Meat Counter Mentality

A couple of months ago my esteemed butcher announced that he was retiring. I wished him well of course and was somewhat relieved to hear that he was selling the business as a going concern, but good traditional butchers are a rare breed these days so I was naturally apprehensive about what this might mean for my future meat buying activities.

The shop reopened this week, having been closed for refurbishment for over a month. In the meantime, a new butcher had opened a bit closer to home so of course I had to check that out.

There seems to be a growing, and to my mind unwelcome, trend for butchers to sell pre-cut and packaged meat. This was particularly evident in the brand-new establishment and to a lesser extent in the reopened one. I say unwelcome because I like the sort of butcher who, if I ask for a joint of pork, will bring out half a pig and say “Which bit would you like?” (OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, although it did actually happen when I visited a butcher in Penkridge whilst on a narrowboat holiday a few years ago).

I find myself pondering the reasons behind this new trend. Is it something to do with (regulations concerning or changing public perceptions regarding) food hygiene? Have customers become so accustomed to picking up plastic trays of meat in supermarkets that they think of it as normal? Are they so squeamish that they prefer not to witness the act of butchery? Or do they perhaps lack the vocabulary to articulate their requirements to a real butcher? (How many people nowadays know what hand and spring, a chump end or a Barnsley chop is?)

Whatever the reasons, I don’t like it. Not only does it tend to produce more unnecessary packaging which is bad for the environment (particularly non-recyclable polystyrene trays), but it restricts choice and it surely can’t be in the best interests of the business, except perhaps at unduly busy times. So why are so many butchers succumbing to the meat counter mentality?

As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, by keeping a carcase largely intact up to the point of sale, the traditional butcher is keeping his – and his customers’ – options open. A whole loin of pork can potentially become a few roasting joints or a lot of chops or a mixture of the two. A sirloin of beef can similarly become several joints or a selection of steaks. But once bits of meat have been sliced up, boned (as they almost invariably are*) and wrapped in plastic there’s nothing the butcher can do except hope to sell them before their sell-by date.

And what happens to the bits that don’t make it into the plastic trays? I’m a great believer in “nose to tail” eating. If we’re going to eat animals, we have a duty not only to treat them humanely and ensure they have as natural a life as possible but to use all the edible parts, not just the most succulent or those that are least reminiscent of their origin when wrapped in plastic. Which reminds me – I must put the new butcher to the test by asking for a pig’s head and some sweetbreads.

* That’s another gripe – I like my joint, whether it be rib of beef, loin of pork or shoulder of lamb, on the bone. Not only does it tend to have more flavour but I then have bones from which to make stock (which normally ends up being reunited with any meat that’s left after the roast and the cold cuts to form an unctuous broth for a mid-week supper).