The last few decades haven’t been kind to the butchers of Western Australia. According to figures from the Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC), the industry was at its peak during the 70s, with independent butcher numbers hovering around the 800 mark. Every country town had its own specialist meat purveyor, sometimes more than one. Butchers still did their own slaughtering in abattoirs attached to their store. In regional WA, families bought meat direct from cutting carts that would go door-to-door.
But like the milkmen and drive-in cinemas of yore, corner butchers fell by the wayside as time went by. Today, they number just over 200: almost a quarter of the population that was in the wild during the industry’s heyday. It’s a sobering statistic, not just in the context of the state’s buoyant food and drink culture, but also with respect to the profession’s history, dating back to ancient Egypt and Rome. (Fun fact: Roman legionaries were accompanied by butchers who were responsible for sourcing meat for the soldiers.) The butchers of the world might have survived wars, government legislation and vegetarians, yet their newest predator looks to be their most formidable.
“With the aggressive marketing and pricing tactics of the supermarkets, it’s hard to see the number of local independent butchers increasing,” says Michael Thomas, the state’s AMIC member services officer.
“Nowadays you’re lucky to find butchers in major regional centres, and very few country towns have their own. As an industry, we’ve got to keep pushing the fact that local butchers give a level of service not found in the chains.”
Of course, not everyone has the interest in or means to buy top-shelf meat. I get that. There are also those who’ll value the convenience of pre-packaged meat and self-checkout stations over having some bloke in a stripy apron to discuss oven temperatures with. I can appreciate that, too. But for those who put a premium on taste and supporting local producers, specialist butchers are hard to beat. And you know what? I reckon most West Australians understand that, too, at least if holiday crowds at butchers (and fishmongers and independent bottle shops and other specialist businesses) are any indication.
“We do reasonably well week to week, but come Christmas, our retail turnover triples in one week,” says Greg Ryan of Ryan’s Quality Meats. “When people need something special for a special occasion, they’ve got no problems seeing us. That’s good, but you’d really like to get these people to shop with you week in
and week out.”
Since establishing Ryan’s Quality Meats in 1966, the Ryan family has seen plenty of change in the meat industry. For the past two decades, the business’s focus was the food-service industry, but in the wake of the current interest in food, the operation has turned its attention back to the retail sector.
“Like any industry, you’ve got to keep changing to keep up with what’s going
on,” says Ryan.
Speaking to butchers, it seems much of that growth has taken place in the value-added sector, with marinated meats and ready-to-go meals growing in popularity.
“It’s not about camouflaging things,” says David Torre, a fifth-generation butcher and current custodian of Torre Butchers in Northbridge. “I’m talking doing something by hand that’s special, and using olive oil, herbs and things that enhance the product.”
When he began trading in Northbridge in 1950, would Torre’s grandfather have sold as many chicken satay sticks and venison chorizo as his grandson does today? Unlikely, but like Ryan, Torre believes reinvention and evolution are vital to butcher-kind’s longevity, just as long as the industry doesn’t lose sight of its customers.
“There’s a market for pre-packed, ready-to-go stuff that the supermarket do, but there’s a market for what we do, too,” says Torre. “I think people who come into an old-style butcher shop know they’re going to be looked after and served beautifully.”
Despite the many challenges facing independent butchers, there are still those who dare to dream. Meet Mark and Belinda Wood, the owners of year-old boutique butcher, Hampshire on Eighth.
“We chose Maylands because it’s an area where people shop with their ethical hat on,” says Belinda. “Locals here tend to be quite well educated in terms of the food they’re buying, how it’s been produced and how they’re going to use it. Our regulars understand that you can always have mince and sausages, but the cuts are limited. You only get four lamb shanks per animal. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
Admittedly, supermarket meat sections have gotten rather more interesting in recent years, yet the selection offered by the Big Two still pales in comparison to that of a well-stocked butcher. Offal, for instance, is one area in which the little guys run rings round the majors (I’m yet to spy Heston or Jamie spruiking pig’s blood and chicken hearts on national TV – you?). The selection of handmade sausages and charcuterie available at Mondo di Carne and the wondrous Adrian’s Smallgoods, meanwhile, continues to delight and fatten in equal measure.
A good butcher is about so much more than size, says Joel Valvasori-Pereza, chef at Lalla Rookh Bar & Eating House. “You need to find a butcher that truly loves food and cooking, not just one that likes to barbecue a sausage on the weekend.” (While he strives to source meat direct from producers, Joel gets additional meat for his restaurant through Torre.) “They need to be able to give the right information, and help out with a cooking tip or two.”
But as important as the butcher’s knife skills might be, the efforts of the farmer remain the single most important factor in producing great meat. While the recent food boom has introduced terms like ‘Wagyu’, ‘Angus’ and ‘grass-fed’ into eaters’ vocabularies, organic farming has no doubt been the big mover. And as word of the horrors of industrial, large-scale farming continues to spread, it’s hard to picture the movement losing traction.
“We’re doing it for the right reasons, not to be trendy,” says Joan Cook of organically certified producers Dandaragan Beef. “Having friends of ours diagnosed with cancer prompted us to look at the health side of things. We took a trip out to Wongan Hills and had a look at the soil. They had sprayed it so much, it was dead. That inspired us to start our farm’s conversion to organic. We got rid of all the chemicals, not that we used many. We could see that it was fighting Mother Nature and it wasn’t the way we wanted to farm.”
Today, the Cook’s farm in lush, pastoral Dandaragan is a picture of ecosystem health. Paddocks are planted with summer grass and perennials to ensure their cattle have access to green-feed all year round. The herd, meanwhile, is constantly rotated through paddocks on the 7300 hectare farm, where the soil is alive with earthworms, dung beetles and other beneficial organisms. In terms of an environment where you’d want the meat you’re eating to come from, it’s right up there.
So what happens next, both for butchers and consumers? In terms of issues facing eaters, the discussion on meat’s place in feeding a growing global population is a biggie. You don’t need to be a particularly right-on individual to realise that the planet’s finite resources are going to struggle to produce enough animal protein for all. Short of every family buying a couple of acres and raising their own cows, one (relatively) easy way to help out is to alter our diets. The oft-repeated mantra of eating less, but better quality might be terrifying to lovers of fleshy pleasures, but makes plenty of sense, both in terms of sustainability and, let’s be frank, society’s growing obesity problem. It’s a win-win for all involved – by electing to buy meat at independent butchers, we’ll also be playing a part in supporting local businesses and agriculture – and that support could make all the difference.
“Once you lose these multi-generational farmers and businesses, it’s very difficult to get them back,” says David Torre. “In most instances, you won’t.”