Butchery is something that has fascinated me for a long time. I think it is linked with my lifelong desire to be a mechanic.
Something about having the knowledge and skill to break down something so complex, so intricate was always intriguing to me. So on Wednesday morning last, we all arrived in eagerly awaiting the pig butchery workshop.
The animal in question was laid out on one of our sizable workbenches. He took up more than we thought he would. Sylvester Byrne began by introducing himself. Master Butcher from a long line of Master Butchers. He is retired now but most recently he worked as a lecturer in DIT for their Culinary Arts Degree. In his spare time he does a bit of teaching and makes hand crafted musical instruments. Clearly this is a man with a skilled set of hands.
As he speaks about his career he deftly straps a sheet of what could only be described as chainmail across his chest. The customary red and white striped apron goes on top. There is certainly an element of a soldier preparing himself for battle from this guy. He then talks of the health and safety element of his work as he pulls a Machete-like knife from his bag along with a particularly vicious looking 7″ cleaver. Not to mention the Bow Saw he kits up in front of us. All of these implements of war he wields with grace and a force that is surprising for his years.
He is spritely and deft in his movements. When he has the joints of pork in his hands you can clearly seen this is ingrained in the very fibre of his being. He moves through the carcass with precision showing us each piece of muscle, each bone, each line of fat. You know however though, if asked, he could break this animal down in minutes without breaking a sweat. That is the kind of talent. The technique, the skill that comes from years and years spent mastering a trade.
He talks first about how the animal was slaughtered (in a licensed abattoir, like all commercially farmed animals in Ireland), by being exposed to CO2 gas which renders them unconscious before death. Each animal is then bled, submerged in warm water (to loosen the outer skin) and then cleaned. Then comes the rigorous inspection by a qualified Vet. If it passes the tests it gets the stamp you can see above. This shows that the animal was well and healthy and suitable for use. Our standards in Ireland are very strict. Only 10% of meat reared in Ireland is consumed here. The rest is for the export market. Incredible statistic when you think about it.
The animal we had was only six months old. An incredibly young age for something this size. It was only only slaughtered five days previously. Which is something we rarely think about when buying meat. When it was slaughtered. How long it was hung for. Definitely something I will be paying more attention to from now on. From behind his small classes he looks out on us to reveal a slightly more macabre side to himself. He talks of butchery more as a process of “Converting animals into Meat. Not killing.” Creating Meat by destroying life. Kind of creepy right? Well this is the reality behind the food most of us eat on a regular basis.
With all of that behind us he starts dismantling the side of pork into its four main cuts. The Leg, the Loin, the Belly and the Fore Limb. He talks us through the makeup of each cut. Where the main muscles are. Where the meat for sausages comes from. Which are the cuts he can make the most money off are. Where they less profitable cuts come from and why. The differences between Pork, Ham and Bacon (Curing and cut are the main factors. Tradition is another big one)
It’s a fascinating few hours. What really got me was seeing the pieces of meat you know well appear before you out of the large cuts. The surprise revelation of a rasher shape from the centre loin was a particular favourite of the crowd. In the end he had a vast array of meat pieces in front of him. Each expertly cut. Each perfectly crafted from the farm to the butcher and then (hopefully) to fork.
When you see everything worked through like this you really begin to understand how little waste there is. Everything from this animal gets used. Off cuts are sent for sausages or mince. Shoulder for slow roast pulled port. Loin of the always classic pork chops. Centre loin to be cured for bacon. The pig is truly a remarkable animal. One could also say the same about this man,..
~ Mark O’Brien