Independent butchers are one of Ireland’s culinary treasures

Russ Parsons: Customers don’t come just for the meat, they come for the personal touch

People come in to the butcher’s, and they have a chat while they buy their meat. That personal touch is part of our culture. Photograph: iStock

People come in to the butcher’s, and they have a chat while they buy their meat. That personal touch is part of our culture. Photograph: iStock

 

Not long after moving to Ireland, I was wandering my Waterford neighbourhood when my eye was drawn to some lovely strip steaks in a butcher’s window. But there was a problem: they were cut a little thinner than I wanted. So I asked the guy behind the counter if he had anything in the back that might be a little thicker.

I didn’t have high hopes. In America a question like this would usually mean some kid would run to the cold room, check the packages already cut and wrapped, and more often than not come back to tell me that was all they had.

And this wasn’t some huge, well-stocked place. In fact, it was downright tiny. So imagine my shock when the butcher came back not with a slightly thicker steak, but carrying the entire loin over his shoulder.

“How thick do you want it?” he asked. I held up two fingers. He trimmed the fat and scrap and cut it exactly the way I wanted.

Pushing the stump-the-butcher card a little further, I asked if he knew where the meat came from. “Sure,” he said. “Our farm is just down the way.”

Since then, Michael Kearney’s Butchers has become a regular stop for me – not only for its beef, but for its exceptional pork and lamb as well, coming from O’Rielly’s Traditional Butchers in nearby Kilmacthomas, which has its own farm, abattoir and butcher shop.

All the meat is terrific, with the kind of deep, rich flavour that needs only salt, pepper and a good sear to make a memorable meal.

What’s more, Kearney’s is just one of four independent butcher shops within walking distance of my house.

In the US and much of the rest of the world, the craft of cutting meat has all but disappeared, except for a few resurgent “artisan” butchers in big cities (which usually means putting up with lots of tattoos, unusual facial hair and sky-high prices).

It is one of Ireland’s great culinary treasures to have such a wealth of independent meat shops. And apparently it is a treasure that a new generation of shoppers is rediscovering.

According to Dave Lang, head of development for the Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland, there are roughly 500 independent butchers operating here. And business has been booming since the pandemic began, as shoppers concentrate on the simpler pleasures of daily life.

“Guys are reporting that business is through the roof,” says Lang, himself a butcher for more than 40 years. “I just got a call from a man I know, who rang to tell me that his grandson, who I had trained, had doubled their business in the past 12 months.

“To tell you the truth, I think he was delighted on the one hand, but maybe a little miffed, too. He thought he’d known it all.”

This is not to say that work is easy in the meat world. In the first place, the number of small abattoirs like O’Rielly’s that can accommodate independent farmers and butchers is dwindling. And then there are the long days of work, and the training required to develop the skills necessary.

Lang’s organisation offers a free apprenticeship programme administered by the Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim Education and Training Board. Another group, the Irish Butchers Guild, started as a self-help group on WhatsApp, allowing its 50 members to crowd-source questions on everything from pricing and suppliers to developing new value-added products.

There’s a huge difference in what I have and what you buy in
a big market

Indeed, butchering seems to be a family trade in Ireland. At 37 years of age, Thomas Kearney is the third generation in his little Waterford shop. In fact, it’s his grandfather’s name that still graces the sign out front: “Michael Kearney, Victualler.” The elder Kearney opened the shop in 1960 after moving to Waterford from Co Meath.

It’s a tiny place, holding no more than two customers at a time during these pandemic days. At least one of the Kearneys is always behind the counter – Thomas, his father Tom, and mother Bea. Tom’s daughter Layla, the fourth generation, is starting to work at the shop after school.

Over the years, Kearney’s has developed a strong following, but the past year has been exceptionally good.

“People are realising they want to get back to good food,” Thomas Kearney says. “They’re having time to cook good food and that means getting back to the butcher. There’s a huge difference in what I have and what you buy in a big market.

“People think God the butcher, it’s extremely expensive, but it’s not. Most of our prices are fairly similar. It’s true supermarkets can run specials I can’t dream of because they know you’re going to buy other things in the store. But we find that if you have good meat, the customers come back.

“And now we’ve got people who started coming in here years ago and now their families are coming in. We’re feeding their children and grandchildren at this stage.”

Customers aren’t just coming for the meat, he says. A visit to the local butcher is part of living in Ireland for many people. “The small corner shop is becoming a thing of the past even in Ireland, but to me that’s the heart of the community,” Kearney says.

“People go to supermarkets, that’s just a job. There’s no connection. You come in here, you have a chat while you buy your meat. You need that personal touch and that would be a pity if it goes. It’s part of our culture.”

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