Nigel's thoughts....


A few days ago we had a rather large meat delivery. I'm pretty used to getting a deer or two slide in over vintage and these days I am a pretty dab hand at butchering one of our goats or (if I'm lucky enough) one of Duncan's pigs. But this was 270Kg of Highland steer. I used to have a German client at BMW who would always shout "Show me the beef!" when we were trying to present ideas. Well this would have shut him up.

Now there is no way I can handle something that size: I wouldn't even be able to find a way to get it into the kitchen. So we had made an arrangement with a local meat processor. This is not a butcher per se, but a small enterprise that specialises in processing hunter's boars and deer, as well as pretty much anybody's home kill meat. So, having manhandled the beast into the back of Gareth's truck, I drive down to the township of Clyde where, I am assured, that there will be an alley off the high street called, appropriately enough, Sausage Alley. 

They expertly hoist it onto a small overhead steel rail and swing it into the coldstore, and I hand over a set of detailed butchering instructions. Now, my knowledge of cuts is far from comprehensive. I can pull apart most of it, but ask me when topside becomes silverside, and I'm getting a bit out of my anatomy range. So I'm a bit taken aback when they call me a few days later and say they have a bunch of questions before they dissect it the next day, so why don't I come round and lend a hand with the job?

Anyway, its a good learning experience, so 9am this morning I took a stroll down Sausage Alley to attend Daisy's autopsy. 

I decided to leave my butchers knife at home: these guys won't be impressed by my efforts and I like my fingers attached to my hands. But they certainly didn't need me to add to their surgeons skills. With a few deft flicks, they can take a 70Kg hindquarter and break it down into about 6 key sections. Then the detail stuff begins. As we work our way through the carcass, we discuss the merits of brisket and blade, whether the rump cap should be left whole to roast(Argentinean style) and I'm pleased to show them how I like to present the short ribs as the best braising cut on the animal. They are interested in our notion of two kinds of mince: the trimmings from the good stuff with brisket for the luxury mince (for our soon to be trialled super-burger) leaving the clod and lesser cuts for the chilli mince. Piles of Schnitzel stack up, the tasty but slightly tougher steak cuts get a flick through the tenderiser blades, and I keep the 2 rib joints in a magnificent 8 rib on-the-bone centrepiece for our forthcoming Christmas dinner. 

Now before those in the northern hemisphere get bewildered, we are having a midwinter Christmas dinner for about 30 people on July 1st. The Family of Twelve are coming (this is wine mafia: buy our Pinot or we shoot your horse sort of stuff) and there is a tradition of having a Christmas style roast while it is cold enough to enjoy it. I had an original idea of cooking 4 calling birds, 3 French hens, 2 turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree but we struggle to get proper chickens this far from anywhere, so I thought Id better leave that sort of stuff to Heston Blumenthal for his next TV special.

After a couple of fascinating hours a noble animal lies in a quarter ton of neat piles. I take about 20 kilos of the best cuts to keep chilled and leave them to vac pack the rest and freeze it for the next six months use at the winery. Back at the winery I slice up half a sirloin and make steak and salad for lunch. The steak is superb, and all the better for my earlier learning curve.

Before I leave, the head butcher asks me if I'd like him to come and shoot our next animal. Sid and Crystal: our two Highland cattle, are an inseparable brother and sister couple on the hills behind the winery. I already have great doubts about doing the deed, not because I dread killing them but they are so evidently a pair and there is no way we can find space for half a ton of meat by killing both, (it is illegal to sell home kill, and while we can give some away, there is a limit to generosity and wasting is unthinkable).

He is reassuring: If you have two, you need to bring in a calf to keep the remaining one company. We have two calves coming just as winter sets in, so by early spring we will be ready. Home kill is both reassuring and grizzly on this scale. It is reassuring in that, when you can see your animal shot, you know with absolute assurance that it had absolutely no inkling of its demise; nor any instant of suffering. Anybody queasy about these things would be very comforted by the experience. But the subsequent process of dropping a couple of hundred kilos of guts into a pit, skinning and manhandling such a huge beast is not for the feint hearted.

On arriving home this evening, I realised that I will fail the nose to tail test. I have the tongue safely in the freezer, which is close enough to the nose, but I have to confess, before I left, I forgot to issue instructions on the tail. I bet it went in the bone-box.