The Joys of a Family Butcher

BY ROGER WATSON

Although a good family butcher is hard to find these days, there is simply nothing to compare with visiting a butcher’s shop, preferably a very old fashioned one with a bell that goes ‘ping’ when you open the door, with a display of uncut meat and where your two pounds of stewing beef is boned and diced in front of you. The smell is hard to pinpoint but it transports me back to my childhood visits to the butcher. People who have ever only picked a packet of cling-filmed meat on a polystyrene tray off the shelf at Tesco’s simply don’t know what they are missing. It also struck me that a visit to the family butcher is a link—something like Stargate—from the cosseted urban existence that most of us live to the realities of rural life.

I don’t need to be asked twice to visit our family butcher to pick up our weekly order. This, even though we have moved over a mile and a half from where we used to live which was within a very short distance of the shop. The present incumbent—soon to retire—took over from his employer who also served us and who continues to make a ‘guest appearance’ at busy times. These men know us and quite a few of our eight children by name. The present butcher knows I dabbled with butchery once between school and university as a summer job. As someone going to study biology, I found it fascinating. I was also in awe of the skills of the butchers working around me. He knows that I don’t adhere to any politically correct or squeamish nonsense regarding the meat trade.

On my most recent visit I noticed that, with the barbecue trade picking up over the bank holiday weekends he had his selection of hand-made burgers on display, including venison burgers. I asked how he obtained the venison, assuming that it was all commercial red deer venison. But he told me that it was all locally sourced and shot and that his venison burgers and other cuts were made from a range of local deer. He took me to his walk in fridge and showed me a side of roe deer venison which, to my astonishment, he told me had been shot that morning. In fact, most of his deer came direct from the field to the shop and were sold almost immediately. He told me that he also received fallow deer and muntjac. Occasionally he received a red deer.

Having seen both red deer (enormous) and muntjac (tiny) I asked if there was anything left of a muntjac after it had been shot as I have seen the types of bullets used for red deer hunting. Apparently, the huntsman uses a different type of bullet for each type of deer. We discussed the best types of shot in terms of anatomy. Head shots are best, especially in small animals, as they preserve the meat although red deer are usually shot in the chest. The intention always being an instantaneous kill.

He also showed me the certificates for all the deer he had recently sold. The shooter must be registered with the British Deer Society (BDS) otherwise the trade is illegal. He regularly had people turning up in the early morning with a deer in the back of a van offering it for sale but, unless they could produce a BDS certificate he turned them away. This can also be a trick of the meat inspectors and any butcher falling foul of them is in a great deal of trouble.

It struck me, hearing more from our butcher and about the men who hunt the local deer, that these were the people who really care for our countryside. The hunters know the deer and know which ones to shoot. For a BDS hunter it is neither an arbitrary bloodbath nor a ‘kill all you can’ session. Deer exist in many rural areas only because they are managed. The numbers are kept within limits that are compatible with local agriculture and so deer can thrive where they are and not stray too much on to roads where they are killed by cars and can cause considerable damage and even death to drivers. While I have never shot any kind of animal, I have stalked deer and been shown what the shooters are looking for. If they do not see it, they do not shoot. They are looking for sick deer and old stags that have been chased from the herd to live a lonely life being excluded from best feeding areas and left to starve. If numbers are unsustainable further culling may take place. This is what it takes to manage herds of deer and to ensure, where possible, a swift and humane end when necessary.

I left after my recent visit to the butcher having learned a great deal and, what is more, learned about what is taking place in the countryside around my city. I often see deer on my train journeys out of the city or from behind the wheel of our car when driving in the countryside. While I am happy to leave the shooting to others, I will from now on look at the deer with increased interest and appreciation.

Roger Watson is a Registered Nurse and Editor-in-Chief of Nurse Education in Practice.