Have a butchers at this: Chop, chop! Forget baking, there’s a new cookery class that’s a cut above the rest

Rebecca Seal

Last updated at 10:11 PM on 4th March 2012

Forget baking, die-hard domestic goddesses have moved on from crafting cupcakes and tending their organic allotment.

Nowadays, ladies who really love to cook are also learning how to swing a blade on butchery workshops.

As it turns out, I’m rubbish at using a cleaver. It was one of the things I was most looking forward to during my day learning to butcher: hefting a huge blade and bringing it down with a precise thwack on a big piece of meat, neatly bisecting it.

Prime cut: Rebecca with butcher Andrew Holmes from the Ginger Pig on-farm butchery in Yorkshire

Prime cut: Rebecca with butcher Andrew Holmes from the Ginger Pig on-farm butchery in Yorkshire

All I manage, though, is to I make a hash of a perfectly good piece of pork shoulder.

‘It’s all in the wrist,’ says Andrew Holmes, who has given up his day working in the Ginger Pig’s on-farm butchery in Yorkshire to teach me — patiently — how to work with pork. ‘Just let it fall … and don’t bring it down on your hand.’

I’m so worried about doing just that I wimpily flop the blade down deep into the meat, far from my hand and the pork bone I’m aiming for, with a dull, wet thud. Andrew manages not to snigger. ‘It’s OK. We can use that for sausages,’ he says, gently taking the cleaver off me and cleanly slicing through the joint.

I’ve wanted to do a butchery course for ages. Ever since I gave up on my decade-long experiment with vegetarianism eight years ago, I’ve felt I should face up to where the meat I eat comes from and see if I can handle it.

And I’m not alone: the Ginger Pig, a
multi award-winning farm and butcher with five shops in London, has seen
the number of people attending its classes double every year since they
launched in late 2007 and a third of participants are women.


Sophie Ellis Bextor

Dermot O’Leary and Sophie Ellis-Bextor have both attended butchery classes

There are now dozens of similar
courses run by local butchers all over the country, including one set up
by Jamie Oliver’s butchers at his barbecue restaurant in the City,
Barbecoa. And butchery books are well and truly taking off, too.

Ginger Pig proprietor Tim Wilson released his own guide, The Ginger Pig Meat Book, last year, while Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Meat Book, a 544-page tome, has sold 300,000 copies since 2004. And there are half a dozen further meat books coming out this year.

Tim agrees there’s a growing enthusiasm for the subject. ‘Our classes started with a maximum of six people, three times a week — all keen amateur cooks who wanted to French dress a rack of lamb or take home a big shin of beef and cut it up,’ he says.

‘Now, we do six or seven classes a week, and half of them are corporate nights for companies who want to book in for a whole evening with dinner and wine as a bonding event. We’ve even had Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Dermot O’Leary along for a class — not together. It’s the next big thing — you’re not going to the theatre at night, you’re going to learn butchering.’

Although learning to butcher, like baking bread, making chutney or having an allotment, is undoubtedly trendy today, Tim doesn’t see it as anything new. ‘In the 19th century everything was done at home — air-drying ham, making sausages — and people are trying to get back to that way of life.’

Before getting started on the pork, I’m taken to see Tim’s pigs by his fiancee, Sarah Clubley, who runs the farm with him. Their
Berkshires are black, noisy and medium-sized, while the Plum Puddings —
a Berkshire-Tamworth cross and the breed of the pig I will be
butchering — are boisterous, tiny and adorable, with orange coats and
black spots, if also rather inclined to nip you on the knees.

The Ginger Pig, a multi award-winning
farm and butcher with five shops in London, has seen the number of
people attending its classes double every year since they launched in
late 2007

Star of the show, though, is the Tamworth boar. Weighing in at 660lb, when the Tamworth noses against my hand to see if I come to his pen bearing food, it’s like being shunted by a hairy ginger bus.

I had wondered, before coming here, if seeing the pigs in the flesh would put me off. But I’m startled to find that all meeting them does is make me want to make a better — perhaps more respectful — job of the butchering. There’s just one moment where I feel my stomach flutter with queasiness, but the rest of the time I’m enthralled.

During the day I learn how to French dress a rack of pork chops by trimming the meat off the ribs. I prepare a leg of ham and a hock of pork, cut steaks (compared to Andrew’s professional cuts, my attempts look like they’ve been savaged) and spare ribs, bone out the blade, tunnel out thigh bones, remove fat for rendering and skin for crackling and scratchings. (If you ever wonder why restaurant crackling is so much better than yours, know this: lots of chefs buy in extra rind and deep fry it separately.)

Andrew also shows me how to roll a loin and a shoulder and sew them up using string and a foot-long needle. Considering I can sew, it takes me a long time to grasp the intricacies of a butcher’s knot; what I end up with is lopsided, but still passes for a proper roasting joint. By the time we’ve made our way through the whole pig, we’ve been working for more than five hours.

Andrew has been a butchering since he was 14 — he’s 37 now — and could do this job in 30 minutes if I wasn’t here getting in the way. His knife cuts the meat like it’s butter, while mine zigzags about of its own accord, alternately leaving too much meat behind or chipping the bones. None of which matters to me; I’m thrilled by our growing pile of cuts.

At the end of my day, Tim sends me away with as much as I can carry: a rolled shoulder of pork and the rack of chops I French dressed, as well as a salted side of bacon, worth more than 45 in total. The next day I make one of the best roasts of my life. There’s no question that happier pigs result in tastier meat and that Tim’s calm slaughtering policy prevents stress hormones and tension damaging its flavour.

Plus, slower grown animals produce far better crackling than those reared more rapidly for the supermarkets. But there’s an extra layer of deliciousness that comes from knowing I cut it into sections, removed the bones and bound up the meat. Next time, I’m going to tackle a whole side of beef … 

Butchery evening classes at the Ginger Pig shops in London start at 135. Day classes at the Ginger Pig farm in Yorkshire are by arrangement and start at 200. thegingerpig.co.uk; 01751 460 802.