Why I went on a nose-to-tail butchery course

Frustrated with her own meat-eating habits, Anna Turns decides to go on a nose-to-tail butchery adventure which leads her to re-think her own eating habits in the process.

On average, carnivores worldwide eat 40kg of meat annually. However, many meat-eaters have little awareness of the origin of their meat, or how the animals they eat are reared or prepared.

In recent years my appetite for meat has changed dramatically. I have always been an omnivore. Except for one week when, aged 14, I vowed to become vegetarian. The enticement of crispy Peking duck pancakes, however, saw a quick end to my plans. My recent written work has been focused increasingly on the importance of animal welfare and provenance. This area of study has further raised my awareness of the stark ethical and environmental impacts of meat-eating.

In her book The Ethical Carnivore: My Year Killing to Eat, Louise Gray highlights that as a global community we are already eating 60 billion animals per year, by 2050 that figure is expected to rise to 100 billion. The environmental impact of such numbers is huge.

Louise comments that “In my experience, understanding where your meat is from encourages people to eat less, because they want to invest in high welfare meat and appreciate it as a treat.”

I buy meat direct from local farmers or butchers I trust. I now feel that the supermarket meat aisle lacks traceability. In restaurants, I’ll only ever order a meat dish on the menu if I can guarantee that it’s good quality, free-range meat. More often than not I’ll order a veggie dish or opt for locally-caught fish.

So when I was invited along to a lamb butchery masterclass at the Millbrook Inn in South Devon, my gut reaction was to make my excuses and weasel my way out of it. But I went along and was pleasantly surprised.

Nose-to-tail Butchery

In front of me on the worktop is half a hogget. Older than lamb, younger than mutton, this hogget is a genuine spring lamb, born last April. The meat is redder in colour, and apparently richer in flavour. This is due to having eaten heather, herbs and grasses in addition to suckling milk.

For chef JP Bidart, provenance is key. “This hogget comes from a farmer down the road who I know well,” he tells me.

JP is inspired by the coastal countryside that surrounds him. Most of the carcasses he buys come from farmers just a few miles away. This means that the supply chain stays as short as possible. Food miles are at a minimum and the rich flavour can’t be beaten.

JP begins demonstrating how to dismantle the carcass. Adept with his knife, he makes butchery look like an art form. JP handles the piece of meat carefully and with ease. His respect for the meat is clear to see. When you first see a carcass, knowing where to start can be an intimidating prospect. JP realises his nifty skills are relatively specialist.

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“You need proper knowledge when it comes to butchery, and young chefs these days need to be properly trained in order to become confident with their knife skills.” JP explains that having the right tools is the first step. Using one exceptionally sharp knife, he cuts up the entire hogget.

Within half an hour he can strip a whole carcass into legs, rack and shoulders before prepping the organs and offal. It’s reminiscent of one of the most fascinating parts of my biology degree – dissection.

It’s like watching a surgeon making an incision. My stomach turns a little as JP shows me how he uses his fingers to prise apart the fibrous membranes to get to some of the meat. Once the carcass has been stripped, the entire ribcage is laid bare and every vertebra in the spine is clearly visible. Using every single part of the carcass is the most ethical way of eating an animal.

“People say I’m old-fashioned. Nothing is wasted. With one lamb I’ll cook shoulder, leg, loin, make some croquettes, meatballs; you can do a lot of things, and then I use the bones to make great stock from scratch, so one animal feeds a lot of people,” JP explains.

“Buying a whole carcass makes the meat cheaper and also forces you to use every ounce of the product – it makes me think more creatively about how to cook it. Even the cheaper cuts can be delicious when cooked in the right way, if you know what to do with it.”

Diners are taken out of their comfort zone with the unusual cuts and offal on the menu. The nose-to-tail philosophy of this country pub goes way beyond the supply of most restaurant kitchens.

“Our menu isn’t traditional pub food,” says JP. “One of our most popular dishes is lamb devilled kidneys – people phone us up in advance to check we have them on the menu, and I do think people are starting to get more experimental with what they choose to eat. Trying new things expands their horizons. So many people have tried our salads with various offal and then come back for more!”

Seeing an animal’s journey from field to fork has given me a greater appreciation for the whole animal. The author Louise Gray encourages people to take this further by meeting farmers or accompanying responsible hunters on a hunt.

As she explains, “It is a great joy to understand where your meat is from as you can support the kind of farming you want to see in the landscape and find meat that is diverse and delicious.”

Louise believes that we can better support British farmers by being more selective about the meat we choose to buy.

“I would encourage people to visit farmers markets, buy online, or look for labels such as organic and RSPCA-assured. I would also suggest finding a local butcher who you can trust to tell you about the provenance of different meats and trying different cuts.”

Knowing how my meat has been farmed, slaughtered and cooked has taken on increased importance for me. I now feel a much stronger connection between the meat I eat and the surrounding countryside.

If we don’t feel comfortable with how our meat is sourced and prepared, perhaps we shouldn’t be eating it at all.

The Ethical Carnivore by Louise Gray is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99

The Millbrook Inn – www.millbrookinnsouthpool.co.uk

About

Anna Turns

Anna Turns

Since graduating with a biology degree, Anna has worked in TV and magazine production. She now works as a freelance journalist based in Devon, specialising in sustainability, food and marine issues.

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