Food classes are all the rage; I’ve been a dedicated student of ham school, pig school, steak school and currently, wine school. I never miss a chance to learn a skill from an expert and I was nothing short of ecstatic to be invited to a butchery class at one of London’s most renowned: Allens of Mayfair.
As our cosy group of six gathered around the famous octagonal butcher’s block to absorb information about safety and don some rather fetching protective gloves (secured around my dainty laydee hand with a couple of laccy bands), I found I became strangely nervous. The kind of nerves you get when you really want to make someone proud; it seemed that David (one of two owners) had already become like a favourite teacher – I didn’t want to let him down.
I needn’t have worried – this is about as friendly as it gets and yet utterly professional. We stood, mouths hanging agape watching David butcher a whole lamb, instructing us to ‘”let the knife do the work” and to “move the meat around – it’s already dead.” He shimmied it back and forth across the block with the ease of an entirely automatic action; the knife like a natural extension of his arm. To watch the pros at work is really something; I can see why many top London restaurants choose Allens, London’s oldest butcher’s shop, as a supplier.
We giggled as David mused on the difference between the male and female approach to the classes. Apparently men tend to barge in with testosterone fuelled caveman hackery while women, in general, adopt a more careful, considered style. A stereotype of course but also a valuable message: butchery is an art, a skill – not a lesson in who can make one lump of meat into many in the shortest time possible.
We began the class with the humble chook. Now I’ve hacked away at many a bird in my time and despite owning a copy of ‘Knife Skills Illustrated’ and having free and easy access to Google, I’m ashamed to say I’ve never looked up the proper method for jointing. That leg joint has flummoxed me on too many occasions; on Saturday I learned that all one needs to do to release that joint is put a hand underneath and push upwards.
The extra trick with the legs is also to preserve the ‘oyster’ – regarded by some (including, famously, Marco Pierre White) as the most delicious morsel of meat on the entire bird. I failed miserably on my first attempt but nailed it on the second (above, the one on the left has the oyster, at the top).
Next was oxtail; the trick here to locate each joint and then slice just next to it – your knife should glide through easily. If it doesn’t you know you’re off track. Most of us needed help – some joints are more elusive than others. Everyone took pride in lining up their pieces in size order as suggested.
After the simplicity of the oxtail it was on to a French-trimmed rack of lamb. This was daunting due to the need for sawing of bones but careful supervision left us all with a rack to be proud of. No sniggering at the back please…
The grand finale was just that; jitters set in – what if we made a wrong cut? A spectacular 3 bone piece of sirloin demanded all our attention and respect. The challenge was to remove the bone, the unwanted fat and gristle and roll, securing the joint with some surprisingly tricksy butcher’s knots. Our teachers really excelled themselves in terms of patience and attentiveness; we were all terrified of making a wrong slice on a clearly expensive piece of meat.
At the end of approximately 1 1/2 hours, a quick squiz around the room revealed a bunch of people with silly, cheesy grins. The team at Allens are charming, patient, funny and extremely good at what they do. That’s not a gushing, biased blurb but a heartfelt recommendation that you try this class for yourself. It costs £100 and you will take home valuable experience, knowledge and a shed load of high quality meat that you have butchered with your very own hands. It is extremely good value. Schoolin’ just doesn’t get better than this.
See Allens website for details. Type of meat and cuts change according to availability and season.
Allens of Mayfair
117 Mount Street,
London W1K 3LA
Tel: 020 7499 5831
Full Flickr set here