Growing up in Ireland there were many local butchers, there still are. The small area that my grandmother lived in had two, and each of them reared, killed and butchered their own meat. This was common practice, until very recently.
I have many fond memories of going to the butchers. Our local butcher was the son of a family friend and our grandmother would send us there to get some minced beef and a t-bone steak with an onion. An onion? Well, my father thought he hated onions, but my grandmother craftily had the onion minced in with the meat and to this day, he doesn’t know that he has been eating onions all his life. I told him once and he refused to believe me.
In Ireland we have always consumed a lot of beef, and produced a lot more. We export 80% of our beef on average, and while beef consumption isn’t as high as it used to be, 55% of the population still consume beef regularly. Our cattle population is on a par with the human population – in fact there are more of them (5.93 million in 2008).
Things have changed now though. A change in the law relating to abattoirs and the increased presence of supermarkets (generally offering meat that is below par), combined with the BSE crisis, has resulted in the closure of a lot of these local abattoirs and butchers. They just can’t compete or suffer the increased costs and this is a great shame.
There are some gems remaining, one of which is McGrath’s Butchers in Lismore, Co Waterford. They’ve been in the butchery business since the early 1800s, and in the current shop, the latest generation – fourth – butcher presides with his third generation father. They farm their own beef and have an abattoir at the back of the shop where they butcher their own animals weekly.
It seems strange to talk about being charmed by this operation, but really, you can tell that they run this with great care and respect, resulting in a top quality product. The abattoir is a key stage of the meat production process – whether we want to address it or not – and it’s important that it’s right.
The shop itself is sweet and very old school. The cash register is located away from the meat counter and handled by the lady of the house. Hygienic, it makes perfect sense. Why did we stop doing that? Staff overheads? A kitchen behind provides ample cups of tea and biscuits and a comforting large range.
McGrath’s supply the michelin starred Cliff House Hotel and also Ballyvolane House and O’Brien’s Chop House. Those guys really know a good thing when they see it. It’s so important that we support local butchers like this. It’s better for us, for flavour and health, for our communities and for local economies.
The better supermarkets can give you the name of the farmer, but what’s better than buying from the farmer himself and knowing that he raised those animals in the green fields nearby? Outdoor reared? These animals have so much room to roam, it makes me feel so sorry for those poor ones interned in intensive farms. The animals are local too, there are no long distances for them to travel. That is traceability and sustainability, right there. We should support it. We need to if it’s to survive.
So, next time you think of going to the supermarket for your meat, just try your local butcher, I promise the quality will exceed. If it’s more expensive,and it very well may be in cities at least, remember the care and attention that went into it, how very much better it is for you, and once you become an established customer there are always perks. Free bone marrow anyone? Expert advice on how to cook it?
I always say with meat, shop local (or in a good butchers at least), eat less, taste more, and enjoy it.