Another Tipperary winner

 

INTERVIEW:A ground-breaking Tipperary butcher is cross-breeding Wagyu and Angus cattle for the Irish market, writes MICHAEL KELLY

IF YOU LOVE meat, being let loose in James Whelan Butchers in Clonmel is like being a chocolate addict let lose in a chocolaterie. On my first visit, my head was practically spinning off as I struggled to take it all in. Over here, a slow-reared Hubbarb Ross chicken on sale for an eminently reasonable €11.99. Over there (excitement mounting now), a large selection of free-range and organic pork and bacon – you really can count on one hand the number of butchers that sell outdoor-reared pig meat. Then, the pièce de résistance: beef and lamb reared on their own 200-acre farm just down the road and killed at their on-farm abattoir. For any consumer weary of the dizzying complexity of the modern food chain, this is road to Damascus stuff – end-to-end meat production happily confined to a five-mile radius.

The man behind this meat-utopia is Pat Whelan, a fifth generation butcher whose aim is to maintain the traditions handed to him by his father, while adapting them for modern life. “I don’t look on this as something I have inherited,” he says. “I see it as something I have borrowed from my own children.”

Thus, Whelan’s passion for tradition is juxtaposed with a willingness to embrace, for example, some decidedly untraditional routes to market. Whelan is a regular tweeter (@pat_whelan), and now has a significant online business that sells meat nationwide (with guaranteed next-day delivery). “My mother used to have her country business – she would deliver meat one day a week and we used to go with her as kids. Now our country business has returned with the internet.”

His relentless quest for innovation has brought Whelan all over the world, researching best practice in the industry. In Japan he was impressed by the famous Wagyu breed of cattle. They produce beef intensely marbled with fat, resulting in increased tenderness and flavour. Advocates claim that Wagyu beef has health benefits due to a higher percentage of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Since the visibly high fat content of Wagyu might put off Irish beef eaters, Whelan decided to cross the breed with some of his own Angus herd. The result is a new style of Wagyu beef reared specifically for the Irish palate. “The Angus influence doesn’t allow it to develop too much fat, but at the same time doesn’t compromise the flavour.”

Out on the farm he proudly shows off the in-calf Angus heifers (shortly to give birth to Wagyu/Angus calves), and other breeds including Piedmont and Hereford. Looking at the space these beautiful creatures have, living out their days on rolling Co Tipperary countryside, it’s little wonder that the end result is such a triumph.

“We have an incredible resource in this country with our climate and the grass diet we can offer our animals,” says Whelan. “Our job is to create premium products so that we are price makers and not price takers.” Consumers, he says, will pay the premium once the back-story is properly communicated to them.

The on-farm abattoir is something that marks this out as a very special operation. Over the past decade the number of small abattoirs has dropped dramatically, replaced by large industrial slaughterhouses and centralised distribution. “You can take all the care you want with your animal husbandry, but if you have them going in to an industrial process, the animals will be stressed. Sending them up a ramp on to a truck and transporting them 40 miles to an industrial abattoir is not ideal for them or the quality of the meat.”

On this farm, a small number of animals are brought down from the fields and slaughtered in the spotlessly clean abattoir every other day. The morning I visit, six heifers have been processed and the carcasses are hanging in a cold room.

The meat is dry-aged for two weeks before it appears on the shelf of the store in Clonmel. “As the beef gradually loses moisture, it develops flavour and as the enzymes break down the muscle fibres, the meat becomes more tender. The result is beef with a natural sweetness and a deep red colour.”

In 2007 Whelan came up with the idea of the Tipperary Food Producers’ Network – a collection of 30 artisan producers who put on an annual summer banquet each year called the Long Table Dinner at which every morsel of food served is sourced from within the county boundary. The idea of sustainable local economies and having a buoyant local food sector in the county is very important to him.

Ultimately, he says, it all comes back to the customer. “Our entire business is about developing relationships with customers and giving them what they want. We had a customer approach us recently looking for pork chops with the kidneys left in. We can ask out pork supplier, Crowe Farm Meats to facilitate us. Being able to do that is wonderful.”

An Irish Butcher Shop by Pat Whelan will be published by Collins Press in October, €25. It is available to order now on collinspress.ie. See also jameswhelanbutchers.ie; tipperaryfoodproducers.com