I’ve talked before about the River Cottage Meat Book being the the end all be all of meat-related books - and I stand by that. But as my groaning bookshelves can attest, the world is absolutely full of great books covering all aspects of the meat business - raising animals, sourcing, cutting, marketing, whatever. One of my favorites is The Meat We Eat, a four pound tome of a reference book that has been a constant companion to many flashier books in the butcher’s library. It’s dry - you’d be more apt to confuse this for a textbook than for the River Cottage Meat Book (can we start saying RCMB? I mean, I won’t but maybe let’s think about it). The Meat We Eat makes up for in sheer depth of knowledge what it lacks in polish; you come away from it’s 1112 pages with information that spans just about every aspect of the business from harvesting methods to HACCP plans and microbial safety.
It’s currently high conference season, which means I’m on the road more often than not the past few weekends. Since I haven't been in the shop as much these last few weeks I figured I could forgo the meat cuts for a week and talk about a book that almost never leaves my side. This book has changed my life completely, and I think given the chance, it could change yours as well. It’s a hefty tome, full of ancient knowledge made relevant to the modern day. In many ways this book can prescribe a way to live your life, or at least a way to live it slightly better. I’m talking of course about the holiest of all books (for a butcher at least): The River Cottage Meat Book.
Voraciously collecting books may be one of the only healthy obsessions that chefs and butchers usually have - and it certainly is an obsession. If you were to enter the home of the average chef, you’d probably be greeted by piles of cookbooks covering a wide range of topics - me personally, I have three entire shelves dedicated just to meat. It all starts to get a bit crazy, as my wife readily reminds me. The common thread running through all of these collections, though, are a few classic books that just about everyone has. On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller, and for the really clued in enthusiast Modernist Cuisine, in all it’s 50 pound glory, all seem to show up invariably. And just as invariably you can add to that list Hugh’s excellent treatise on the joy and importance of properly raised, properly butchered meat.
If you’re not currently familiar with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and River Cottage, step away from the blog this instant and go watch some of his videos on youtube. The whole first season of his show, Escape to River Cottage is on there, along with some great talks and interviews. Essentially the series follows Hugh, a British chef and food writer, as he escapes the big city and starts a small farm in the southwest of England. Over the years Hugh’s focus has broadened from producing excellent food for himself and his family, to changing the food system as a whole, but the commitment to quality and health has always remained. Today River Cottage has not just an organic farm, but also restaurants and a cooking school located at their greatly expanded HQ. Despite having a huge impact in Britain (and more recently Australia) River Cottage has yet to really make a huge splash in America (Hugh, call me!) - with the exception of the River Cottage Meat Book.
The first section of the book, entitled “Understanding Meat” is a thorough (almost 200 pages!) look at the ethics of meat eating, the process of rearing high quality, humanely raised meat, and what to look for when purchasing meat. Hugh writes with such passion about the virtues of high-welfare animals it’s impossible not to come away with a newfound respect for the farmers who raise these animals to the highest of standards, and the butchers who apply their skill to sourcing and preparing them for sale. To say that reading Hugh's philosophy on meat eating changed my life is to put it lightly. Not too many people, shortly after graduating college, pick up a book by some British guy and decide to completely change course and devote their lives to an art that had begun to die out in Britain, and is all but dead in America.
The second section of the book is all about cooking meat. As is the River Cottage way, this is so much more than a mere collection of recipes. Hugh’s philosophy of respecting the animals that are raised for our consumption extends to how he prepares his meat as well. As I’ve said before there is so much more to an animal than just the prime cuts. To truly respect and honor the life of the beast that had to die so that we may eat, we need to utilize every part of it to the fullest. This includes not just eating offal (which no one, with the possible exception of Fergus Henderson, prepares with more love an attention than Hugh), but also elevating less desirable cuts to the highest possible level. Sure, a well aged Porterhouse steak is excellent, but so too is a slow cooked boneless beef neck, or shank - and they’re much more economical to boot.
My copy of the River Cottage Meat book is beat to hell, which really is the highest possible praise you can give to a book like this. The edges are worn from cumulative years spent in a backpack traveling with me, dog-eared pages mark particularly inspiring passages, and grease stains speak to it’s usefulness as a cooking reference. From the moral implications of well-raised meat, to a 20+ page long discourse on the perfect roast, the book covers the breadth of the meat world. I consider this book to be essential reading for anyone who wants to give any serious thought to their meat, the farmers who grow it, and the butchers who process it. I can't promise that this book won't completely change your life, it certainly changed mine.
Last week we talked about the books every good butcher or meat-enthusiast should have on their shelves. This week it’s all about the tools you need to really make a go of some meat fabrication. It may be a bit late for the christmas gift giving season at this point, but maybe you’d be buying for someone for whom a nice set of butcher knives would make a romantic Valentine's day gift. If that’s the case, you’ve got yourself a winner. Either way, you’ve read the books, now it’s time to grab the gear and get going.
As soon as people find out I’m a butcher one of two things happens. Either they begin to edge away slowly, looking around for anyone else to talk to, or they ask me about my knives. Everyone loves cool knives these days, and people with these expensive implements love to talk about them. But really for the kind of work that butchers do, high-end knives don’t make a ton of sense. Hard forged steel is more difficult to sharpen (something I do daily, sometimes twice) and the beating that our knives undergo usually means a brand new knife, whether it costs $20 or $200, has about a one-year lifespan.
Probably the best possible knives made for butchers are Fibrox handled knives by Victorinox. Coming in cheap ($30!) but also strong and able to maintain an edge, these guys are the workhorses of not just professional butcher shops but also many big name kitchens. The steel these are made out of (x50CrMov15 for all you knife pendants out there) strikes a great balance between the really cheap material of lesser knives, and the harder-to-work forged steel of higher priced knives.
Lots of butchers, myself included, end up with a bunch of knives for specific purposes. If you’re just looking to get started you can do most anything with just two: a 6-inch for smaller breaking and an 8-inch for the big stuff and for cleaning muscles smoothly. Plenty of people will tell you that you don't really need a cleaver. Which is certainly true, in the sense that you don't really need a chainsaw or a big truck - but they do serve a purpose and are definitely fun to have around.
So you’ve got your knives; now it’s time to keep them nice and sharp. A butcher using their knives heavily will need to touch them up on the stone at least every other day. I like to sharpen mine in the morning before a day of heavy cutting (although I frequently forget and pay the price in fatigued forearms from exerting extra pressure to cut through meat). A tri-stone comes in handy because it has different levels of grit on the stones: Coarse for when you’ve really screwed something up on your knife and you need to grind it down; Medium for most general sharpening; and fine for polishing an edge razor sharp (or when you want to look busy).
Josh always tells the story of the time he was breaking beef alone in the shop when his knife slipped and he stabbed himself in the chest, close to his heart. It was a deep cut, and from that day forward everyone who cut at Fleisher’s had to wear armor when they were cutting. A chainmail apron protects most of the vital organs from cuts and stabs, and looks 100% badass while doing it. Fun fact: Niroflex, the company that makes most of the armor that butchers wear, also makes chainmail armor for renaissance festivals and reenactments.
Look, no one wants to talk about it, but it’s going to happen. No matter how great your knife skills are, no matter how focused you may be - one day you’ll cut yourself. It’s usually never that bad, but you want to be prepared with bandages on hand so you can get right back into whatever meaty project you’re working on. In this case, not just any band-aid will do. After years of “research” I’ve settled on what is unequivocally the best possible bandage on the market. The flexible fabric allows you a great range of motion once you’ve patched yourself up, and dries out quickly after getting wet.
A teacher of mine, an old German butcher, once said that you can tell the quality of a butcher by his bookshelf. He then went on to make an unprintable joke about pornography. Whatever his intention was with that statement, he’s not wrong - having a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of cuts and cuts and cooking styles is just as important as knife skills. Over the years I’ve collected a huge amount of meat books: how-to’s, cook books, ethnic style guides, and memoirs. Since it’s the season for gift giving (or buying for yourself on sale) I figured I’d pass along a few that I consider essentials for the professional or interested hobbyist.
The River Cottage Meat Book
The holy book for butchers, or really anyone interested in well-raised meat. Hugh takes the time to explain the different ways of raising different meat animals, along with what to look for when purchasing them from your local butcher. Beautiful photography and delicious recipes. It’s a must have for anyone wanting to expand their general meat knowledge, and is ground zero for many people’s passion for old school whole animal butchery - myself included.
NAMP Meat Buyers Guide
Every group of friends has that one know-it-all who prides himself on esoteric factoids that most people find boring. If you can’t think of that person you know then it’s you. And if it is you, you need this book. Not in any way a how-to guide, the NAMP lists cuts by specific muscles and muscle groups. It's one thing to be able to identify a cut and know how to cook it; learning muscle names and industry specs is taking that knowledge to a whole new level. Don’t you want to amaze your friends with the knowledge that a boneless Boston butt consists of Longissimus, splenius, semispinalis capitis, and supraspinatus muscles - with a small bit of pectorali profundi mixed in?
Adam Danforth’s books
Danforth’s two books - one on butchering beef and another on poultry, rabbit,lamb, and pork - are great step-by-step guides to humane slaughter and breakdown of animals. The books cover everything from sharpening knives and tying roasts all the way to stunning and proper bleeding during harvest. They’re written in just the right blend of highly technical, yet accessible, language. Plus the pictures are breathtaking.
Home Production of Quality Meats and Sausages
One of the challenges of whole-animal butchery is figuring out what to do with the leftover cuts and trim from the butchering process. Everyone loves a good steak, but not too many customers would willingly chose from a bowl labelled “Meat Scraps." The solution to this problem is making sausage, a tradition practiced by butchers for thousands of years. Not only is this book home to detailed sausage making instructions but also has tons of great recipes to try out. The Marianski’s are traditional Polish sausage makers who incorporate old world European style with Asian and South American influences into their recipes.
Secrets of a Bacon Curer
This guy is nuts. The last of a dying breed of apprenticeship-trained British butchers, Maynard uses this book to tell his tales of coming up in the business, and the day-to-day aggravation of running a successful butcher shop. There are no recipes and no pictures, but this book is a must have simply because it’s so full of entertaining stories that people can relate to, whether in the industry or not. Plus it gives a glimpse into the grumpy-old-butcher future that awaits all of us in the meat business.
The Complete Nose to Tail
Nobody cooks like Fergus Henderson. While other chefs pay lip service to noise to tail cooking, Fergus makes it into his central mantra at his restaurant. Every part of the animal is celebrated and lifted up to it’s highest potential. I’d consider myself a a pretty adventurous eater, but before reading this book I’d probably have shied away from any recipe for Jellied Tripe or Deep Fried Calve’s Brains. Yet Fergus can make even these off cuts mouth-watering. At the end of the day, “whole animal” means "WHOLE animal” and if we truly want to be sustainable we need to start to explore a style of cooking that doesn’t mask what we’re eating, but makes it wholesome and delicious.