How to cook a whole cow

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  • Knives and knife skills

    Our keen butcher learns how to slice and dice without ending up in A

    There are two things you need to know about butchers’ knives. One is that they are so intimately connected to what butchers are and do that they might be prosthetic extensions of their forearms. The second is that they are very sharp. If you doubt this, you should consult the recent Health & Safety Executive report on ‘Hand Knife Accidents in the Meat Industry’. ‘In recent years,’ it begins, ‘there have been a number of serious injuries and fatalities caused by stabbing accidents with hand knives. They are most likely to occur while de-boning. This butchery operation involves drawing a narrow-bladed knife towards the body.’ It goes on to recount an incident in a meat factory in the Gainsborough area: ‘Nobody… knew the technique of stemming blood flow by applying pressure to the wound. The injured person died at a local hospital, despite arriving within five minutes of the accident’ (my italics). As we slice and dice bits of Del Boy the Time Out bullock, Ginger Pig’s master butcher, Borut, tells us a horrible story. He was working in an abattoir in Slovenia where he trained, and slipped on some blood. (Blood is very slippery.) He felt the knife he was carrying nick his groin, but thought nothing of it and carried on with what he was doing. A little later, puzzled by how damp his trousers were and feeling peculiarly light-headed, he took himself off to the toilet… There was blood everywhere. But luckily for him, it wasn’t spurting. It turned out he’d missed his femoral artery by a centimetre.

    Watching Borut wield his knife is an education. With supernatural precision, it skims and skirts over flabby, undefined heaps of meat, transforming them in a matter of seconds into tidy, oven-ready joints. ‘Butchers are very protective of their knives,’ he tells us. ‘You’d never let anyone else use yours. If they did, they’d hold it at a different angle and damage the bevel – the angle of the blade. It’s like someone sitting at your desk, using your computer and rearranging your desktop.’

    If the bevel isn’t right, the knife won’t work properly. Borut frequently breaks off from what he’s doing to sharpen his knife on a long rod called a butcher’s steel. This keeps the blade sharp between the mechanical grindings which are necessary to preserve the bevel. You can buy domestic versions of a butcher’s steel, and I do. I stand in the kitchen feeling like Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘Gangs of New York’, doing my own pathetic version of Borut’s confident either-side swiping. It’s oddly soothing, and makes a massive difference to the knife, even if all you’re planning to do is chop up some shin for a stew.

    The key thing to remember is that, paradoxically, sharp knives are safer than blunt ones. It’s having to exert unnecessary pressure that causes you to lose control.

    Quick beef stroganoff for four

    Fry one sliced onion in olive oil until soft. Slice 500g of sirloin into thin strips with a super-sharp knife. Coat in seasoned flour (add some paprika too), then fry with onions for a couple of minutes. Add 250g of mushrooms, pour in 200ml of beef stock, bring to the boil and simmer for ten minutes. Stir in 250ml sour cream and heat gently for one minute. Serve with rice. We bought our longhorn, Del Boy, at Ginger Pig. For further information about Borut’s butchery classes, see www.thegingerpig.co.uk.

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