Any chef worth their salt will know how to butcher a beast. A chicken, at least, or maybe a pig or little lamb. Actual physical space in the kitchen usually limits a chef’s ability from going the whole hog, as it were, and breaking down an entire cow. Unless, of course, the chef in question were to own a butcher shop.
Once head chef of Becasse in Sydney, then Margan in the Hunter Valley, Michael Robinson now owns and manages the butcher shop in Branxton - Branxton Quality Meats.
Soon, the shop will be renamed Hungerford Meat Co. The name is an homage to the original butcher in town, Claude Hungerford, who used to receive meat via horse and cart from a slaughter yard in Pokolbin and saleyards in the Upper Hunter.
Hungerford would sell various cuts and often preserve some meat by smoking it in the smokehouse out the back of the shop, often caused unwitting locals to spontaneously start salivating whenever they strolled into the pleasantly provocative meat scents wafting through the streets.
Today, Robinson continues this tradition of smoking meats, including bacon, out the back in the old smoking room that Claude Hungerford himself once used. It’s all part of Robinson’s grand plan to get people to re-engage with the meat we eat in a more perceptive and meaningful way.
“The paddock to plate movement has been great for getting people to think more about their food and where it comes from,” says Robinson. “But a lot of the time we’re still only seeing meat packed in plastic, or on the plate itself … And don’t get me wrong, that does have its good points, but, it still doesn’t really get you thinking about where the specific cuts of meat actually come from.”
With the new name and impending fit out, Robinson’s plan is to strike a balance between butchery’s modern convenience and technology and the traditional technique and aesthetics of old.
Renovations are set to include a display case for the dry-aged beef that Robinson already does, and a bay window that will allow passers-by to see most of the meat hanging up, waiting to be fabricated further by Robinson and his head butcher, Todd Maher.
“We’re going to spruce up the outside and install a bay window so our customers can see the meat on display,” Robinson explains. “They will also be able to come in and speak to us, tell us what they’re after, and we’ll be able to cut the meat to order for them ... I want to bring the customer back into the process a bit more. Just like it used to be.”
Part of bringing people further into the process involves Robinson and his team establishing relationships with many local farmers in the area. They already sell chickens raised at Little Hill Farm, Mount Vincent, and occasionally biodynamically farmed pigs from Krinklewood in Broke.
“We’re aiming to be a lot more seasonal and locally minded by developing relationships with local, small farmers… We run our own Hereford cattle on a property just up the road in Lochinvar,” Robinson says. “I want the shop to be a place that people want to visit and buy their meat from, because of our approach to quality and locality… Ideally, once we’ve done the renovations, we want to be considered as somewhat of a destination butcher shop,” explains Robinson.
Watching Branxton Meats head butcher, Todd Maher break down half a beast totalling almost 150kg (dressed weight) in under 45 minutes is quite something. Robinson, a trained chef, is learning from Maher, a trained butcher, the art of butchering.
“I love watching just how fast guys like Todd can go through a whole body. It’s amazing,” Robinson says. “The process of knowing exactly where to cut by following the natural lines of the animal, right along the muscle and bone, it’s something to admire.”
A body is halved then quarterd on either side into four main cuts; from the rear to the front you’ll find the round, the loin, the rib, and the chuck.
From here, Maher will break down each quarter into the more familiar cuts you’re likely to see in the butcher shop; sirloin tip steaks, eye round roast beef, tender loin, New York strip steaks, ribeye steaks, brisket and so on. It’s amazing to see how much of the animal is used for all kinds of things; from steaks and roasts, sausages and mince, to stock and even fat for frying. Very little of the beast goes to waste.
“There’s plenty of people who are happy to eat meat and not think about the process involved for getting it onto their plate. The butchering process isn’t gory at all, it’s actually quite clean,” Robinson says.
“I think there’s definitely an art to it. Butchering is a beautiful skill.”