As a youth I used to weep in butcher's shops.....

It's funny, initially this post was going to be a raving diatribe about butchers being a bunch of sarcastic, argumentative buggers but a certain recipe came along which knocked the wind out of my sails. One minute I'm thinking "I should really write about how I should have smacked a certain trenchant git with a blue stripped apron in the mouth" but then my mind turns to the success of a romantic evening. Do I witter on needlessly about the bad experiences I've had in butcher's shops, the subsequent fear that has developed and the panic that I'll look like a plonker whenever I walk in? Or do I give credit where credit's due? I think I'll do both because for all the stress and confusion I endured when purchasing some meat the other day, Mr Jonathan Brown's latest effort deserves to be championed.

Let's talk about the problem first. Whenever possible, I try to buy my meat from butchers and the reasons are straightforward. It's better to support small independent businesses, provenance and quality will be high on the agenda (well usually) and these are places where you can go in and talk to someone, confident that the advice you seek is coming from a professional. And not some spotty Saturday schoolboy.

Er so what is the fricking problem? Well for every friendly, presentable, rosy faced gentleman that I've met who practises the fine art of dismemberment, you do occasionally come across an obstructive piss-taker. I ventured into one local butcher once to buy some skirt steak, a cut I'd never come across before but wanted to try out after finding a recipe for barbecued bavette. After hearing my enquiry, the owner, a heavy set man with a corned beef complexion blinked at me and said "Whatugonnadowiththat?" I told him and what followed was some kind of mexican standoff as the proprietor argued that this was totally the wrong cut to be grilled on a barbecue and that perhaps I should go for some nice sirloin or fillet. I held my ground for about 5 minutes until he brought his toothless mate from out back to try and convince me that I was making a mistake so I just yelled in a high pitched voice "look please, I just want some fucking skirt!" to which he smirked "steady on mate, only trying to help."

For a short period, I went through a stage of making terrines and made regular trips to another butcher for pork shoulder as required by a lot of recipes. All was fine and dandy until my, I suppose fourth or fifth visit and the cost had more than doubled. When I asked why, this normally amiable old soul just leaned over and snarled "I think you've been doing pretty well with the price so far" which I found very odd. Then I saw what I took to be his wife emerge through the chains hanging in the doorway behind him. The phrase 'rottweiler chewing a wasp' came to mind and as it was the first time I'd seen her, I could only assume that this hike was due to the presence of his missus. Shame, if he had just given me a subtle roll of the eyes and nudged his head gently backwards in her direction, I would have paid up with an equally subtle wink and tap on the nose. Instead, I simply walked out, fairly disgusted.

And now comes my most recent episode when I visited a farmshop that came highly recommended for it's butchery department. There was indeed a fine selection of meat on display. I was very excited to see ox cheeks as they seem to be one of the 'in' cuts at the moment and I hadn't tried them before so I bought a kilo. Feeling pretty pleased with myself and continuing to peruse, I decided to strike up a conversation with the fella behind the glass counter.

"What's the difference between braising and stewing steak?" I asked.

To which he replied "weeell, you see this" (points to braising steak) "you braise in the oven, and you see this" (points to stewing steak) "you stew in the oven." In a manner as if he were addressing a very young child.

I stared back him with a thoroughly perplexed frown, wondering "did I just ask him a really stupid question? Or is he just treating me like a simpleton? Or is that in fact his answer?" So I waited for the laugh, the smirk, the wink, the anything. But I got nothing. He just stared back at me blankly. So I just slowly walked off, feeling like the biggest plank ever, clutching a bag of ox cheeks tightly by my side.

And herein lies my problem. Sure I cook a lot and I eat a lot of the damned stuff but there are times when I feel like I am in the dark about the fundamentals, the different breeds and where the different cuts come from on the animal (let's not get started on the 'forgotten cuts'). Coupled with this self imposed image of being a fully paid up, badge wearing, flag waving foodie and well you start to feel like a bit of a fraud. Perhaps I should do one of those River Cottage courses. Perhaps I should read a book or two! Or maybe I am just being too hard on myself. Either way I have to do something to conquer this nagging doubt in the back of my head otherwise one day I am going to make a lunge for that smart-arsed butcher. Which of course would be even dafter, those guys could cut me up into chops in seconds.

"Yes madam, this mincemeat is very fresh, we made it only half an hour ago. Oh yes these glasses are new. Yes, just like what that Harry Hill would wear, ha ha ha"

Still there is the fairytale ending that I alluded to at the beginning of the post. After shaking off the embarrassment of my visit, I came home and set about looking for recipes for ox cheeks. As fate would have it, Mr Brown of Around Britain With A Paunch had just posted his recipe for Ox Cheek Open Ravioli so I decided so have a crack at that for a Valentines Supper last Sunday. Interestingly, this is the first time that I have used a blogger's recipe. Sure I've looked at loads for inspiration before but this was the first one I adhered to word for word. A little tip here, it's handy to keep your laptop next to the place where you are preparing your ingredients. I spent a good while to-ing and fro-ing between the front room and kitchen, spilling wine and dropping chopped onion everywhere before it dawned on me. And as I don't own a slow cooker I went for the Le Creuset in a very low oven for 5 hours method instead. I was very pleased with the end result. The meat came out beautifully, supremely tender and packed with flavour. The sauce itself was fantastic, rich and intense. And the pasta! Mama mia the pasta! I finally made some bloody pasta that I was happy with. In future I shall take the cue to make it little and often as it was infinitely more manageable. Like I said, I didn't really intend for this post to be a swoon over Jonathan's effort and I would have been happier if he'd called it "lasagne" rather than open ravioli. But the success of a good meal definitely perked me up after my last bout of carnophobia (or should that be catagelophobia). So I think a pat on the back is in order. And maybe, just maybe Mr Brown will hold my hand the next time I make a trip to The Ginger Pig?

Separating the cheeks

Straining the wine

Making the pasta

Ox Cheek Open Ravioli (or Lasagne as it should be)


Anonymous said…
Let me do it all for you; get in touch with me at markymarket at hotmail dot com and I'll get whatever you want from my tame butchers. And I'll bring it round as well, as long as there's a cup of tea at the end of the journey.
goodshoeday said…
I am disappointed that you have not mentioned the helpful information that @josordoni and I provided you with as regards to stewing and braising steak Dan this really is a poor show ;0
The Ample Cook said…
That looks amazing, what a lovely thing to do for your beloved. I hope Mrs FU showed her appreciation ;)
Paunchos said…
Wow. Without question this post is my favourite anyone has ever written! Loved the grumpy butcher chat. And sorry for calling it open ravioli. Lasagne is probably a better term. Your sauce looks amazing glossy. I'm honoured that you followed the recipe to the letter. Is there anything that needs tweaking?
Gastro1 said…
I recommend O'Sheas of Knightbridge to restore your faith.
AmuseboucheUK said…
Know what you mean about some butchers - "Meat Heads" - I had one locally with a "very heavy thumb" who I don't use any more but have found one a little further away who put's stock bones aside for me and will, with a day or twos notice get me any cut of any animal I ask for despite that his "old git" assistant says ox cheeks are only fit for dogs! - we have a larf too!
G said…
My in-law's local butcher is quite possibly the most grumpy, offensive butcher I have ever come across. I've only ever bought meat from there once - never again. I'm surprised he has any customers left!

My local butcher, on the other hand, is a smashing chap, as are all the others in the shop. good meat too, especially the locally made sausages!
That's funny most of my butchers have been lovely and helpful. Maybe they are a different species down here.
The end product looked beautiful though.
Anonymous said…
I glad I'm not the only one bouncing from butcher to butcher, constantly being disappointed by their spiky attitudes and arrogance.

I love the sound of this recipe, I'll be braving the sardonic attitudes for some ox cheek I think.

PS. Tesco are doing slow cookers for around the £10 mark at the moment. I picked one up last year and it's brill.
EssexGourmet said…
Just goes to show that a good & knowledgeable butcher is a real find. Even I know that stewing/braising steak comes from different parts of the beast, usually flank/shin, tougher/tenderer, so your butcher certainly should!

Anyways, good on you Dan for turning your back on those that do not provide the service you require. I was drawn to Mr Browns recipe too - looks & sounds fantastic.
The Grubworm said…
A friendly and knowledgeable butcher can be worth their (not inconsiderable weight) in gold. I'll always go back to someone who doesn't treat you like an idiot for asking simple questions. And I'll travel too - i have three dotted around north/central London I'll happily go back to - Jame Elliot, E Wood (both Islington) and one who's name i can never remember outside Smithfields market.

The Ginger Pig is the only place where they've advised me to change cut and I've ended up with a better dish as a result. Mind you, they've always got top quality meat so it might be down to that.
Erin said…
Augh yes, I've totally had the smug-yet-obstinate butcher experience. So tedious. I miss my butcher in Vancouver. Once he figured out I knew my stuff (sort of) he used to dive into the back and get me 'proper' stuff, bits that had been aged longer but didn't look as pretty, etc. *sigh*.
Becky said…
I still get scared in the butchers that I will come across as a total ignoramus, my local has nothing on display so you have to ask either whats good , present a scenario cooking for six people Friday night or have something specific in mind then he drags out a carcass and gets to work. No prices anywhere so it's always a big pot luck. Funnily enough I just picked up some Ox Cheeks, this looks gorgeous it might be time to dust off the pasta maker
gastrogeek said…
"Like a rottweiler chewing a wasp" - love it!
That had me laughing out loud! Brilliantly visual description of the butcher which had memories flooding back... Great blog! Lou
That had me laughing out loud! Brilliantly visual description of the butcher which had memories flooding back... Great blog! Lou
meemalee said…
Ooh you copycat :)

My post on ox cheeks was about how I'm scared of butchers!


meemalee's kitchen: Braised Ox Cheeks and Mash
goodshoeday said…
PS You really should buy HFW Meat books as lots of info on all the cuts etc.
PPs are you prepared to disclose the name of farmshop or at very least whisper it so I can avoid?
Helen said…
There's a butcher in East Dulwich that really gets my goat. They are all shiny and nice and everything but if you ask them questions they don't really know their stuff at all. People in ED are seduced by the nice signs and the pretty displays and every weekend there is a queue stretching right down the road. The far superior van down the road gets totally overlooked. Baffling.
Unknown said…
I feel like a fraudulent food blogger most of the time. I haven't got a clue how to cook and carve meat properly and 30% of my cakes and pies are total disaster. Oops I shouldn't have said that since I'm shortly to be one of your Where's My Pork Chops. Be afraid...
Unknown said…
I also meant to say the lasagne looks very very nice. I have a nice friendly butcher in Walthamstow village who I can introduce you too and I doubt he'd laugh if you asked for a bit of skirt.
Food Urchin said…
Markymarket - I've still yet to contact you about coming around with you on one your rounds. I will do soon.

Goodshoeday - are you being contrary again?

The Ample Cook - yes the meal went down well thanks "love is in the air do do do do love is...

Paunchos - Weeelll it was a very good recipe in my opinion, I pretty much followed it to the tee, just added a few cubes of butter at the end to the sauce to get that sheen.

Gastro1 - thanks, I shall endeavour to get over there, have heard lots about O'Sheas

AmuseboucheUK - Glad to hear that I'm not the only one to have met some "meat heads" in their time.

G - The first butcher in question has now sold up, think the business suffered for that very reason. The new people who have taken over are lovely.

A Scot In London - All I ever want from a butchers is a friendly face. And a hug, yes a hug would be nice.

RoastPotato - You should defo give this recipe a try. And I've been tinkering with the idea of slow cooker for a while. £10 you say?!

EssexGourmet - it certainly does. To be honest, I have do a 'rough' idea what cuts are what, it's just nicer to engage. There's always something new to learn.

The Grubworm - I like the Ginger Pig too, though one time I left there convinced they'd persuaded me to part with a little more cash than I intended!

Erin - I feel your pain, Vancouver is a bit of a trek to do some shopping.

Becky - I'd be scared going into that butchers!

Gastrogeek - oh there's plenty of rottweiler types out there, they marry butchers generally.

Louis Anthony Woodbine - glad you enjoyed the post!

Meemalee - how dare you call me a copycat and how dare you use my blog to advertise your own!

Goodshoeday - hello again, yes I think I will have a squizz at the MEAT book. As for the farmshop, I'll let you know over a coffee soon.

Helen - So do you get your goat from the man in the van then?

Sarah Maison Cupcake - 30%? Hmm I'll take those odds. And yes, you really should try this recipe.
ginandcrumpets said…
Butchers, bike shops and camera shops - all three are places I going into thinking I know what I want and within 2 questions the feeble, sandy foundations of my knowledge are exposed. I end up hazarding answers to their questions and my interrogators eyebrows go further and further up in astonishment.

Although, Hartes Irish and Jamaican butchers in Peckham are very nice and helpful, even if I do confuse the younger assistants by accidentally ordering in Imperial measurements occasionally.
Fantastic post Dan! I used to go to a butchers which is a 3 minute walk from my flat. I used to be sniggered at when i didnt know what some of the simple cuts were and later when I asked for more unusual cuts (i seem to remember it being a skirt too) I had the same interogation of "what you going to do with it?" and "why don't you just have this..." as if my business was no good for them. After feeling like a dick several times and being sold a batch of gone off chicken thighs I took my business to a butchers a long walk or short drive away where over the past year I have almost made friends with the old boys. They have even let me come out back and have a go at some butchering myself.

I never take having such a good butcher for granted and will never forget feeling like a tourist in the one I used to go to.
Hollow Legs said…
Wow - I guess I've been lucky with my butcher as he's nothing but nice (if a bit patronising... "Breast of lamb? But that's not what you young'uns like"). That lasagne looks WELL GOOD.
Unknown said…
...... 'I think you should strangle it instantly, in case it starts trying to make friends with us’
Good to see dear Monty being quoted, so I thought I would return the favour.
So, how are you? I see the blog is going well. How are the twins, Mrs Food Urchin etc?
I want to send you a couple of T shirts I think you'll like. Would you look on our site and email me what size you are?

All the best


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