The rise and rise of DIY butchery

With numbers of professional butchers falling, serious foodies are queuing up to learn how to do it at home
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Serving the choicest prime cut will, it seems, no longer suffice to impress your guests. Now you need to have butchered or cured the meat yourself, as well as cooked it, to cut the mustard as a serious foodie.

Demand for butchery courses is soaring, as aspiring gourmets try to improve the quality of the meat they dish up and find out more about where their chops come from. Butchers, farmers and catering schools are all increasing the number and variety of courses they offer, to cater for a spike in interest from all over the country.

Allens of Mayfair, London's oldest butcher, and the Ginger Pig, another London-based butcher, will both offer three classes a week this autumn, while farms such as the Empire Farm, in Somerset, are adding courses that teach people charcuterie as well as knife skills.

Although butchers report that many attendees want to replicate what they have seen on television cookery shows, another attraction is financial: carving and curing their own cuts of meat can slice the cost of serving delicacies such as pancetta by as much as two-thirds.

Sally Morgan, of the Empire Farm, said: "Our courses appeal to food anoraks who want to have more control over their food. They want to bypass supermarkets and butchers and buy direct from the farm – and also save themselves some money. You can make something like sausages at home for a Morrisons price but get Waitrose quality."

Ray Smith, the butcher at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Dorset-based River Cottage, said: "People are really interested in seeing how an animal is cut up, rather than just seeing how it is parcelled up." He said River Cottage's most popular courses are those that teach people how to smoke and cure their own meat.

"You can make pancetta, salami and dried cured ham very easily at home from just buying a side of pork," he added. "All you need is a 3kg piece of belly pork, a strong plastic bag and the ingredients for the cure – salt, sugar, thyme, juniper berries and bay leaves. You just massage the cure into the meat, leave it in the bag in the bottom of your fridge for five days, and there you go." Even restaurant chefs are starting to cure their own hams, rather than buy them, because it's cheaper, he added.

Nearly half of the books in Amazon's top 20 carnivorous cookbooks tackle chopping up and curing meat, rather than just cooking it. A memoir by Julie Powell, whose food-blog homage to the US cookery queen Julia Child has just been turned into a film starring Meryl Streep, is expected to stoke interest further in the art of butchery. Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession describes how Powell became a butcher's apprentice.

While butchers tend to be male, Powell's memoir proves women can also make good butchers. Justin Preston, Allens' co-owner, said about a third of the people on its courses were female, adding that often they coped better with chopping up a carcass than men. "Guys go at it like cave men, but tend to make a bit of a hash of it, while ladies generally watch and then use their knife skills," he said.

Another reason butchery courses are thriving is that the number of butchers has collapsed over the past couple of decades, leaving people shopping for meat with no alternative to their local supermarket. There are fewer than 7,000 butchers across the UK, down from around 18,500 25 years ago, according to the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders. Graham Bidston, its chief executive, said the industry had an image problem: "It's just not a sexy business." A lack of skilled butchers is forcing shops such as the Parsons Nose in west London to run their own apprenticeships.

A renewed interest in backyard animal husbandry – pigs as well as chickens are being reared in gardens across Britain – is also prompting people to take a butchery course. "Pigs are cheap to buy, so a lot of people are rearing their own," said Topsy Jewell, co-ordinator at Plumpton College, Netherfield, East Sussex, which runs a range of classes. But anyone planning to slaughter their own pig at home should be warned that, though it is legal, they had better be hungry: it is illegal to share the meat with anyone outside the household.