Just be careful when you’re swinging that hacksaw...
Our reporter tries out The Hampstead Butcher’s night class for beginners
�In the stream of cookery consciousness that begins with ‘grow your own’ and ends with mass hysteria over a celebrity chef’s supermarket pudding, an unlikely fashion for butchery has emerged.
With this in mind, I thought I’d visit the Hampstead Butcher – who, with their butchery for beginners classes, are bringing food lovers as close as they can to their goods and practices, short of taking them to the abattoir or local farm (which I’m sure will be a future must-do excursion for some foodie followers).
On the way to the class, which happens once a month on a weeknight in the deli-style surroundings of the shop, I wonder what type of people might attend a butchery course. Someone had helpfully suggested that serial killers might get a kick out of it – so I wasn’t exactly optimistic. But when I arrive, they all seem like very normal people, which is reassuring, because on each chopping station around the table are a neat pair of shiny butchery knives.
Across the table are also strewn two hacksaws, which looks a tad grisly.
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Leading the class is Phil Rickett, who has been a butcher longer than I have been alive. Round one is the pork joint: we have to cut around the spine, score the skin and tie butchers slipknots around, ready to roast.
The important thing, says Phil, is to cut around the spine with a firm slow movement and not cut into the meat at all. He demonstrates this with us, the six potential serial killers, surrounding him and taking it all in.
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Now it is our turn and Phil quite patiently assists as we hack away as if we are clearing the bush in the Serengeti. Poor Phil. Still, his instruction is down-to- earth and useful – and he provides us with information about why it is best to do things certain ways, which is illuminating for me, although I imagine if you were a serial killer it would be of little interest.
He also talks at length about butcher’s knots. Apparently, the essence of a butcher is in their knot and different butchers do it different ways – a bit like sailing. Who’d have thought it? It becomes clear why the knots are a sense of pride when we attempt them – they are tricky. I’m sure knowing how to do one makes the joint taste that much better, I think, as I get my finger stuck in the string.
From there, we traverse the landscape of common butchery, semi-successfully hacking our way through a whole chicken, a beef shoulder and the infamous rack of lamb. Each time, our helpful Hampstead Butcher assistant scoops up our meaty creations and packages them, ready to take home and cook (anyone on the course gets to keep all the meat and take home a bottle of wine too).
It becomes clearer while we are chopping why this would be a handy skill for a keen cook to have: sometimes the very way meat is chopped in the first place can decide whether it is doomed to be a dry husk or a juicy piece of action. It feels nice to take ownership of your dinner in this way.
Phil Matthews, ex-restaurateur and owner of the Hampstead Butcher, believes this is the main reason why the classes are so popular. “People now want to have good quality food, know where it comes from and have the skills to prepare it. It’s the complete opposite of when I was a kid and ready meals and Smash were the in-thing.”
He is considering introducing different levels of the class, for those who want to get really experimental.
And experimental is the word for the activity of sawing through a rack of lamb late on a Tuesday night, wearing a white coat, while passers-by nosey through the windows, wondering what on earth is going on.
As I leave the shop, I ponder that, when I was a young lass (which is not that long ago), the most you could get from the local butcher was a couple of pork chops and perhaps the latest village gossip. It seems things have changed. It isn’t such a surprise though. We have, after all, entered the age of pudding hysteria.
n The next classes are on April 17 and May 15. Book by calling 020-7794 9210 or visit www.hampstead butcher.com.