Rare and Traditional Breeds – The Future for Irish Butchers?

Summerhill Farm (4 of 41)

When we Irish say “grass fed” we mean “grass fed”.

Competition is the life blood of commerce. However, many Irish retail businesses have suffered a perfect storm over the past few years. None more so than the independent butchers. While there are huge problems, it’s not all bad. And for those of us interested in real food, there might just be a nice fatty lining to the meaty retail cloud.

Let’s look at some of the problems.

  • Supermarkets are easy to blame as they flex their buying muscles and undercut local market pricing.
  • Rents set back before the downturn leave some longer established retailers struggling to make enough margin to keep the fridges running  and the doors open.
  • Consumer tastes are changing as hipsters grow beards and faff about with six bean salads and yak milk cheese. It’s hard to stay ahead of some trends.
  • Meat processors depend on the supermarket chains and need to be ever more efficient. This efficiency drives volume. Volume means a lower than optimal choice for the consumer (See if you can get beef cheeks or bone marrow in the average supermarket).
  • The grocery chains are great at marketing. They can make you believe you are buying premium quality when in fact, by the time they are finished with you, you wouldn’t know premium if it had a half price sticker on.
  • In an effort to be price competitive, independent butchers cut their quality and disguise the meat by ‘adding value’ through tactics like disguising meat in bought-in sauces or tweaking their original recipe sausages to reduce cost. This is the road to ruin in my opinion.
  • Wholesale intermediaries are also upping their game and are supplying butchers with prepared, pre-packaged meat. All the butcher has to do with his finely honed filleting knife is slice open a plastic outer to get at the goods. In the short term, this looks like a great advantage to the retail butcher. It saves time and the small premium seems worth the cost. However, over time, this can lead a butcher to believe that he doesn’t need so many qualified staff behind the counter. If all they are doing is selling prepared meat, they don’t need to know how to break a pig, or even butterfly a leg of lamb. At that stage, the business is finished. It no longer adds any real worth and has no place in the value chain.
Summerhill Farm (38 of 41)

A magnificent Hereford, part of a multi-generational herd.

A lot of the above is pretty bleak stuff. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are many top quality, independent butcher shops who are carving out a niche and a decent living by being innovative, by specialising and by listening to the needs and desires of their customers. Some are educating through seminars and demonstration evenings. Some are working hard at niches such as the fitness market. Some are going where supermarkets can’t go. They are specialising in rare and traditional breed beef and pork, only available in quantities that make it impossible for large chains. They are bringing back the skills and knowledge to their craft. They are selling lesser known cuts and advising their customers on cooking methods. These shops need our patronage. We need to support them for ourselves. Otherwise, we face a future where low standards are inevitable, as commercial pressures and an ill-informed customer base get comfortable in each other’s company. We can’t let that happen.

If you can’t work out why they are called Belted Galloway, I can’t help you.

Now, on the subject at hand. Here’s what you could do with some rare breed (Belted Galloway), dry aged (45 days) steaks. I cooked them sous vide and finished them on the barbecue.


  • Steaks
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Butter

Season the steaks with the salt and pepper.

Great neat doesn’t need a lot of flavours added.

Add a generous knob of butter to each steak.

Butter makes it better. It probably doesn’t need so much.

Vacuum seal.

Cook at 55ºC for an hour.

Fire up the barbecue and get it very hot.

Side note on barbecue cooking: Mostly, one doesn’t want to only sear the outside of food on the barbecue. The A&E Departments are filled each year with people who do this with chicken. Cook low and slow rather than hot and flamey if you are cooking on the barbecue. As the meat is cooked in the sous vide, we only want a sear so, in this case, a very hot barbecue is ideal.

Put the steaks on and sear on either side.

They sear very quickly as they are cooked already.

Sprinkle with some salt, carve and eat.

Steak doesn’t get any better than this. It’s the future for Irish Butchers!

This is truly delightful meat and is all the evidence that is needed to prove that there is a place for the trained, interested and inventive butcher in our food chain. But, the butcher needs great meat in the first place. That’s where the rare and traditional breeds come into play. Myself and butcher James Lawlor went on a trip to Kilkenny recently and met with farmer Mark Williams of Summerhill Farm. Mark is from a long line of farmers in Kilkenny and is passionate about rare and traditional breeds and their role in the future of independent butchery. More of that in a later article.

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  • Here, here! No arguements from me on any point listed here. Farmer’s Markets in Australia provide the most reliable source of ethically raised old breed beef and pork and if you’re extra lucky, lamb and poultry. Well aged belted galloway rib eye remains the best beef I’ve ever tasted…

  • The Husband’s cousin is a grazier, running beef cattle on a station of over a million acres, all grass fed. His main audience is Australian supermarkets and export, but he’s diversified into Wagyu beef for precisely the reasons you’ve given. The two-pronged approach seems to be working for him, he can’t raise enough of the Wagyu beasts the way he’d like to supply the demand he’s now getting. I foresee a time when his entire station is Wagyu and rare breeds.

      • But our grass isn’t as thick and rich and green as yours. A lack of rain and poorer soil means you need a load more space to feed the beasts. The marbling in meat they produce is incredible.

  • Excellent post Conor. I personally believe meat is way too cheap. And I’m perpetually broke! Ideally everyone should be eating better quality meat far less often. I’m also interested in the welfare of the animal. Not just from an ‘old hippie’ perspective, but also from the fact that a well-raised animal is the sign of a farmer that knows their craft and does the job properly. I gave up supermarket meat here in Australia after one too many times opening the plastic wrap on a styrofoam tray of a nice red steak, only to turn it over and find the underside is a nauseating concrete grey mush. Too much focus on profit and shareholder margins, not enough focus on providing the community with a quality product. I’ve also started supporting my local greengrocer for the ‘boring’ stuff 🙂

  • Beautiful beasts and steaks – I particularly like the look of the cooked fat!

      • It looks very good – almost like the fat on a Galician steak – which is supposedly among the best in the world! If she were my daughter she wouldn’t get a look in 😉

          • Ha ha – you’re in trouble then!

  • I love how Conor schedules his posts to perfectly fit in to the mid-evening madness here in sunny Perth, Western Australia. Chilling after work with a glass of nice dry white, enjoying the words and loving the photography of a culinary crazy-person
    half a world away. What a time to be alive!

  • For what it’s worth, I do my Waggie steaks the same as you, except sear in a cast iron skillet-y thing (red hot on the gas hob, disable the house smoke alarm first). I would let you know in secret that I don’t have a barbecue but that would be silly! The authorities would confiscate my Australian passport.

  • Have you read ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ by Micheal Pollan? Very illuminating.

  • Great post Conor.

  • What perfectly splendid animals! I am torn between wanting to hug them all and wanting to dive head-first into that steak (and there is no such thing as too much butter).

    I agree wholeheartedly with your points. This is an excellent article and I hope you pass it along to independents who are on the fence. The inhumane state of factory farming here in the U.S. is NOT something to be emulated by other parts of the world.

  • I love this post, it’s so important to keep the skills and traditions alive. And to have the rare breeds raised. There is a problem with bananas because one species was the top choice so other species weren’t grown, now there is a disease hitting the bananas so there could be a shortage of bananas due to lack of diversity.

      • I prefer to avoid them but don’t want them to die out. I look forward to exploring the various different choices for meat when we move back. I’m hoping for a larger selection.

  • There goes my Yak Cheese business blown to pieces 🙂 😉 Great write up!

  • Great post CB. Butchers here face a similar dilemma. Our local butcher has said that finding apprentices is virtually impossible. We only buy meat from him, we don’t consume a lot but what we do is purchase is ethically sourced and fine quality. He breaks down all his carcasses and makes their own excellent sausages from scratch. Doing our best to support small business. Every little bit counts. Hopefully.

  • hear, hear, I’m with you all the way. We’re lucky where we live in having some highly skilled butchers who source their meat carefully, and I buy my lamb direct from the farmer who butchers it himself … best I’ve ever eaten. I rarely buy meat from the supermarket these days but not everyone is as lucky with their local producers and butchers. So many small butchers’ shops have closed because of the competition from the supermarkets. Many of those that have survived have done exactly what you suggest.

      • Sorry, did that come out the wrong way? I wasn’t suggesting your ideas are unoriginal, just that they work!

  • Here in the states, top quality beef and pork is becoming increasingly available. A growing number of farmers in the US are raising various heritage pigs and price is starting to come down. The butcher that I patronize sells Waygu beef, Berkshire pork and heritage chickens. His prices are very high but the quality is awesome. For just a little more than standard supermarket price, we can also buy Certified Angus Beef, which is the Angus graded in the top 25%, not Waygu but very good. We are also fortunate to have a German butcher.

    By the way, though sous vide is a great way to cook steaks perfectly, it also transforms less expensive cuts of meat. For example, a chuck roast cooked sous vide at 135 F for 36 hours is wonderfully tender and flavorful.

  • Oh Conor please do as Mr Pflaum suggests and give Chuck Roast Sous Vide a whirl in the Anova bath, it’s what got me into this game.Just take care with aromats, a cook that long can amplify their presence past the point of enjoyability.

  • I’m sure we have rare breeds around in the States somewhere, and even real meat butchers…

  • I just got to read your post today and I have to agree with all you have said. The race to the bottom is only of benefit to estate agents ultimately. The skill set a real butcher has is leagues ahead of the supermarkets, but the average customer is swayed by loss leading price promotions, convenience, parking etc., but we should be brave enough to position ourselves as artisan craftspeople, talk up the provenance of our stock and charge accordingly. There is a market, but sometimes you have to create it, and that takes a bit of nerve. If you get into a p***ing contest with the supermarkets, they won’t even notice, perhaps only when you close down. Believe in what you do guys, stand behind everything you sell, dare to be different.

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