Why am I writing about meat?
Well, for starters, Robert and I are omnivores. Given that I do eat meat (walk away now, all my vegetarian friends!) I want it to be good quality and tasty. I want to know where it comes from and how it was raised. Living in a large Canadian city, I was aware that here and there there was a butcher shop – either an old-fashioned hanging-on-for-dear-life shop in a traditional neighbourhood, a stall in one of the large markets, or latterly a smart shiny artisan establishment staffed by trendy young men in striped aprons. But, like everyone else, I didn’t have time to drive across town to seek out places like this and just bought my meat in the supermarket.
One of the things that surprised me, coming back to live in small-town Ireland, was that butcher shops are alive and well and thriving still – even if there is also a large supermarket in the town.
They are a friendly lot, these butchers. They love to offer advice on how to cook the meat you’re buying, or to give suggestions for dinner. They will cut a piece exactly as you want (wafer thin for stroganoff) or disappear into the back and reappear with a huge haunch because you want something that isn’t on display (shanks, with the marrow intact), or trim every last ounce of fat off a joint. “Years ago,” one butcher told me, “all cuts were sold with bone and fat. But, sure, you have to move with the times.”
Over the years there have been lots of exposés and scandals about the provenance of meat sold in Europe (horse meat, anybody?) and concerns about foot-and-mouth and other diseases, but our local butchers know the source of all the meat they sell, down to the farm it came from, or the herd. “It’s from our own farms,” one butcher told me, indicating an area north of Skibbereen where contented cattle spend their days in lush green fields.
“We get our lamb from out by Fohorlagh” said another. We know the cattle spend their lives grazing on rich grasses – we are surrounded by them in Nead an Iolair – and we think that’s the secret to the taste. We don’t want to eat meat that’s been factory bred and fed.
Most of the local butchers work on well-worn wooden butcher blocks. I’m fascinated by these – they seem like such old technology and indeed some have switched to dense plastic blocks. But the ones who still use the wooden ones tell me that lots of research has been done on them and that they are as safe as or safer than plastic.
As our readers know, the food scene in West Cork is terrific. At our Saturday market in Skibbereen we have a great choice of artisan meat products. We get our breakfast sausages from Frank Krawczyk – he was a charcuterie pioneer here before any of us knew the meaning of the words.
The fabulous West Coast Pies is our go-to resource for pork pies, scotch eggs, gourmet dinner pies (chicken and leek, beef bourguignon) and wonderful salmon quiches. They do lots of vegetarian stuff too. Paul is so insistent on the quality of his pork that he has decided to raise his own and is now an organic pig farmer on top of everything else.
We met Avril Allshire of Rosscarbery Recipes at a recent concert, serving her uber-delicious black pudding swirls. We loved them so much she told us where to find the recipe and so we made up a batch ourselves. Yummers! (And I am not normally a black pudding fan.)
And of course there’s Gubbeen! They’ve been making cheeses forever, award-winning and delectable, and built a smokehouse to produce a smoked version of their famous farmhouse cheese. From there, Fingal Ferguson has produced an array of chorizo and salamis that are firm favourites with all the locals. We buy his bacon and hams – we always cook an enormous one at Christmas and have to book it weeks in advance.
Read about Gubbeen’s food philosophy on their website – it might be the most profound expression of the importance of real food you will find anywhere.