Have you ever walked into a shop and just smiled as it was so brilliant? I did on Friday when I visited Jim from Meridian Meats in Louth, Lincolnshire to conduct an interview. Jim won the BBC Young Butcher of the Year award in 2009 when he was 23. I missed the series but found a few episodes online around 4 years ago. I was booked to go on a course at Welbeck Abbey over the weekend so thought it would be good to head north a day early and have a chat with Jim about his shop and craft. It was only 90 minutes away so well worth the detour.
Watching the episodes online was a direct result of me at the time attempting to purchase a local butchers. The only experience I had was of being a qualified chef and helping out occasionally in the Michelin starred kitchen I worked at between services (I was a sommelier) doing some prep. Some of this involved butchery and I loved it.
I worked on and off in the butchers for 3 months and leaned a lot from its owner. I wanted to transform from a traditional village butchers to a more artisan establishment working with local farmers but it was not to be. The existing lease it transpired was going to be torn up by the two elderly spinsters who had inherited the premise. They would only grant me 2 years on a new lease and their brother had indicated that he would like to take over but could not afford the £45k asking price for the current lease. In effect I would have built the business up and then had the lease taken away only for the brother to move in with a zero cost lease. The spinsters also hated me as I was not religious and I have the odd drink. This made me the devil in their eyes. My meeting with them was the most surreal in my life and so ridiculous I had to simply stay silent.
Approaching Meridian Meats for the first time I passed 2 other butchers within 50 meters. Louth has a population of circa 16,000. Maidstone where I live has a population on 116,000 yet we only have a singular butcher of no real merit. Within a stones through was from Meridian Meats was a greengrocer and a cheese shop making it my type of town. How wonderful to be able to pop into town, park for free for 30 minutes and go food shopping. The window display caught my eye immediately with a beautiful aged rib on beef hanging alongside some homemade haggis and other delicacies.. How often do you find homemade haggis these days? It set the tone perfectly and I made a mental note to come again and rent a self catering cottage for a weekend to sample everything on offer here.
Inside the shop I found a great range of meats all with impeccable provenance. For example the beef comes from Jims own family farm who have a heard of Longhorns, the lamb from a neighbouring farm and the pork from 7 or 8 local suppliers who provide whatever breed is available at the time which is wonderful. Unlike most butchers Jim uses no pre-mix spices in his sausages preferring instead the laborious task of weighing them out individually for each batch. This is what separates him from the herd, attention to detail and an absolute dedication towards quality. Other highlights included their own black pudding, pork scratchings, properly aged steaks and real chicken.
The retail area is of an adequate size but it is out the back that things really open out. One building hosts a prep area complete with 2 walk in fridges and another building a production kitchen that had literally just been built to enable them to start offering ready meals to their customers. What stood out to me in the walk in fridges was not only the beautiful meat but the smell of home smoked and cured bacon. It smelt amazing and I just wanted a bacon sandwich right them to experience the flavours. The other fridge held 2 big tubs used for brining the pork demonstrating that no short cuts are taken here. If they want to produce something then it is done authentically and by themselves.
Talking with Jim was fascinating as he the leader of a new breed of butcher, a trade in decline with the average age of a butcher being 55. The industry needs to encourage men and women just like Jim to be aware that butchery exists as a choice. I for one believe that any budding chef should spend at least 3 months in a butchers learning the basics of the trade developing a passion and knowledge that will last a lifetime. Who knows, maybe some will even stick with it and make butchery their career.