Warning: Vegetarians and vegans might find images in this post disturbing and should proceed with caution.
"Hello, my name is Wen, and I'm a carnivore."
"I've been a carnivore for at least 29 years. My first memory is demolishing a chicken drumstick on my first birthday, even though the drumstick had more meat than I had teeth."
That's not actually how we started the beef butchery class at The Ginger Pig's Moxon Street premises in London last month in late May, but it may as well have been. Throughout the 4-hour hands-on Monday evening workshop hosted by veteran butchers Perry and Borut, there was a constant gleam in the 10 participants' eyes, oohing and aahing, moaning and chuckling, salivating and sweating.
Borut started us off with an introduction to The Ginger Pig's animal husbandry approach -- lots of outdoor space, grass, and proper time to mature naturally rather than the industrial rush to slaughter -- rather than an organic label per se. And a strict 45-day ageing process after slaughter, to tenderise the meat and concentrate flavour as moisture exits the carcass. Then he took us through the major cuts of beef on a chart and what kind of cooking each cut was best suited for. If biology classes back at age 14 were like this, I might have stuck with it for longer.
After the lecture came the lab session, where Perry put our white coats to good use. Working with an assortment of knives and saws, and the half-backs of 3 mighty steers, Perry had us wrestling and separating the fore-ribs (front) and the sirloins (middle-ribs) and the rumps (backside), then trimming our individual fore-rib chunks for a chateaubriand to take home with us.
Left: Eyebrows jump when we see saw. Right: Perry explains that a well-aged rib-eye makes a much more value-for-money steak than the dearly-priced fillet
Above: My dear friend and fellow food dork Melf gets busy with the beef. Many thanks to Melf who generously sponsored my spot in the class as my "mini-retirement" gift. Along with previous gifts such as a carving knife and a giant stock pot, she counts this gift as "an investment that will pay dividends for years to come". I'm a big fan of her philosophy!
Melf catches me all strung up. I realise for the first time that French-trimmed ribs (right) are NOT a natural occurence. Each participant gets to take one of these roasting joints home as part of the class.
While we've been playing with our food, ahem, I mean, getting educated about beef, Borut has been working quietly away in the background preparing dinner -- roasted prime rib, salad, red wine, and unbelievably fluffy potatoes that have first been par-boiled then roasted in beef fat. More oohing and aahing ensues as Borut carves.
As we tuck in, the participants start to chat. Some are long-time foodies, eager to improve their understanding of how their meal makes its way to their plate. Others are here on a whim as a "oh why not" replacement for someone who had to cancel, ever so glad they came, and now trying to figure out how to keep the take-home booty for themselves. We trade compliments ("You handle your knife like a surgeon"..."I like your knots"), recipes, and quips from Ginger Pig's other classes. We tease each other about how quickly or slowly we're attacking our dinners. We laugh. Is there any better way to end a Carnivores Anonymous meeting?
Yes there is!
Throughout the class we had watched Perry toss trimmed bones into the bone bin. The Ginger Pig crew do what they can to make the trimmings into burgers and pie-filling, and the bones into beef stock, but with whatever is still left over they are obligated to dispose. A few brave souls ask if we could take some bones home to make stock. Perry gladly doles them out, happy to see that they will be put to good use. I nearly faint with happiness.
Perry hands me a set of ribs that looks like a pan-pipe for a colossus.
"Do you have a pot large enough for this?" he asks.
Melf and I look at each other and start to cackle. "Yes I do!" I declare, beaming.
The dividends continue!
Top 3 Learnings on Buying Beef
Don't just gun for the expensive cuts, equating them with quality. Focus on what you're planning to cook. Cheaper cuts may end up being more appropriate (e.g. for slow-cook stews, meat loafs, burgers and pies).
If you're the kind that is particular about how the cow is raised, dig deep past the label on the packaging. A simple organic label may still mean the animals are fed organic corn (difficult for their digestive systems) and are kept indoors. Free-range may still mean that the grass is sprayed with all sorts of chemicals.
It's ok to practise age discrimination with hung beef. Less than 21 days probably means the seller (whether it's a butcher or a supermarket) wants to maximise the weight of the moisture in the beef he sells you. More than 45 days requires too much end-trimming and wastage.
Perry and Borut were recommending John Torode's Beef book at the end of class. Melf picked up a copy but alas I will have to wait until I'm done with the road trip.
The joint: A roast beef dinner as a farewell to friends from work
The castaways from a French-trimming: A slow cook stew
The lovely bones: A 1-hour roast that yielded 2 jars of beef fat, passed on to Melf and Jas after we moved out. A 6-hour slow boil that resulted in a vat of stock that served as foundation for soups, stews and gravys for weeks after.
Disclosure: I'm the founder of Edible Experiences. This class was a gift to me from my friend Melissa.