Monday, 15 February 2010

As a youth I used to weep in butcher's shops.....

It's funny, initially this post was going to be a raving diatribe about butchers being a bunch of sarcastic, argumentative buggers but a certain recipe came along which knocked the wind out of my sails. One minute I'm thinking "I should really write about how I should have smacked a certain trenchant git with a blue stripped apron in the mouth" but then my mind turns to the success of a romantic evening. Do I witter on needlessly about the bad experiences I've had in butcher's shops, the subsequent fear that has developed and the panic that I'll look like a plonker whenever I walk in? Or do I give credit where credit's due? I think I'll do both because for all the stress and confusion I endured when purchasing some meat the other day, Mr Jonathan Brown's latest effort deserves to be championed.

Let's talk about the problem first. Whenever possible, I try to buy my meat from butchers and the reasons are straightforward. It's better to support small independent businesses, provenance and quality will be high on the agenda (well usually) and these are places where you can go in and talk to someone, confident that the advice you seek is coming from a professional. And not some spotty Saturday schoolboy.

Er so what is the fricking problem? Well for every friendly, presentable, rosy faced gentleman that I've met who practises the fine art of dismemberment, you do occasionally come across an obstructive piss-taker. I ventured into one local butcher once to buy some skirt steak, a cut I'd never come across before but wanted to try out after finding a recipe for barbecued bavette. After hearing my enquiry, the owner, a heavy set man with a corned beef complexion blinked at me and said "Whatugonnadowiththat?" I told him and what followed was some kind of mexican standoff as the proprietor argued that this was totally the wrong cut to be grilled on a barbecue and that perhaps I should go for some nice sirloin or fillet. I held my ground for about 5 minutes until he brought his toothless mate from out back to try and convince me that I was making a mistake so I just yelled in a high pitched voice "look please, I just want some fucking skirt!" to which he smirked "steady on mate, only trying to help."

For a short period, I went through a stage of making terrines and made regular trips to another butcher for pork shoulder as required by a lot of recipes. All was fine and dandy until my, I suppose fourth or fifth visit and the cost had more than doubled. When I asked why, this normally amiable old soul just leaned over and snarled "I think you've been doing pretty well with the price so far" which I found very odd. Then I saw what I took to be his wife emerge through the chains hanging in the doorway behind him. The phrase 'rottweiler chewing a wasp' came to mind and as it was the first time I'd seen her, I could only assume that this hike was due to the presence of his missus. Shame, if he had just given me a subtle roll of the eyes and nudged his head gently backwards in her direction, I would have paid up with an equally subtle wink and tap on the nose. Instead, I simply walked out, fairly disgusted.

And now comes my most recent episode when I visited a farmshop that came highly recommended for it's butchery department. There was indeed a fine selection of meat on display. I was very excited to see ox cheeks as they seem to be one of the 'in' cuts at the moment and I hadn't tried them before so I bought a kilo. Feeling pretty pleased with myself and continuing to peruse, I decided to strike up a conversation with the fella behind the glass counter.

"What's the difference between braising and stewing steak?" I asked.

To which he replied "weeell, you see this" (points to braising steak) "you braise in the oven, and you see this" (points to stewing steak) "you stew in the oven." In a manner as if he were addressing a very young child.

I stared back him with a thoroughly perplexed frown, wondering "did I just ask him a really stupid question? Or is he just treating me like a simpleton? Or is that in fact his answer?" So I waited for the laugh, the smirk, the wink, the anything. But I got nothing. He just stared back at me blankly. So I just slowly walked off, feeling like the biggest plank ever, clutching a bag of ox cheeks tightly by my side.

And herein lies my problem. Sure I cook a lot and I eat a lot of the damned stuff but there are times when I feel like I am in the dark about the fundamentals, the different breeds and where the different cuts come from on the animal (let's not get started on the 'forgotten cuts'). Coupled with this self imposed image of being a fully paid up, badge wearing, flag waving foodie and well you start to feel like a bit of a fraud. Perhaps I should do one of those River Cottage courses. Perhaps I should read a book or two! Or maybe I am just being too hard on myself. Either way I have to do something to conquer this nagging doubt in the back of my head otherwise one day I am going to make a lunge for that smart-arsed butcher. Which of course would be even dafter, those guys could cut me up into chops in seconds.

"Yes madam, this mincemeat is very fresh, we made it only half an hour ago. Oh yes these glasses are new. Yes, just like what that Harry Hill would wear, ha ha ha"

Still there is the fairytale ending that I alluded to at the beginning of the post. After shaking off the embarrassment of my visit, I came home and set about looking for recipes for ox cheeks. As fate would have it, Mr Brown of Around Britain With A Paunch had just posted his recipe for Ox Cheek Open Ravioli so I decided so have a crack at that for a Valentines Supper last Sunday. Interestingly, this is the first time that I have used a blogger's recipe. Sure I've looked at loads for inspiration before but this was the first one I adhered to word for word. A little tip here, it's handy to keep your laptop next to the place where you are preparing your ingredients. I spent a good while to-ing and fro-ing between the front room and kitchen, spilling wine and dropping chopped onion everywhere before it dawned on me. And as I don't own a slow cooker I went for the Le Creuset in a very low oven for 5 hours method instead. I was very pleased with the end result. The meat came out beautifully, supremely tender and packed with flavour. The sauce itself was fantastic, rich and intense. And the pasta! Mama mia the pasta! I finally made some bloody pasta that I was happy with. In future I shall take the cue to make it little and often as it was infinitely more manageable. Like I said, I didn't really intend for this post to be a swoon over Jonathan's effort and I would have been happier if he'd called it "lasagne" rather than open ravioli. But the success of a good meal definitely perked me up after my last bout of carnophobia (or should that be catagelophobia). So I think a pat on the back is in order. And maybe, just maybe Mr Brown will hold my hand the next time I make a trip to The Ginger Pig?

Separating the cheeks

Straining the wine

Making the pasta

Ox Cheek Open Ravioli (or Lasagne as it should be)

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