One of my most vivid memories of growing up is being about seven and sitting on the counter supervising my dad as he skinned a rabbit. Weird right? Now that I’m old (but certainly not grown up) I totally get that most people’s exposure to raw meat is whatever the butcher or supermarket has to offer, but my dad grew up on a farm in Ireland and had a typical no-nonsense attitude, even when they let us name the animals.
So when I barrelled up to the fine Stirchley establishment of Loaf to check out their pork butchery and charcuterie course, I was eager to get stuck in, or, you know, supervise. The course is run in the cookery school (next door to the shop) by charcuterie enthusiast Lap-fai Lee and starts with a butchery demonstration from Steve Rossiter, of the award-winning Rossiter’s organic butchers, which is just up the road from Loaf.
Now I totally get that butchery makes some people squeamish, which is what took me so long to write about this. But watching and listening to Steve explain how the half a pig is broken down is like listening to someone describe art; he talked about the animal having lines to follow about where to cut, and it’s so clear how much he respects his job and the animal he’s butchering. It’s the sort of thing that you could totally see being a Netflix mini-series.
And once the pig was broken down, Steve and Lap teamed up to show us how to make sausages. After threading on the casing, it was a matter of applying the right amount of pressure and feeding through the meat, and then linking them up. Sounds easy right? It’s like that patting your head and rubbing your tummy only holding a slippery eel in one hand and trying to crack a safe with the other. I think we all got there in the end, and linking sausages was definitely a bit of a group effort as it took most of us a bit of time to get the hang of it. But if anything, it meant that a group of strangers quickly became pretty friendly…because you try talking about sausages and no one cracking a smutty joke.
After the sausages were made and linked, it was time to break down the meat further into usable cuts that you’d find in the supermarket. This began with Lap showing us how to cut down some of the larger sections and then let us have a go…which meant hammering cleavers to get through bones, and slicing into a pig’s head. I like to hope my enthusiasm for this is more TV hospital drama fan and less psychopath, but…*shrugs*. Probably not a good time to mention we also learn some rope tying methods either, right?
Lunch is provided and is, of course, suitably pig related. A spaghetti carbonara cooked in front of us by Lap, with cured meats from previous courses, and of course bread from Loaf. It’s a great chance to sit down, pick Lap’s brain about his extensive knowledge of food, curing meats, food photography and the rest (which feels a bit like talking to someone about their Mastermind specialist subject). By this point the group has spent the morning working together to make sausages, butcher pig’s heads and it’s clear we’re all a bit keen on food, so it’s nice to just sit around and chat.
The afternoon session of charcuterie was all about learning to cure, which is one of those things I know of but never really thought about. And turns out it’s actually pretty simple, but also quite technical in so far as making sure you have the right type of chemicals. And once you’ve measured the chemicals, mixed and made the sausages you have to prick them to let the air in…and queue more smutty comments.
And with the chorizo and salami put out to dry, it was time to divvy up all the pork products produced from the day. We were told to bring some plastic tubs with us, and I know I should’ve realised that half a pig would produce quite a lot of meat, but I wasn’t expecting to go home with quite so much. I have a tiny freezer and by the time I took my loot home it was pretty much full of pork, except because I bagged the pork cheeks they went into a stew pretty sharpish and were amazing.
This is the second course I’ve done at Loaf and each time I go away inspired; they have this great way of instilling confidence and sending you off with a sack full of food, and a brain full of ideas. Watching Steve cut down the pig was compelling, Lap is like an encyclopedia of knowledge and the course gives you to give things a go. Realistically, given that I live in a small flat, curing my own meat might not be something I do very often, but it didn’t feel entirely beyond me. And what it did do was inspire me to think more extensively about pork and not just buying the same things, but trying things a bit different – and not just when ordering at a restaurant.
On the surface the courses at Loaf seem a bit pricy, but given the level of expertise of the teachers and the sheer volume of food you go home with, along with the food on the day and the arms full of knowledge, it’s well worth it.
Disclosure: I was invited to the class, but I suspect that given I’m there so regularly they just assume I’ve moved in.