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Butchering with the big boys at Cumbrae’s

Butchering with the big boys at Cumbrae’s

While Union is being pieced together, I’ve been taking apart whole lambs and pigs at Cumbrae’s. I go in on Wednesdays because it’s the day they get the bodies in—that’s what they call the animals there, “bodies.” I’ve been working mostly on the lambs, which is more intense than cleaning chickens and rabbits and beef tenderloins. The atmosphere in the shop is great—full of happy, patient butchers who don’t mind taking a bit of time to show me how it’s done. The art of butchering is all about knowing where to stick the knife, and then slicing with force and conviction in order to make good, clean, straight cuts. When the knife hits bone, you take the saw and cut right through with long, strong strokes. It takes a while to get a feel for it, or you over-think and the lamb takes you apart instead (and drinking whisky the night before doesn’t help much, either).

But I tell you, there are some beautiful bodies coming into that shop. Last Wednesday, a big Angus came in. Stephen took apart the forequarter (where the prime rib lives) as it was suspended from a swivel hook. The hanging method lets gravity help; the pieces come apart when you find their seams. Stephen makes it look easy. An incision here, a cut there. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. For me, the best part is finally seeing where all the cuts come from—like the bavette, the hanger and the New York. I saw the tenderloin nestled in there, clinging to white fat, and watched the technique used to take it out. I finally understood why every tenderloin I’ve cleaned up has had ridges along its back. They sent me off with a piece of super-aged prime rib to try. I cooked it up at the farm, and the flavour in the aged fat and meat shot my dad back 50 years, to when my grandmother insisted that the butcher hang her stuff as long as he possibly could. I can’t wait to get back in there.

• Watch a video on the dry-aging process (and a number of other meat-related subjects) on Cumbrae’s TV.

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