Sunday, 31 January 2010

Meat, More Meat, and a Duck

There's a chalkboard in the kitchen where I write notes to remind myself of outstanding jobs. Top of the list is 'Book in Lambs'. That is, call up the abbattoir and schedule our two lambs for slaughter. There's no other nice way to put that - slaughter - and thinking about it is what has so far prevented me from getting on with it.

I toyed with the coward's ways out: sell them on live at the local market, let someone else kill them. Or take them to the abbattoir and pay them to do the whole job, turning my lambs into packaged chops and joints that I could pretend were no relation to those little souls I bottle-fed 5 times a day, and once rescued from under a German Shepherd (her first and last tryout as a sheep-herding dog).

I reminded myself of the reasons I wanted to raise them in the first place: I wanted grass-fed meat that I knew had been reared with consideration for their quality of life, allowed to express natural behaviors, and when the time came, dispatched with no suffering or stress. The coward's ways out didn't meet the criteria.

And if I butcher my own lambs, not only does it keep the costs down but it means I can see if my feeding program worked, if they put on enough flesh but not too much fat. It will help me fine tune feeding for the next lot of lambs as they grow.

Our neighbor Peggy invited me to practice my butchering under her watchful eye. She butchers her own pigs and lambs for sale direct from her farm. She had two lambs hung and ready to "break down" - that's not a dance move, it's butcher's talk for cutting a carcase into component joints. I was already talking the talk. Walking the walk was more challenging.

A side of lamb

Peggy laid a side of lamb (half a lamb cut lengthways, a la Damien Hirst) on the butcher block and talked me through the individual steps, while she deftly cut and sliced and teased meat from fat and sinew and bone.
All the time she berated her husband for sending these 2 specimens for killing. "They're poor, they have no cover". Cover is fat, and if there's not enough fat on the animal Peggy says it makes the butchery process harder. She criticised the amount of flesh on the carcase, she criticised herself for hanging it too long - not enough fat to hang for 8 days she said. Both carcases looked 100 times better than anything I'd seen in the supermarket: dark red marbled meat, buttery texture, and tender relaxed muscle fibre from hanging.

But Peggy is a woman with high standards, and she knows her customers. This lamb was for a woman who used to be in farming. "Some people like the very lean lamb, but farmers like fat on their flesh". Peggy didn't want an unhappy customer. It's a small village, and Peggy didn't want it getting around that her lambs weren't the very best. She poked and examined each joint as she freed them from the whole.

She frowned and contemplated in silence as I watched her. Finally, having made her decision she said "This lamb is passable, I'll show it to the customer and let her choose to have it or wait for the next batch to be done. But this one.." she scowled at the carcase "It can be mince and dice. You can break it down for practice. Don't worry about mistakes, but don't cut yourself because I haven't got time now to take you to the hospital." I like this woman's frankness. My lesson had begun.

I watched her first, prompty forgot everything I just watched, and had to get her to nurse maid me through the first (scariest) cuts on my practice carcase. Cut off the breast meat, through the shoulder, count up six ribs, through the front end, remove the leg...see? I've already forgotten the exact sequence. Anyway, the result is this:
From here decisions need to be made - a whole leg or half? Bone in or boneless rolled shoulder? Chump chops or a small roasting joint? Peggy prepared the first lamb as per her client's request. As the second lamb was going to end up as pieces, I practiced as many cuts as possible. Here's my boned out whole leg -
I am proud of how clean the bones are. It means I left more meat in the roast. And all my knots line up. Peggy challenged me with producing chump chops, the only part we weren't going to dice. An expensive cut, and not exactly easy - you have to make 6 chops and cut through the sliver of cartilage between vertebrae. I did OK with help and encouragement from Peggy:

That woman has the patience of a saint. She showed me how to hold the knife so no trips to the hospital were required, how to make seam cuts, remove glands (supermarket butchers don't remove the glands), how to tie up a rolled joint to get an even thickness (start from the middle and work out), and a few tricks for presentation purposes. Here's Peggy's tray of cuts she produced and deemed acceptable for sale:

I bet you'd agree with me that she's too hard on herself - that meat looks fantastic! Here's the end result of my work:

That meat will make some superb stews and shepherd pies.

Two lambs were 3 hours' work for the two of us, but probably would take her half the time without the hindrance of a student.

Peggy's kindly agreed to let me butcher my own lambs at hers, under her tutelage. The lambs are ready to go, so it only remains for me to book them in and finally erase the chalkboard. And put up a new note: Process Lambs with P. I hope they have enough fat on them, I don't want to incur the wrath of P.

I found the wild mallards we had given to us earlier in the week easier to deal with - small carcase, no emotional attachment. I had never made confit and am interested in the idea of preserving with fat. I prepared the birds as per a recipe in The Complete Guide to Cooking, with bay and thyme from the garden:

I had enough goosefat saved to make a small jar of confit, and Mike has been snacking on the duck leftovers that wouldn't fit in the jar.

It doesn't look that appetising does it? I'm taking a leap of faith on this one. I will attempt to make a cassoulet with the confit, something else I've never made before. If anyone has a good recipe, I'm open to suggestions.


Middle Cottage Diary said...

Amazing looking meat, well done. Peggy sounds like a great lady!

Terry Scoville said...

Looks like you've got a great teacher in Peggy. Lucky you. The lamb looks beautiful. As for the confit and cassoulet, I am of no help and I am eager to hear/see your results.

I fully understand your attachment to your lambs as far as dispatching them goes. . . not easy, even for those of us who hunt.

Maria said...

I admire your efforts to learn new skills, including butchery, and I'm glad you have found someone willing to help you! my grandparents back home are butchers but I have never learnt these skills...(for now I'm an environmentalist/office worker)

Jennifer Montero said...

MCD - Peggy's great, I rely so much on neighbors with expertise and patience.

Terry - I know what you mean about dispatching. That's been the biggest leap for me between hunting and keeping stock, the attachment.

Maria - How lucky to have grandparents with such skills! I could do with learning more office and computer skills like you have.

Poppy Cottage said...

Well done. Remember when my first Op lambs came back in plastic bags. Sad, but boy did they taste good!!

Now I couldn't tell you the last time I ate lamb. Not the same from the Super Market!!

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Jen -- Do you know if Peggy's planning any trips stateside? Boy, could I use her help. The only mammal I've butchered was a rabbit (it came to me skinned, cleaned, and headless, so it shouldn't have been that much of a challenge). I butchered it alright. There were strange, oddly shaped pieces of meat floating amidst the white beans and carrots I braised it with (in beer -- an excellent combination).

By contrast, your lamb cuts look excellent, at least to my untrained eye. You will do well with your little beasts. Now swallow hard and make the phone call.