Relentless industrial farming and retailing has ensured an ever-growing supply of cheaper meat; unfortunately, it is of increasingly poor quality.
Each passing generation of consumers, meanwhile, grows ever more ignorant, with little notion of what is sliding down their gullets or how it got there in the first place.
Would you be bothered eating meat at all? Well, Pat Whelan makes a very good case for doing so in the beautifully produced, meat-centric An Irish Butcher Shop, part social food history, part cookbook.
One of the primary reasons for consumer ignorance and declining standards is the decimation of the local, independent craft butcher/victualler shops.
These, Whelan points out, provided a connection between consumer and producer long since broken — verbal traceability, as it were. They were also a valuable source of information enabling the consumer to tailor purchases to suit pocket, often providing valuable cooking tips to boot. For Whelan — and any right-thinking meat-eater — a revival of these outlets retailing premium quality meat is essential to reversing falling standards.
He begins with a hymn to the days before supermarkets, recalling his childhood growing up in the family butchering business, in the heart of some of the country’s finest agricultural land, the Golden Vale, in Tipperary.
He marvels at the mania leading up to Christmas, storerooms rafter-high with turkeys, hams being dispatched in brown greaseproof paper to homesick emigrants across the water.
And he writes of the day in 1975 when he and his father travelled to Galway to see one of the first Irish shopping centres, the future of retailing and, unknown to them at the time, a serious nail in the coffin of their particular way of life.
Possibly unsure of his reading audience, Whelan has left nothing to chance and covers all bases. While the serious cook may sniff a little at having to wade through the comprehensive technical section on the ways of storing and cooking meat, it is a boon for the novice. What might seem commonsense to an older generation or the serious amateur will appear revelatory to a younger microwave generation for whom domestic culinary skills are a disappearing art.
Next up are the animals, or rather their table-bound form: beef, pork, lamb, poultry and game. Each section begins with an informative history of the breeds native or common to Ireland and their consumption over the years.
In the beef section, for example, Whelan details what the consumer should look for when purchasing and points out that despite the multiples employing terms such as artisan-produced, locally-grown and hand-reared, there is no getting away from the superiority of the beef in good, independent, local butchers because it is always hung to age. This process means the carcass will lose a substantial proportion of its initial weight — and therefore value — which is anathema to the multiples and their fundamental obsession with the bottom line over all else.
In the pork section, he covers in great detail the industrial processes undergone to bring home the bacon, specifically, injecting brine to save time on curing, and advises seeking out a craft butcher partnered with a dedicated local producer, even if he doesn’t quite go the whole hog and plump for free range pork.
While he may pull his punches a tad in the pork section, he lowers his fists altogether in poultry. Whelan, it seems, is happy as long as his chicken is Irish-bred, reared and prepared, and is even a little sniffy about free range or organic chicken. He mentions “numerous taste tests” with those he regards as having “discriminating palates”, none of whom can tell the difference between an organic or free range hen and one from a “regular” producer.
This sort of nonsense — and that’s not just a personal opinion — only serves to undermine the book’s credibility as a whole; organic or free range producers are not driven by some fluffy sense of compassion but invariably by a desire to offer a top quality product to discerning customers who understand free range or organic production not only offers healthier produce but more often than not, a tastier product.
The book also doubles as a cookbook and this is the weakest part, a rather uncommitted tour of the global kitchen, visiting countries but never leaving the tour bus. Don’t be alarmed by the “fancy” sounding coq au vin, he reassures; we won’t, we’ll just shrug at an uninspired deviation from the original version of this old 1970s dinner-party staple.
Serve an Italian person osso bucco after Whelan’s suggested one-and-a-half to two hours cooking and they’ll return the dish as half-cooked. Two hours may do it for the veal shanks traditionally used in this Milanese classic, but I find the beef shanks Whelan plumps for usually need another one-and-a-half hours at least.
A recipe for pork spare ribs which includes powdered ginger rather than root ginger belongs in a takeaway, and the trepidation with which he promotes the use of garlic as if pushing crack cocaine at an ICA meeting is seriously out of step with the eating habits of 21st century Ireland — and that is not simply the ‘foodie’ brigade. The real market for this type of book is the serious gastronome; the serious gastronome will be supremely irritated by the timidity which sees gravy made with stock cubes, in one example.
British chef Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail or even River Cottage Meat by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstal still set the standard for this type of meat cookbook and with some of the finest livestock in the world produced here in Ireland, it is a shame Whelan’s effort fell some way short.
Funny, when a butcher is nervous of drawing too much blood.