THE woman before me in the queue is paying for her free range chicken breasts. That’s €5, thank you very much. I have an entire free range chicken. At €6.50, I’m spending more but I’ll joint it into portions: breast, thigh, wing, leg to make three meals. I can feed four comfortably with the breasts supplemented, maybe with some rice and beans. Thighs, wings and legs, roasted with olive oil, herbs and garlic, yield succulent, flavoursome meat, delicious hot or cold. Furthermore, I’ll simmer that carcass for a few hours creating an exquisite, nutritious ‘Jewish penicillin’ soup or an incomparable stock.
Food writer Michael Pollan’s maxim, ‘Eat food, mostly plants, not too much,’ is an excellent basis for a healthy and inexpensive diet as we don’t really require red meat more than once or twice a week and with some judicious shopping, including chicken and fish, you could be feeding nutritious ‘meat’ meals to a family of four for as little as €15 euro a week. But first, leave your comfort zone — the supermarket.
When you go to the supermarket, you pay, above all else, for the convenience of getting your weekly shop over with as quickly as possible. But convenience comes at a price, most especially, when purchasing fresh produce. Take beef, for example. A good, independent, craft butcher sells dry-aged beef, sometimes hung for nearly a month, allowing the real flavours to develop. But hanging loses weight, up to a third, which equals lost profit. Supermarkets are especially allergic to lost profit so beef on their shelves was probably slaughtered just days ago and will never taste as good as hung meat.
Some of the major multiples have begun responding to a cannier, post-Celtic Tiger customer, offering ‘aged’ beef but that can mean ‘wet-aged’, ie vac-packed and ‘aged’ under sealed plastic, no loss of weight but, again, the taste is inferior. Secondly, the multiples usually only bother with ‘prime’ cuts, those fetching premium prices.
“A lot of lesser known, very versatile cuts, offer great value to both customer and butcher, says Eoin O’Mahoney of O’Mahoney’s Butchers in the English Market in Cork. “Neck of lamb, breast of lamb, practically for nothing, flank steak and also various continental cuts. Offal is becoming trendy again amongst the foodie set and hence more expensive but there is still value here — calves liver at €3 per kg.”
But with some butchers merely replicating the supermarket model, how do you identify a genuine craft butcher? “See that they’re cutting directly from carcasses,” says O’Mahoney, “Many are selling pre-packed cuts but proper butchers practice whole-beef or whole-animal butchery, buying in whole carcasses of beef, pork, lamb and can offer any cut you require.”
Due to regulation, much butchery now has to take place off-site but even still it should be possible to establish whether you are dealing with a genuine craft butcher, ideally sourcing meat locally. But before you go casing for carcasses after nightfall, you could take a leaf from previous generations, shop around and ask. First ask good cooks, professional or amateur, for recommendations, then ask the butcher if they practise whole-animal butchery; ask if they can do specialised cuts and offal for you, even precious, precious bones. Ask if animals are dry-aged. Some shysters will spin you a line but you’ll soon taste the difference on the plate. Our parents and grandparents always seemed to know where the best meat at the best price was to be had but it is more knowledge we bartered for convenience.
Expand your knowledge of simple cooking techniques, learn to braise and slow roast. A lot of the less expensive cuts carry more muscle and connective tissue and require longer, slower cooking to break down but when they do, they carry a depth of flavour far deeper than most filet mignon.
Supermarkets can offer chicken for a good price but beware false economies. A cheap battery chicken comes at a cost to the animal’s welfare and to your health and wealth: a nutritionally inferior and bland-tasting bird that loses weight dramatically during cooking. A slightly dearer free range bird can be a saving.
* Joe McNamee (josephdmcnamee.com) is a member of the Irish Food Writers' Guild