Anyone who knows me also knows I'm an unashamed foodie. I enjoy the science behind cooking and am constantly experimenting with 'new' ingredients and methods.
As part of that journey, last Thursday evening I took a class in butchery at Lishmans of Ilkley, a master butchers shop in a small town not far from where I live. They run the class twice a year in the run up to Christmas.
Specifically I went to learn how to turn a pork leg into a ham plus learn what to do with the leftovers from ham preparation. It was one of the best three plus hours I've spent all year. Here's what I learned but first a bit of history.
If you're a vegetarian or vegan, you might be appalled at what I will say. Bear with me - the lessons go well beyond what immediately follows.
Over the last 30 odd years, the 'corner shop' butcher, like many other corner shop type businesses has been slowly disappearing from the landscape of British towns and villages.
The rise of the mega supermarket chains has made the relative convenience of the corner shop an anachronism as consumers seem to prefer cheap, mass produced foodstuffs. I'm not part of that demographic. I want food that stands on its own for flavor and doesn't require larding with spices to mask the inferiority of the main ingredient. In addition, meat is taking up less of our overall food intake, much to the delight of some. Be that as it may.
What did I learn? It turns out that boning any meat to get the best from it requires a good understanding of anatomy. Not my strong suit. It also turns out butchers use different parts of a knife blade depending on the job at hand and that the vision of a butcher wielding a machete sized chopper is something out of childhood fantasy.
I also learned that from a single pork leg, you can get a good sized ham, a trotter for those who remember such things, plenty of sausages and a hock for braising or roasting. The ham can be as large as a single piece, cut into two or more pieces including gammon steaks. In short, you get a lot of value from that single piece; provided you know what you're doing.
In our case, the hams are being cured for several weeks after being injected with a brining solution to 15% of the original weight. They are done either 'traditionally' or, in my case using the Abbott's Cure, a molasses and beer brining concoction.
The hardest part of the evening was also the most fun part - making sausage links. The butcher running the event told us that last week they ran a sausage promotion that led to them selling two and a half tons of the stuff. That's a lot of sausage and not something I could ever imagine being done by hand.
He also told us they supply 200kg of pepperoni per month to a pizza outlet in London. Behind the scene of the main shop, they've industrialized production of hams, pies, charcuterie and sausages yet retained the home made look, feel and tastes that make for great food.
For example, they have computer controlled pepperoni making equipment and semi-automated brining equipment for the hams. If that sounds at odds with the 'craft' nature of butchery it's important to understand that it's not so much the equipment, which certainly adds consistency, but the quality of ingredients and recipes.
But above everything is the passion the staff have in what they do. As we were preparing for the class, the oldest serving butcher on the team proudly showed off his latest 'toy,' an antique pie former he acquired on eBay for £10.
From the get-go, it was obvious to me that Joe, our teacher for the evening, is proud of what he does and enjoys passing on his skills. His enthusiasm for taking a class, after normal shop hours and well into the evening was infectious. It would take a Scrooge to not 'get' his zeal.
Joe said that while some recipes used to be considered shop secrets, the QGuild actively encourages its members to share what they know. In the tech world we call that open source.
I asked how the shop managed to thrive when so much of the high street has been decimated. The answer was simple and obvious:
We've had to change and adapt to consumer tastes. We still provide many of the joints with which you'll be familiar (the rib roasts certainly caught my eye!) but consumers don't have the time they once did and want things they can put together in 20-30 minutes. So now we offer a whole range of pre-marinaded cuts.
It goes without saying that this shop supports local farmers who practice good husbandry.
I asked about delivery because for me, reaching the shop is something of a trek even though it is relatively close as the crow flies.
It struck me that having gained a well-deserved reputation, might Lishmans not be missing fresh opportunities in a world of Amazon and Athleat? Again, the answer was simple and contextually relevant:
One year the weather was so bad that we couldn't deliver and that meant 30 families went without. We decided while delivery is a nice to have, it isn't worth the problems that result from not being able to deliver, even when it's through no fault of our own.
It's certainly an interesting take which left me wondering where the likes of Uber Eats go in those circumstances.
I'd expected a degree of fun but the evening was fantastic at all sorts of levels. Above everything I learned that passion trumps pretty much everything when it oozes from those who are totally into what they do. That, I think, is the lesson the enterprise needs to relearn.