On a day when I read that 1 in 5 adults think parsnips grow on trees and hear that 76% of our local butchers, some 19,000, have closed over the last 30 years my level of despair rises exponentially. I am neither a butcher nor grower of parsnips, but I almost wondered whether it’s not time to give up and simply hand over the shop keys to Tesco accepting, as the Financial Times put it earlier this year, that it was time to let the British high street die. That took a mere second because I don’t give up on the things I cherish, especially where food is concerned, not ever!
I long ago learned that specialist cheese shops were intimidating places from a friend who happens to run the best supermarket cheese counter in the UK, but only if you are lucky enough to live in the North West. He explained what I could not see, how specialist cheese shops were intimidating for people with little or no prior knowledge of cheese. It was simple, people don’t know what to ask for, are afraid of being embarrassed for asking a silly question and fearful they will end up spending more than they ever intended. So much so that even some of those interested will not step foot across the shop threshold. But could the same apply to my unrelentingly cheerful and ever helpful local butchers Chris and Steve? Surely not?
A recent survey undertaken by producers of Welsh lamb suggested 25% of people avoided going to the butchers and 1 in 10, especially the young, found going to the butchers to be intimidating. Reporting on these findings the BBC undertook a vox pop which further revealed how poor was the knowledge of some shoppers about basic cuts of meat, some could not even identify a lamb chop!
We all know supermarkets try to make things easy, but anything worth having is also worth a little effort. In just about all areas we have lost our connection with food, from where it came and the journey it took to our plate. It’s a few years back that I read an article, can’t recall where now, reporting that school kids thought chickens came from the local supermarket freezer. I know that for many it does, but that’s not what they actually meant. Think about it. It’s also clear that things are very slow in changing for the better.
I am not a great advocate of shopping by logo, you know the sort I mean and there are at least 30 food assurance schemes. Some have a useful role to play but we shouldn’t get hung up about them, better to get to know the people who sell you your food. Ask questions, be curious, find out about what you are shortly to put inside yourself and make your own judgements. So how about re-connecting with your food and start with your butcher? He or she is a mine of information and will help guide you in getting real value for money.
For those who do make the journey to their local butcher, try and avoid the natural inclination to stay in your comfort zone, sticking to what you know. Lack of knowledge or familiarity with what’s on display should not turn the experience of going to your butcher into a quick grab of a familiar joint. How about exploring those less familiar cuts? May be even, I hesitate at this point, some of those delicious meltingly rich offaly bits?
Nobody has done more for nose to tail eating than Fergus Henderson at the renowned St. John Restaurant, near London’s Smithfield Market, who is noted for his use of offal and neglected cuts of meat. There are plenty of others out there to help you too, including a growing number of food bloggers like Lucy over at OffalyGood who do a great job of showing you what’s really tasty and how to cook it, and can also arm you with a few choice questions with which to quiz your butcher. But generally speaking try questions like: What’s this? What’s that? What do you do with it? All work pretty well, most of the time.
There’s a voyage of discovery to be had which you ought not to deny yourself. And, who knows, before long you may find yourself reaching for a copy of one of my favourite cookbooks of recent times: Testicles - Balls in Cooking and Culture. It should at least bring a smile to your face, it makes a good conversation piece left lying around the kitchen and some of the same in your shopping will go a long way!
So pluck up a bit of confidence. What are you waiting for? Get in there, give the guys and gals behind the counter a big smile, engage them in conversation, go regular and give it time. No one will think you are a fool for asking a daft question, your interest is more likely to be greeted with enthusiasm and you may even make a friend for life! You will also unwittingly have become a member of The Meat Crusade!
This post originally appeared on John Penny's 'The Meat Crusade' blog - under a less provocative title!
Blandine Vie, Testicles: Balls in Cooking and Culture, 2011, Prospect Books may be obtained from Prospect Books, Allaleigh House, Blackawton, Totnes, Devon TQ9 7DL or online here.