Butcher boy

Knowledge, not strength, is the secret to skilful dismemberment
September 19, 2012

Nathan Mills, aka “the Butcher,” is standing in front of a large wooden cutting block in a converted railway arch in Bermondsey, southeast London. On the block is a side of Gloucester Old Spot pig—half an animal, split lengthways, innards and head removed—and a selection of implements: a boning knife, a slicing knife, a saw, and a cleaver. Mills picks up each in turn, explains its function, and then demonstrates the correct motion for using it. The boning knife (“your most important tool”) has a long thin blade which curves up at the end. Mills raises it in front of him and brings it down in a series of short stabbing motions. “I call this the Jack the Ripper grip,” he says. “It’s what I use, but you can hold it whichever way feels most comfortable.”

It’s one o’clock on a wet Sunday, and I and my three fellow-attendees of “Punish the Pork, Praise the Pork” have several hours of dismemberment ahead of us. Mills’s classes—which he runs as an add-on to his main business selling meat to restaurants and, on Saturdays, the public—are the longest and most intensive in London. (The beef one takes a whole day, as opposed to the mere afternoon required for pork and lamb.) Butchery classes have become increasingly popular in recent years, a response, I think, to growing curiosity about what happens to meat before it ends up in people’s shopping baskets. Certainly, my motives for signing up have something to do with wanting to be a more responsible meat-eater, though I also suspect that the experience will be great fun.

Mills now leads us into his cavernous walk-in fridge, in which are hung a dozen or more carcasses, as well as shelves containing miscellaneous animal parts (a huge ox heart, several tongues). He unhooks two more pork sides, one of which I carry—a shade unsteadily—back to the block. The class is divided into pairs, and each pair is allocated a side. Our project for the afternoon is to turn these slabs of dead animal into cuts resembling those you’d see on a butcher’s counter.

The class proceeds on a watch-and-follow basis: Mills performs a series of cuts to his side, and we attempt the same with ours. The process by which a carcass gets turned into cookable parts involves, I discover, several stages of subdivision. First each side is sawn into four: back leg and thigh, front leg and shoulder, and two portions from the rib section—the belly and the loin. Then each of these is parcelled up in turn, an operation that involves prizing out irksome bones and cartilage, identifying and cutting into the divisions between muscles, tearing away sections of fat and gristle, and cutting the resulting portions into a variety of sizes, from slender escalopes to hulking joints. The process generates a lot of waste, but not much gets discarded. Skin is salvaged—for pork scratchings or crackling—and we put meat and fat trimmings in a metal container, to be used for sausages.

Butchery has a reputation—not entirely surprisingly—for grisliness. The verb “to butcher” implies brutality rather than finesse. Artistic portrayals tend to reinforce this: in the 1991 film Delicatessen, a psychopathic butcher turns the residents of an apartment block into sausages; in Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher, the benign-seeming protagonist turns out to be responsible for a horrific killing spree. Yet watching Mills at work, I can’t help feeling that such stereotypes are unfair. Mills, who grew up in New South Wales and comes from a family of butchers, is a tall, powerfully built man with large hands. But when he gets to work on his carcass, he becomes a surgeon performing an intricate operation. His movements are quick and delicate. He uses his boning knife to make small incisions rather than crude cuts. Knowledge, not strength, is the key to dismemberment. A butcher must be able to look at a carcass and know precisely where all the bones and muscles are located, where the hidden seams are that, when cut along, free up sections of meat. Even hacking through bone is more about technique than raw power: a question of locating the correct angle of bone to blade, and letting the saw do the work.

It takes a few hours to reduce our sides to the desired cuts. It’s absorbing work, and time goes quickly. When we’re finished, I’m left with a feeling of: “How on earth did I do that?” We twine the two largest—now boneless—pieces from the leg and shoulder portions into rolled joints (I am hopeless at knots, and take ages). Mills makes a cure from salt, sugar, coriander, juniper, allspice and black pepper, and we rub this over large pieces from the belly section. Leave these in the fridge for a couple of weeks, he tells us, and we’ll have bacon. Next we vacuum pack the various portions and stack them on a chilled counter. It’s an impressive haul: each of us will be taking home a quarter pig’s worth of meat. I’m excited by this thought, though I’m anxious about freezer space, and what my (vegetarian) wife will say.

The final task of the afternoon is sausage-making. To the container of trimmings we add salt, pepper, garlic, fresh thyme and rosemary, and mince it all up in the enormous meat grinder, located inside the walk-in fridge. (The sausages, Mills explains, are easier to make if the mix is cold.) Then we go over to the sausage-making machine and take it in turns to apply lengths of pig intestine to the nozzle before firing the mix out into the casing using a thigh-operated pedal. The aim is to produce one immensely long sausage which can be twisted into “links.” It’s surprisingly tricky. The mix comes out of the nozzle with such force that the casing tends to explode and meat flies everywhere. When it’s my turn, I mess up the timing and pack my casing far too tightly, and my sausages end up comically bulky.

Our work done, we remove our splattered aprons and sit down at a neatly laid dining table to a supper—which has been simmering away on a convection heater—of stewed lamb and mashed potato. The hours of concentration seem to have engendered a frantic hunger, and we all have multiple portions. In the context of what we’ve been doing, a sit-down dinner seems oddly civilised, but it also feels like a necessary readjustment. The bloody work of butchery, you could say, finds its justification—even its absolution—in the pleasures of the table.