Cultivating a Craft: Butchery
As a child, I remember a weekly visit to the corner butchery to purchase meat. Moonies, on Umhlanga Rocks Drive in Durban, was a family-run establishment, where friendly staff in white coats and wellies packaged meat selections from a wide, glass-fronted counter.
I’m immediately transported back there, as I hear the squeal of the band saw, and get a whiff of that distinct raw meat smell, as we step into Ryan Boon Specialty Meats, in Paarl.
Nowadays, the work of skilled craftsmen and women is often overlooked, in favour of what is quick and easy. This couldn’t be more true than when it comes to butchery. If you were to pose the question ‘where does meat come from’ to a group of kids (and possibly some adults!), you will more than likely elicit the response ‘the supermarket’. Which is a rather sad state of affairs. However, we are starting to see a resurgence of these skills, as the demand from consumers for more responsible consumption increases.
‘A good butcher is an ethical professional who knows the provenance of his or her meats,’ says author, and Master Butcher, Cole Ward. It is this same ethos that drives Ryan in the pursuit of real butchery – converting people to eating better quality and responsibly reared meats.
Butchery was not always the career of choice for Ryan, but rather something he fell into. Starting out at the very bottom, he swept and cleaned the floors at his first job, at Bluff Meat Supply, in Durban. He progressed to the tills, and then to cleaning machinery, like the band saw (100 times apparently!), before he was allowed to move on to working with a knife. He spent four years crafting this skill and learning about the breaking down of meat, before the travel bug bit and he moved to the UK.
After a dubious job of harvesting cabbages, he felt he needed to back where he belonged – in butchery, and so sought a job in this field. He spent the remainder of his time at a specialist, artisanal butchery – Chapmans Butchers of Baldock, in Hertfordshire. Ranked in the top three independent butcheries in the UK; it was here that he perfected his craft.
When his visa ran out he returned to SA, and later met his wife Soné, who he acknowledges as giving him the push he needed to open his own business. They started out selling biltong from their garage, and eventually, when demand outstripped supply, they realised it was time to secure a proper butchery facility. If you ask Ryan what he credits their success to, he will tell you that it is in large part due to the unfailing determination of Soné.
He regales us with a story of her doing a final meat delivery, while being on the verge of delivering their first baby. A call from the doctor sent her straight to the hospital, where she made it just in time to make the most important delivery of all!
Other than sheer determination, there are two other defining things that have put the Boon butchery on the map. Firstly, a sound belief in sourcing responsibly farmed, pasture-reared meats, and secondly, sourcing cuts of meat that are usually hard to come by. Besides beef, pork and lamb, the butchery sources venison from the Karoo, quails from Wellington, as well as a number of offal products such as brains, liver, kidneys, sweetbreads and more. This is in large part due to a growing move towards nose-to-tail cooking.
Besides regular butchery, Ryan also produces a range of charcuterie meats, currently being tenderly cured and cultivated under the watchful eye of Dave Schneider, a former chef, now specialising in butchery. We are shown an outside brick room which has been converted into a smokehouse, specifically for smoking bacon and other meats. There is also a temperature-controlled room, bursting at the seams with biltong and dröewors – the foundation the business was built on.
A few things are evident during our visit to Ryan Boon – firstly, the art of true butchery is experiencing a resurgence, and at RBSM they are seriously passionate about the awareness of this. Secondly, nothing will make you appreciate the meat on your plate like a trip to a real butchery. Thirdly, quality above quantity – there is a distinct difference in the flavour and overall superiority of meat from animals that are responsibly reared and respected.
Lastly, good meat does not only mean steak and chops, there are a multitude of other parts of the animal, like offal, that are rarely thought of, but are equally, if not more, tasty. In fact it was a conversation with Executive Chef Westely Muller, an ardent believer in this, which led us to visit Ryan Boon. This resulted in a recipe spread favouring less commonly used proteins, to show how these meats can be the unsung hero of a dish.