A butcher can help you eat better and cheaper, too

Timothy Barber
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THEscene at Fulham butcher HG Walter would once have been a familiar one, with the smartly-aproned staff behind its counter, some serving, some wielding fearsome knives at a giant chopping board, reducing great hunks of animal to alluring, perfectly-formed pieces. French-trimmed racks of lamb and veal, chops painted in herby marinades, plump chicken breasts, deep-crimson braising steak, huge marbled sirloin steaks and glistening dollops of liver all are laid out like an art installation. The scene is a big, fat, visual &ldquo;yum&rdquo;.<br /><br />In recent times, though, such sights have been a rarity. The image of the butcher is closer to a sawdust-floored, blood-spattered figure. But HGWalter&rsquo;s owner Peter Heanen, who has been in the business his whole life, following his father&rsquo;s footsteps, reckons good butchery is recovering its reputation. &ldquo;It was a very hard job, and in the Sixties and Seventies it lost a lot, becoming very functional. But it has changed, and at its best it&rsquo;s about real passion and excellence,&rdquo; he says, handing a local lady a packet of perfectly pink veal steak.<br /><br />The butchery trade failed to deal with the rise of the supermarkets and an industry that was once a staple of every high street crumbled. However, our new-found maturity as a foodie nation &ndash; with the interest in quality sourcing, farmers markets and local cuisine becoming a widespread phenomenon, at least among those who can afford quality sourcing and farmers markets &ndash; is leading us back to butcher&rsquo;s block. Consider the popularity of the butchery courses that are proliferating right now, for everyone from corporate teams and stag or hen parties to those who simply want a closer understanding of what they eat.<br /><br />Nevertheless, if you don&rsquo;t know your bavette from your osso bucco, a butcher&rsquo;s shop can seem a confusing, even intimidating, place. We&rsquo;re so used to the one-size-fits-all, choice-free packets of vacuum-sealed supermarket meats that the idea of hovering around in the butcher&rsquo;s wondering what to say about quantity, weight or cut, before stumbling home with an overpriced lump of meat and no idea what to do with it, seems a little unnecessary.<br /><br />Those who venture in discover that the reality is different. After all, as Heanen points out, good butchers are still masters of another art many of us have forgotten existed in shops &ndash; friendly, expert guidance. &ldquo;We&rsquo;ll talk to you about what kind of thing you want, how many you&rsquo;re cooking for, and we&rsquo;ll not only give you one way of cooking it, but if you want we&rsquo;ll give you some variations.&rdquo;<br /><br />HG Walter even has an in-house chef (Heanen&rsquo;s daughter Clare, a graduate of the prestigious Leiths School of Food and Wine) to come up with recipes. And of course half the fun of the butcher&rsquo;s shop is working one&rsquo;s way through the more unusual cuts you&rsquo;ll never find in the supermarket, like specially-prepared spatchcock of lamb, onglet steak or beef bavettes. In recessionary times, that can be good for the wallet too &ndash; such cuts are often considerably cheaper than the major cuts, though no less tasty when cooked correctly. Bavette, cut from the cow&rsquo;s flank at a fraction of the cost of rib-eye or sirloin, currently sits proudly on the dinner menu at Soho dining favourite Arbutus, one of several restaurants Heanen supplies.<br /><br />Heanen says his younger customers, are used to last minute shopping &ndash; something of which he approves, since meat that sits in the fridge for a few days will become polluted by the flavours of whatever surrounds it. He says that they are also more likely to be adventurous, and come looking for interesting cuts to try out.<br /><br />But, as he points out, it&rsquo;s not just about the quirky cuts. He relates a story in which he recently attended the opening of a new gastropub in the area, and was served dull, flavourless steak in which all he could taste was an over-abundance of charcoal &ndash; &ldquo;that barbecue taste you get everywhere, it&rsquo;s what people have become used to.&rdquo; The next night he cooked himself some steak from the shop, of the kind he travels around the country visiting farms and trade shows to track down. Heanen simply grilled it for a couple of minutes on either side with a bit of seasoning.<br /><br />&ldquo;It was so good I had to shout out,&rdquo; he exclaims. &ldquo;People really lose sight of how good a normal steak can be. Unless you go to a really good butcher&rsquo;s shop and find good meat, you don&rsquo;t know what you&rsquo;re missing. It&rsquo;s so, so different.&rdquo;<br /><br /><strong>BOLD CUTS </strong> WHAT TO ASK FOR<br /><br /><strong>&bull; Onglet steak:</strong> the muscle tissue connecting the cow&rsquo;s lungs and liver has a strong taste that&rsquo;s popular in France and increasingly so here. &ldquo;Years ago the butcher would take it home for himself, you&rsquo;d never see it in shops,&rdquo; says Heanen. &ldquo;It has a very deep, meaty, liver-like flavour, and it&rsquo;s half the price of a normal steak.&rdquo;<br /><br /><strong>&bull; Shoulder of pork, also known as neck end:</strong> This is a very large chunk of meat that will serve as many as 12 people, but costs only around &pound;20-&pound;25. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s got a nice fat content, so it&rsquo;s succulent and flavoursome,&rdquo; says Heanen. Start it off in a very hot oven for 20 minutes, then turn it down to 120 degrees C and cook for eight or more hours. &ldquo;Guests love it because you&rsquo;ve taken so long to do it, but it&rsquo;s so easy and good value. It&rsquo;s a very rustic dinner, it just falls to pieces when you serve it.&rdquo;<br /><br /><strong>&bull; Middle-neck of lamb:</strong> Heanen holds up a long piece of purple-pink lamb that tapers as it goes along the bone. This is the neck, and he says that for the best lamb stew, you want to stick to the widest, middle part. &ldquo;It does cook differently. It&rsquo;s softer and thicker, a real prime piece. Years ago people would ask for middle-neck, and it&rsquo;s only a bit more expensive, but worth it.&rdquo;<br /><br /><strong>Bavette: </strong>This cut comes from the stomach muscles of the cow, and is what a lot of butchers refer to as &ldquo;thin skirt&rdquo;. It&rsquo;s the meat used for fajitas in Mexican cuisine, which has driven up its price in the US. Over here, though, it&rsquo;s still cheap. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s particularly good for barbecueing, and doesn&rsquo;t cost as much as the price of a rib-eye or a sirloin,&rdquo; Heanen says.