Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Butchery is not for the Squeamish

If you read a reasonable amount of crime fiction you’ll be aware that the concept of ‘body parts’ is one that pretty frequently crops up. Corpses are often dismembered, and plotlines involving identifying a particular piece are, let’s face it, not unheard of.

Sometimes an author will refer to the difficulty of actually performing the act, at times there will be a link to the profile of the criminal by looking at their expertise or otherwise in the area. What is however the reality of this? Is it simply a case of having a sharp enough knife or is there really a ‘skill’ involved?

Last night, in a much delayed Christmas present from my mother (dating from 2008 just to be clear, so really delayed) my wife and I went to a pig butchery class run by The Ginger Pig, realistic claimants to the title of best butcher in London.

Being confronted by a pig’s carcass right at the start is enough to make you stop and think. Lifting the half pig from the hook onto the block, hefting the 60 or so kilos, watching for the swinging trotter, and moving the dead weight isn’t a trivial task. You’re then presented with a vista of very fresh meat. We often think of pork as being light brown, almost grey when it’s huddled underneath its plastic packaging when presented in serried ranks in the supermarket. Believe me, the reality is quite different.

Vegetarianism holds little or no appeal to me, and I’ve never had a problem with knowing where my meat came from, but when you’re presented with the sheer size and quantity of a pig in front of you there is a moment where the mouth becomes a little dry, and you find yourself reaching for water. This is when it’s about to get real.

A butchery class is not for the squeamish. Immediately following a frank introduction to Ginger Pig’s farming methods (free range not organic) and a crash course in the various cuts, it’s straight into a very close range encounter with the animal, in a very nose to tail manner. You’re encouraged to touch, to become familiar with handling the carcass, and see that just about all of the animal can be effectively used for food, from the obvious areas of loin and belly, through to the slightly unexpected but still logical (trotters, tail), and eventually to the less expected, how a pig’s head can make a brawn, or the cheeks smoked, and even the (strikingly small in size) brain is edible (if not to everyone’s taste, the taste is apparently somewhat fishy).

Butchery involves all the senses, and in particular it’s audible. Several attendees commented that their first hearing of saw on bone was going to lurk in their ‘dreams’ for a while to come. One was heard to refer to the tearing out of skirt fat as his ‘Dexter’ moment. It’s also, perhaps disturbingly, something you rapidly just get used to. If nothing else, you learn that a human’s sense are very attuned, but equally we are rapidly desensitised.

As you get further involved in butchering the animal, you start to understand that this is indeed a very complex affair, easy if you do it right, but a complete fool’s errand if you get even a little bit wrong. It doesn’t matter how sharp your knife or big your cleaver, if you’re not doing it right, you’re not going to be cutting anything up. In short, there’s no question, skill is involved.

Let’s link this back to writing. Butchers are everywhere when you start to think about it. I seem to remember reading about the butcher of Raveloe in George Eliot’s “Silas Marner” as a teenager and thinking he should be recast as a serial killer (perhaps one for the creators of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”). Likewise, and I’m again relying on distant memory here, I think Michael Freyn in “Spies” referred to the local butcher as a “familiar bloodstained comedian”.

In “Dark Hearts of Chicago”, Helen Rapoport and William Horwood’s 2007 novel about crime, journalism, and the Chicago World Fair, there is a section about how attendees were captivated by the speed with which Chicago stockmen would ‘dress’ a carcass, breaking it down into constituent parts. Having now seen this with a pig I can now see what they’re talking about. Around the room we had a quick straw poll on how long we thought it would take to perform the butchery – given that we, as a group, had just spent over an hour going through the process. Most of us reckoned in the two to five minute mark…

And astonishingly this is apparently quite a way slower than the Ginger Pig record…

The clearest butchery and crime fiction link in mind at the moment though is with Stuart MacBride’s “Flesh House”. To his credit MacBride went to the effort of learning about the operations of an abattoir in researching his book, and while he writes and speaks about it entertainingly (including a reference to being kicked in the head by a cow’s carcass) there’s a real degree of honesty about how understanding where your food comes and how it’s produced should really be present in the minds of everyone who eats. This is something that comes across loud and clear from the Ginger Pig. They’re passionate about what they do, and part of that is highly connected with the welfare of their animals, and respect for what they ‘produce’. The fact that they are at pains to point out how to spot signs of stress in the pork you buy (red spots, if you see that, then please don’t buy that piece of meat) and highlight that they work to avoid this ever happening at their farms speaks volumes about their value system.

It’s almost certainly not for everyone, and it’s not cheap, but a butchery night at Ginger Pig in Marylebone is a wonderful and eye opening experience. You leave, having met some fantastic people, learnt a lot about food and how to handle it, rounded off with a jaw droppingly good meal and a glass of wine, with a renewed appreciation for food and butchery.

A word of warning though... butchery can be habit forming. Flush with the excitement of the pig experience, a tweet from @GingerPigLtd announcing a 20% discount on this Friday's beef course was enough to inspire us to reach for the phone and book...

I've now linked this post to the Ginger Pig Pork Class entry on Edible Experiences.

Edible Experiences

1 comment:

  1. Being both ginger and a pig, I've been called that more than once - so it must be true, I can only feel some empathy for the speedy dissection of the last fella. Nearest thing I've chopped up to that was a few rabbits on scout camp, more than 30 years ago. Still, Leporidae were bigger in my day !