As the sun shone last weekend I began to smell the smoke from barbecues being lit. As soon as the weather changes British men love to don an apron and go outside and cook. What’s more we’re getting better at it. Gone are the days of pink and black chicken, sausages which turn to ash and the fire service on permanent standby. These days we are far more likely to marinade, rub and encrust. Of course, meat is the essential ingredient and supermarkets report an upturn of 35% in burgers when the temperature rises. I’ve seen for myself the shelves where all the plastic packages have disappeared as if a plague of locusts have passed through.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about fruit and vegetables and why we should Try Ashbourne First to get better choice, better quality and better prices. This week I investigated our local butchers to learn a little more about the meat on the Ashbourne table. The French know us colloquially as Les Rosbifs and it’s fair to say that meat and two veg has been the standard British Sunday lunch for generations. There’s a reason: we’re actually pretty good at farming and breeding good quality livestock. British beef and lamb in particular have a worldwide reputation.
Butchers are selling a product which has no place to hide. The flavour comes from the husbandry of the animals, the preparation and the storage. Beyond that there are no hidden ingredients – it’s down to the skills of the chef to use the meat to best effect. With so few variables to play with, the butcher – as buyer, preparer and retailer – is putting his reputation on a plate (literally) every week. We are blessed in Ashbourne to be surrounded by fabulous farming country and to be home to three butchers. What I discovered through talking to them was history, real knowledge and passion for their product.
Mark’s Family Butchers is in a shop off Shaw Croft. Mark Caple appears regularly in the Ashbourne News Telegraph because of his award-winning produce and his involvement in local affairs. The business has been running for 20 years and during that time he has sourced his meat from Richardson’s in the Manifold Valley. That’s twenty years of knowing how the animals are treated, the slaughter process and twenty years of feedback from customers. Mark has, like all the butchers, a regular loyal customer base and he understands what they want. He makes his own award-winning sausages, black pudding and pies. There’s plenty of choice for that barbecue from sausages to kebabs and flavoured burgers. He’s got a track record of developing products for his customers such as a low-calorie sausage. Importantly you can see from his shop that the business goes beyond selling meat and into the community. He has a table with leaflets and brochures and his staff regularly undertake charity events.
George Peach is a similarly long-standing business. They source their meat from Pilkington’s in Mappleton. It’s slaughtered and then brought to the shop to be butchered. They occasionally stock game and, like all our local butchers, they stock oatcakes, pork scratchings, meat paste and lard.
Nigel Brown (Nigel’s) sources different meats from long-standing suppliers in the local area and his business has been supporting local farmers for 32 years – his pork comes from a farm at Sudbury. The distance the meat or the animal has had to travel affects its quality: food miles are vitally important to most produce. This is why you see restaurateurs increasingly emphasising the local ingredients and even publishing the food miles. Of course, when the barbecues are being lit people look for more processed food – Nigel’s home-produced flavoured burgers, minted lamb, marinated chicken breasts, spare ribs and pork belly look fantastic – there is a much bigger choice than the supermarkets carry. Nigel is a well-known community figure and has arranged lots of charity fundraising events. Little wonder he was awarded the honour of turning up the Shrovetide ball on Ash Wednesday in 2013.
So Ashbourne’s butchers have decades of experience but also longstanding relationships with their local suppliers. They have discerning customers who are relying on them to maintain quality. They have a superior product and yet many people still buy their meat from supermarkets. I looked at prices and discovered that the supermarket prices for the staple products – bacon, beef mince and chicken breasts were comparable when they were on special offer but otherwise were typically 5-20% more expensive. The supermarket meat may be from Great Britain or even England but it is unlikely to be supporting Derbyshire and Staffordshire farmers and isn’t backed by the expertise of people you can talk to. With Ashbourne’s butchers you are not paying for long lorry (or, even worse, ship) journeys and the hideous plastic wrapping. There is no magic formula which supermarkets have for sourcing meat…it comes from farms. The only way that supermarkets can be cheaper is by taking a lower margin or cutting on quality. This is why it is important to know the butcher in assessing the quality of mince and sausagemeat.
Of course sometimes it’s more convenient to just add it to your supermarket shop but there’s really no other excuse! You could just as easily load up your barbecue with locally produced kebabs, spare ribs, pork and apple burgers, pork in garlic sauce or marinated lamb. If you don’t do so already, join those in the know and go and talk to Ashbourne’s butchers about what they have on offer. You might want to ask why – to a man and with a smile on their face – the favourite cut of Ashbourne’s butchers is the rib of beef. Vive Les Rosbifs!