The Master Butcher


          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.

Chainmail Chestpiece
Chainmail Chestpiece
Steak Knife
Steak Knife
and Cleaner
and Cleaner

          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.

Old Sawbones Himself
Old Sawbones Himself

          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.

Irish Seal of Approval
Irish Seal of Approval

          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 Breakdown
The Breakdown.

         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.

The Loin
The Loin

          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)

The Shape of Irish Breakfasts for Generations
The Shape of Irish Breakfasts for Generations

          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.

The End Result. Ready for Sale
The End Result. Ready for sale.

          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,..

beef, cookery course, cookery school

~ Mark O’Brien


    • Hey Jack,

      Yeh it’s something you can do very easily from any butcher. You can either get the Side all together and butcher it yourself or just buy the whole side. It would probably cost somewhere in the €200 range and depending on how you cook it and serve it, I would say you could feed maybe seventy five to a hundred people.

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