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January 14, 2015

The 5pm Dining blog loves pork. In fact, if we could only ever eat one animal for the rest of our lives then it would be our old friend pig. Chicken, beef and lamb are all great but few meats are as versatile as lovely, lovely pork.

We found out just how versatile after we spent a morning at Edinburgh’s L’Escargot Blanc watching chef patron Fred Berkmiller and Mathieu, one of his chefs, break down a side of pig so that the meat could be used by the chefs.

Locally reared

Fred’s pig had been raised on Gorgie City Farm, a couple of miles away from L’Escargot Blanc in Edinburgh’s West End.

After slaughter, the animal was sliced in half and both pieces were delivered to the kitchen. Buying a whole pig gives Fred more control of where his ingredients come from and a much greater say over the process as the pig moves from farm to plate.

Importantly, it gives Fred a better margin than if he bought pre-butchered cuts of meat from a wholesaler. For Chef Berkmiller, it’s also vital that his kitchen brigade keep alive the butchery skills which were once part of every chef’s skill set but which are now on the wane in many kitchens.

The trick is how to take this 50 kilo side of pork…


Half a pig from Gorgie City Farms.
Half a pig from Gorgie City Farms.

And turn it into this fine selection of chops, roasts, ribs, loin, ham, casseroles and terrines:

A side of pork ready to be used by the chefs.
A side of pork ready to be used by the chefs.

To perform this magical feat, you will need one pig and two happy chefs…

Mathieu and Fred Berkmiller in the kitchen at L'Escargot Blanc
Mathieu and Fred Berkmiller in the kitchen at L’Escargot Blanc.

And some serious knives…

Mind your fingers.
Mind your fingers.

The initial work involves breaking the side of pork into more manageable pieces. To begin with, these are the shoulder, the ribs/rack and the hind quarters or ham.

Mathieu breaking down the carcass.
Mathieu breaking down the carcass.

According to Fred, there are no differences between French and British methods of butchery. For Fred, what matters is what use the meat will be put to. What dishes will the meat make and what parts of the animal would be best suited to those dishes?

The side is split in three: rack/roast, xxxx and the shoulder (shown).
The side is split in three. This is the shoulder.

Everything from the head to the tail is used. The premium cuts of meat, like the loin or ham, may be thought of as the prestige pork cuts and, when bought separately, they cost more to buy in than less glam parts of the pig.

However, by working parts like the trotters, cheeks and knuckles,and extracting value from them, a smart chef can help keep prices competitive.

Even taking into account labour, a restaurant will make a greater margin on a cheap cut of meat, such as the head, than on the chops. A good restaurant will balance these different margins across all the items on a menu.

For Fred, it is also a question of respect for the animal. It is bred and slaughtered for its meat. Not making the best use of that meat would be disrespectful.

Boning out the shoulder.
Boning out the shoulder.
Boned shoulder ready to be brined.
The ham ready to be brined.

Once boned, the ham is tied in preparation for being brined.

Shoulder in brine solution.
Pork in brine solution.

Brining the pork is a way of preserving it and also of maximising the flavour of the meat.

Fred trimming the precious fat.
Fred trimming the precious fat.

A good pig will have a thick layer of dense fat under the skin. In some quarters, over the last few years, animal fat has been demonised on health grounds. Happily, there appears to be a sea change in attitudes on the near horizon.

Growing numbers of people are coming around to the idea that eating saturated fat is not incompatible with eating healthily.

Fat is vital in many dishes. Not only does fat give meat a luscious texture, it also carries flavour.

In L’Escargot Blanc and sister restaurant L’Escargot Bleu, lard is a crucial ingredient in the restaurants’ hugely popular terrines and black pudding dishes.

The fat is put to good use in the black pudding at L'Escargot Blanc.
The fat is put to good use in the black pudding at L’Escargot Blanc.

Boiled and cubed, the fat is used to give black pudding a gorgeous texture. Finely diced, it is mixed with minced or finely chopped meat to make terrines.


A pork steak cooking on the plancha at L'Escargot Blanc.
A pork steak cooking on the plancha at L’Escargot Blanc.

The above shot is a chine steak taken from the neck area behind the shoulder blades. It is not in any way a fashionable cut of meat but Fred reckons that it’s one of the finest that a pig has to offer. Seams of fat give it a delicious moisture but the flesh has a dense texture and has bite.

Breaking down the carcass into usable cuts is a long, involved and skilled process.

Whether eaten as steaks, chops, roasts or ribs, Fred uses every last bit of the animal. Served as choucroute, head terrine, pate, caillettes, sausages or black pudding, all of the pig is put to the best possible use.

I know that butchering meat has been going on since the first Neanderthal went for a walk with a sharpened stick. However, watching the pig become pork, seeing the animal become recognisable food, polishes the appreciation that you feel every time you tuck into a banger or enjoy a bacon buttie.