute minimum of 12 months. Anything else that currently uses the name would have to be called Cheddar-style Cheese or in some cases Curd Rendered Abominably Pathetic.

No doubt if this were the law, the likes of Episcopal See and Wayfarers Preference (names changed to protect the guilty) might complain that sales would suffer. Hard cheese! If they made something half decent they would have no cause to worry. For example, Lincolnshire Poacher, an uncommonly fine English hard cheese which stands comparison with the very best farmhouse Cheddars (Montgomery, Quick’s, Keen’s), has no need to hide behind the Cheddar banner, it sells on its own merits.

But they won’t listen to me.

* In a proper Cheddar the flavour typically intensifies towards the rind.

Spice

A couple of days ago while skimming through an abandoned newspaper on the train, my eyes lit upon the alarming headline “Spice should be Class A drug”. Hastily I donned my reading glasses and with almost trembling fingers perused the article to discover which of the contents of the little jars in my kitchen might be about to become an illegal substance. No more smoked paprika? Curries without turmeric? Chilli devoid of cumin or even chilli?

False alarm – it transpires that the “spice” in question (aka K2) is a form of synthetic cannabis.  But you can’t be too careful; in these risk-averse times, who knows what innocuous culinary ingredient might be next in line for official censure.

Waste not, want not

I made a resolution this Lent not to waste food – not that I waste a lot but I felt I could be more careful.  I’m keeping to it fairly well although a few bits of stale bread have gone in the bin and I failed to make stock from the chicken carcass after our jerk chicken the other day.

It’s a big issue. I’m increasingly appalled at the amount of waste for which supermarkets are responsible by:

  • rejecting perfectly edible fruit and vegetables for purely cosmetic reasons;
  • failing to promote local and seasonal produce and buying stuff which can be grown here from overseas;
  • switching suppliers at short notice, leaving farmers with vast amounts of unsold (and quickly becoming unsalable) crops,
  • encouraging customers to buy more than they will use with BOGOF and multi-buy offers on perishable goods.

No doubt they would argue that they are only responding to demand, but they created the demand in the first place.  Before we had supermarkets, people knew when things were in season and were quite happy to eat misshapen vegetables; farmers knew where they stood because they supplied their local community.

Having a bit more time on my hands these days, I’ve just signed up to a gleaning programme. When a farm has a glut of surplus fruit or veg which would otherwise go to waste, volunteers are mobilised to pick the stuff and deliver it to charities who will ensure that it is used to feed people in need. It’s a worthy enterprise which I commend to my readers.  It’s time we took our stewardship of this planet more seriously.

Cabbage gets cold quickly

Whilst eating my dinner this evening, it struck me – not that I was entirely unaware of the fact before but it had largely failed to register in my consciousness – that cabbage gets cold quickly.

When you have prepared and served a cooked meal, it’s highly likely that some components will cool faster than others while some (sausages, tomatoes) will retain their heat for longer, even to the extent that they will still be liable to burn one’s tongue when others are already lukewarm.

Undoubtedly there are sound scientific reasons for this involving surface area, thermal conductivity and the like, but that’s no help to the cook endeavouring to give the diners an enjoyable gastronomic experience. Perhaps someone should devise a thermodynamically balanced menu?

Maybe the answer is in the layout? Could this even be the rationale behind the current trend for vertical stacking of food which I mildly denigrated in a recent blog? If so, I retract my comments – except that I still don’t want warm salad in my burger!

Cutting Edge

I’ve never got the expression “best thing since sliced bread”. That innovation seems to me like a retrograde step in the progress of civilisation. Why would you want your loaf exposed to the air at multiple points along its length so that it goes stale quicker? Yet millions of people do. Some will even pick up a fresh bloomer from the bakery counter and request its mutilation. Why? Are they incapable of wielding a bread knife? Too damned lazy?

Ok, maybe there is a modicum of skill involved in slicing bread. I vaguely remember in my youth it could go a bit wonky but that was a long time ago. And admittedly some types of bread are easier to cut than others. But surely it’s worth the effort to retain the freshness a bit longer and to have control over the thickness – you might want wafer thin cucumber sandwiches one day and then chunky toast when its past the first flush of youth.

But it’s not just bread. It’s vegetables. Today I bought some black kale – at least that’s what Tesco call it now. It used to be Cavallo Nero until kale became the trendiest ingredient on the planet (with the possible exception of salted caramel). And the leaves used to be whole but now they’re chopped up and sealed in a bag because presumably that’s what people expect of kale. All manner of vegetables are readily available peeled and chopped up. Personally I like to keep my vegetables whole until I’m ready to cook them. Why would anyone want to subject them to unnecessary drying out and discolouration?

And meat. Why buy a plastic tray of cubed “casserole steak” with multiple surfaces exposed to air and bacteria when you can get the butcher to carve you a nice chunk of shin and chop it up yourself just before cooking it.

And cheese. Cheese should be kept in as large a piece as possible for as long as possible: the cheesemonger buys the whole cheese; he cuts a wedge for the customer on demand; the customer keeps the wedge intact and cuts a smaller wedge prior to eating it.

So why do so many people buy pre-cut stuff? Are they prepared to sacrifice a degree of freshness for the sake of convenience? I suspect they are. Perhaps they don’t have a selection of suitable blades? And here’s a disquieting thought – maybe we’re all being groomed for the time when Health and Safety bans sharp implements of any kind.