Blimey! Where to start?

It’s odd, but I have never really thought of myself as a Butcher. I kind of ‘fell’ into the trade by accident. I had very little formal training and I have no qualifications. Well, I have now been at it for over 35 years, so I must know something, surely.

In Britain especially, it is the same for many butchers. As a nation, we have not been good at formal training for butchers and it has often been viewed as a trade for those suitable for nothing else. Historically, butchery has been a male dominated profession. The long hours, heavy lifting and cold, dirty conditions were not considered conducive to young ladies. I wonder how many fathers have dreamt of their cherished daughter becoming a butcher? Young boys would leave school, or even take up Saturday jobs, as soon as legally possible. They would be given the tedious, grubby, unsavoury tasks that the senior butchers didn’t want to do. If they could stick it out, the boys would be moved onto some of the lesser jobs like mincing meat or making sausages, and, certainly, they would get to keep the fridges scrubbed, the shop clean and running errands. Depending on the size of the shop, and the volume of business, sooner or later a young lad might get shown how to cut up a chicken, dice a chuck or de-bone a shoulder. Any training would be around the needs of the business. The needs of the employee would usually not get much consideration.

However, in more modern times, the pendulum has swung for the better. After the food scares of the 1990’s and early 00’s, the whole meat industry had to change, and small, independent butchery shops led the way. The public wanted more from their fresh food retailer. They wanted to know where the product came from and how it had been reared. Butchers shops became cleaner, more boutique and more friendly to visit. The ambience changed. Using local shops and high streets became fashionable again and, as the butchery industry crept into the 21st Century, it attracted a different type of mentality. In the last 20 years there has been a continuous and steady growth in the small, delightful, independent shop. Slowly, everybody can access a beautiful shop without travelling too far from home. In turn, this has changed the customer’s expectation in the butcher.

Outside of the cities, there are still older, more traditional butcher’s shops. In towns and villages throughout Britain there are shops being manned by second and third generation traders. Men, and sometimes women, who have continued the family business through generations. Often, making time to speak to these shopkeepers will quickly lead to stories of Grandfathers, or Great-Grandfathers, being open all hours, serving the local community with ten times the amount of product sold today and, very often, stories of the animals being reared and slaughtered on the land. A quick rummage around any village bric-a-brac shop will lead to the discovery of an old black and white photo of the local butchers shop with carcases hanging out front, framed by dozens of game birds in feather. As long as there is a community, and as long as there is another generation, these shops will flourish.

Happily, the regeneration in consumer interest, has regenerated an interest in our industry, and a new opportunity to bring on the next generation of butchers. Gone is the vision of sawdust strewn, damp shops. A butcher in blood a splattered coat is a thing of the past and shops now invariably offer much more than just meat. The lot of a modern day butcher is very different, and the industry attracts a very different person.

My butchery experience started in the beautiful ‘Boucherie Lamartine’ in Paris, France. I was so lucky to be offered a placement there, as I neared the end of my apprenticeship, in the early 80’s, and even to my untrained eye, I knew that I was working with some of the finest tradesman that I would ever encounter. Their knowledge and deft skills were a wonder. Monsieur Prosper, the shop owner, fell into the category of continuous family, and his son was just in the process of joining the business. His team varied in age, but each of them were exceptional. Not every shop in France would compete with Boucherie Lamartine, but the general standard of the French butcher has always been very high. It became clear very quickly that the French took their butchery much more seriously than the British. It was considered a craft and the young people had formal training and gained formal qualifications.

Later in life, from around 2006, I started to encounter Australian guys. They too came with portfolios of their training and state and National certification. In my experience, the Australians have been the best trained. They are always very capable and have a deep seated knowledge of both method and product. The Aussies aren’t always as serious as the Europeans, and they don’t have the same decorative touch, but their customer service is always excellent, and they are always ready with a recipe and a story. The synergy of the BBQ and meat is obvious, and this too is where the Australians shine.

I have worked with others. New Zealanders, South Africans, Italians and Eastern Europeans. I consider that I have seen the best and the not so good, and, as I write now, it’s fantastic to consider that the British are now taking their place in the world order. It is amazing how many chefs and ex-chefs want to join the butchery industry, and this brings another great dynamic. Butchers are always going to be a funny old bunch, but it’s an industry of skills, dedication and fun in equal measures. There are now training schemes for butchers becoming more prominent. I am not exclusive by any stretch of the imagination, and there are some amazing people and companies, who would share my views, dedicating themselves to training and the future. I would very much like to see a National Diploma of some description.

As many traditional, family businesses have declined, a new breed has grown up. A bit like me really, people have come from other industries because they want to work in the meat industry. Modern technology, health and safety rules and Human Resource Law have all contributed in making the industry more user friendly, and a couple of years back , the winner of the Young Butcher of the Year, at the top industry awards, was a young girl … Bring it on!