What do you see when you serve a steak? When you wolf down a lamb cutlet, or buy a sausage roll from Tesco? A simple slab of food, or part of the animal from which it was cut? In Heat, his 2006 memoir of immersion in the Italian-American cooking industry, Bill Buford described acquiring a freshly-slaughtered pig (inspired by a spell in the kitchen of a Tuscan butcher) to prepare at home – to the shock of a neighbour forced to shared an elevator with him and the pig.
"I didn't know him well but gathered ... that he, too, was a meat eater," Buford wrote. "My pig was a more elementary form of things he'd been eating for years. The realisation confirmed something I'd always suspected: people don't want to know what meat is. They don't think of meat as an animal; they think of it as an element in a meal." From snout to tail, the pig provided Buford and his wife with 450 meals, at less than 50 cents each: "But the lesson wasn't in the animal's economy," he went on. "This pig, we knew precisely, had been slaughtered for our table, and we ended up feeling an affection for it that surprised us."
With this notion in mind, I arrive at the cold meat counter of HG Walter, the family butcher in Barons Court, West London, that Peter Heanen has run since 1972 – recently with the help of his three children. The plan is for Heanen to teach me some basics of butchery in the hope of giving me a greater appreciation of the meat on my plate. Despite the disgust of Buford's New York neighbour, amateur gourmands in the UK have started to take beginners' butchery classes in their droves.
Whether it's the influence of chefs such as Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Valentine Warner, who all advocate an awareness of the provenance of food; or whether it's a belief that home butchery can cut costs in a recession, the cookery book bestseller lists are choked with titles that cover the chopping and curing of meat as well as its preparation for the table.
Meanwhile, as my host admits, the number of high-street butchers has halved in the past 25 years. Heanen, whose retail business is also a supplier to the likes of the renowned River Café in Hammersmith, is considering holding his own classes at HG Walter. A prototype pupil, I don an apron in the chilly prep room and take up my knife. First on the menu is a leg of lamb, which he patiently teaches me to "butterfly", creating a large cut perfect for a barbecue (above right).
The first concern of any amateur butcher, he tells me, has to be safety: your knife should always be cutting away from you, but needs to be super sharp so you don't need to apply excess pressure to slice through the meat. You should continually turn the meat to the most comfortable angle from which to cut it. Heanen recommends I work by feel, using my hands to find the edge of each bone beneath the flesh before cutting through it at the right spot.
Chicken is the one animal we're most used to preparing in its entirety, but in a roasting tin it's an indistinct mass, barely recognisable as the bird it once was. A lamb, or a substantial chunk of cow, is a different matter. Sawing through bones and slicing off legs gives me a keen understanding of where my dinner came from. It might turn a sensitive soul to vegetables, but for someone like me who simply can't resist the scent of a bacon sandwich, it will at least persuade me to take closer notice of where my dinner (and breakfast and lunch) comes from.
Heanen frequently compares the butchery process to surgery, and points out the areas from which each cut comes on his own body, and mine. We share most of the same organs as farm animals, after all. One of the obscure cuts in vogue at the moment is the onglet steak, which comes from beneath the cow's diaphragm, Heanen explains, prodding his own stomach. "We have a customer who's a French doctor," he says. "In Paris every year they hold a dinner for doctors and butchers. Butchery is where surgeons' skills for amputation and surgery originated." (He doesn't know who cooks.)
Next on the block is the lamb's ribcage, which we "French trim", exposing one half of each rib to produce a presentable cut that can become rack of lamb, crown of lamb (two racks curved together in a circle) or a guard of honour (the racks interlinked). Heanen, of course, strips his rack as clean as piano keys, while mine remains messy with flesh. Animals come, conveniently, with a pair of almost everything besides hearts and brains, allowing him to clearly demonstrate the discrepancy between our skills. He can deftly cut a chicken breast free of the bird in a handful of seconds. Mine, which takes a minute or two longer, is ragged and misshapen. Still, he insists, I'm learning.
Last of all, he tells me, we'll cut some steaks from a large slab of beef that's been hanging in the walk-in freezer for a month to let it mature. Depending on your tastes and your country of origin, there are all sorts of steaks to be cut from the back of a beef cow: entrecôte, filet, rib-eye, rump, porterhouse. A good steak, says Heanen, would be his death row meal – and a fore-rib of beef is, to him, "the king of all roasting joints." Moreover, sourcing cuts from a high-end butcher like HG Walter will ensure that they come beautifully marbled with fat, unlike the lean, tasteless cuts you regularly find in a supermarket.
Chopping raw meat, it may or may not surprise you to discover, works up an appetite. So I'm happy, at the end of it, to find that my hosts have laid on a tray of sausage rolls – made in-house and, I'm glad to report, a darn sight tastier than Tesco's.
How to butterfly a leg of lamb
"If you're having a few people round," says Peter Heanen, "one of the nicest things you can have in a barbecue is a butterflied leg of lamb," so-called because, boned and laid flat, the leg resembles a butterfly (or, if you're in a more sinister mood, one of those Rorschach tests they show to psychopaths in the movies).
Cut away the chunk of hip bone remaining at the thick end of the joint, by working your knife around the bone and cutting it loose from the ball joint at the top of the leg.
Turn the leg around and feel for the leg bone – it should be visible close to the surface of the meat. Cut along each side of it and then work your knife underneath it to cut out the bone without splitting the meat of the leg.
Make a tunnel around the thick remaining bone that runs through the leg, by loosening the meat around it with the point of your knife, working from both ends of the leg until the tunnel meets in the middle. Twist the bone out, leaving the meat of the leg intact.
Remove any excess cartilage or gristle, then cut through the leg meat at its thinnest point, opening out the leg to make a single butterfly shape.
Score the surface of the skin lightly to hold in the seasoning, add your marinades or sauces and, once the coals are grey, place the leg meat side down on the barbecue for ten minutes. Turn it once, leave for a further 10 minutes and serve.
"Not everyone likes their meat pink," says Heanen, "but the good thing about this cut is that there are three or four different thicknesses, some of which will cook rarer than others. And there are so many flavours you can add to it: marinades, olive oil, pieces of garlic or rosemary, which you can cut open a pocket in the meat and slide in. We won a national barbecue competition by putting anchovies and red pesto in a butterflied leg of lamb."
THE MAIN COURSES: WHERE TO LEARN BASIC BUTCHERY
Allens of Mayfair
One of Britain's oldest butchers, Allens offers "Butchery for Beginners" classes three times a week, for £60 per person including a box of meat to take home. allensofmayfair.co.uk
River Cottage, Dorset Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's homestead holds day courses specialising in the butchery and preparation of different meats, from beef to venison, as well as one in smoking and curing, Prices vary depending on dates (and the presence of HF-W). rivercottage.net
The Ginger Pig, London
Butchers with Yorkshire farming roots, the Ginger Pig offers three evening classes in butchery per week, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, £120 per person. learnbutchery.co.uk
Empire Farm, Somerset
Featured in BBC2's 'The Restaurant', The Empire Farm offers a number of different courses in pork butchery, curing, smoking and sausage making. Prices vary. empirefarm.co.uk