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.
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.
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.
Season the steaks with the salt and pepper.
Add a generous knob of butter to each steak.
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.
Sprinkle with some salt, carve and eat.
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.