Think it’s stressful planning Christmas dinner? Imagine the pressure on your local butcher, writes Melanie May, who talks turkey, thermometers and timing with two of Dublin’s finest butchers.
The Butcher’s Christmas In Ireland
“A lot of work goes into Christmas. It’s the one dinner of the year that you don’t want to screw up on anybody,” says Rick Higgins, owner of Higgins Family Butcher in Sutton, County Dublin.
Yes, that’s right. Even the experts, the craft butchers, feel the pressure of the Christmas dinner as much as we do. Isn’t that good to know? Although, thankfully, we only have to worry about messing up our own dinner.
Sarah Kelly, owner of The Village Butcher in Ranelagh, has a lot more to consider.
“You go through everybody’s Christmas dinner with them when they come into the shop. People always have big ideas, so we are always here to help. We are normally talking people down. People usually buy turkeys that are way too big. So we are on hand to talk them through it all and explain it all.” It’s this personal service that comes with buying meat from your local butcher that people really appreciate, especially at Christmas time.
“A lot of people who don’t shop in a butcher’s during the year shop in the butcher’s at Christmas because it is a special meal,” explains Rick. “People get more TLC out of a butcher’s shop. There’s a lot of pressure on us not to mess up someone’s Christmas dinner. So, things are done right and we can do bespoke things that a supermarket can’t do. For instance, people come in and they will ask us to crown the turkey, bone and roll the legs, take the wishbone out, little things like that that you really need to be a skilled butcher to do.”
For Rick, that’s part and parcel of what a local butcher shop is.
“We go above and beyond but that’s not just at Christmas, that’s all year round. People are spending their hard-earned money with us. We don’t just like to say there’s your turkey, give us your money, off you go. We like to try and spend a few minutes with people offering cooking advice or seeing if they need anything done to their turkey. It’s not just a quick revolving door. We like to give that little bit of TLC. It’s really important.”
Sarah echoes Rick’s feelings in her shop in Ranelagh Village. “People come in for the service. They can order the exact size [turkey] that they want and they might want us to take the legs off or bone and roll the legs or stuff the legs, and that’s the service you get in a butcher’s shop. We prepare it exactly the way you want. You are taking chances going into the supermarkets if they’ll even have the size turkey you want. By going to your butcher you can specifically ask for what you want and have it prepared whatever way you want.”
Speaking of being prepared, Christmas prep kicks off for Rick as early as June. “That’s when the turkeys are hatched and when we start dealing with our suppliers. All our turkeys are free-range and slow-grown and our hams are free-range too and carefully sourced. We wet- and dry-cure our own hams and smoke them too; we’ll start that in November. We also dry-age beef for up to 120 days for Christmas, so that’s already started.”
Sarah likes to have everything in place by October, although this year, people have been getting their orders in earlier. “I think because of what they’re seeing going on in the UK they’re a little bit worried but we don’t expect to have any issues because we work with small, local producers that we deal with all year round. Sourcing is very important to me. We like people to know where everything they are buying comes from.”
But what about those of us who leave everything to the last minute? What happens when a panicked customer comes into the shop a few days before Christmas asking if there’s any turkey and ham left?
Rick orders around 1,200 turkeys and prepares about 600 full hams “but we always stock extra, just in case something goes wrong.” Sarah sold upward of 700 turkeys last Christmas but had to stop counting as they got so busy. “We would say a cut-off of 15th of December, but that never happens. If somebody comes to us a couple of days before Christmas asking if we have a turkey, I’ll say we’ll get you one. We’ll sort something. It might not be the size you want but we’ll get you something. Being a small family business, we never turn anyone away.”
But for many, Christmas dinner doesn’t feature the traditional ham and turkey.
“One of the trends we’ve seen over the last few years is that beef is becoming a lot more popular over Christmas time,” says Rick. “Lots of people are buying 42-day-old prime rib roast that we French dress and is the centrepiece on the table. Game birds are also big at Christmas. Goose was the traditional Irish Christmas dinner before turkey took over and we see goose sales going up every year.”
Sarah also sees demand for a wide variety. “We have quite a diverse customer base. There are a lot of people who don’t eat turkey or ham, but they still want something special. So, they might go for a nice, big prime rib roast. It’d be really expensive and it’d be a really special treat. Then there might only be two people, so they might go for guinea fowl or duck. We also sell a lot of game meat. So, people might treat themselves to venison. We sell a lot of veal and pork. We sell a lot of roasting joints and the big, big joints.”
So, we know what the customers have for Christmas, but what about our butchers? What do they tuck into?
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“We have turkey and ham but that’s because I am overruled,” says Rick. “I would love a prime rib. Last year I barbecued my turkey; that’s becoming more and more popular. People are also buying Wagyu [beef] for starters. People do push the boat out and go out of the way to source the best at Christmas. As I said, it’s the most important meal of the year for many, so they do spend extra and go out to source the best.”
Sarah isn’t too pushed on turkey or ham either. “In my house, my husband is very traditional. We have to have a turkey on the bone on the table. I could take it or leave it, but he’s like, ‘no, it’s not Christmas if we don’t have a full turkey on the bone’. I’m not bothered because I always think it’s a huge waste with only four of us. But he’s like ‘no, no it has to be’.”
When it comes to cooking the Christmas dinner, Sarah and Rick have some tips that will help the day run smoothly and ensure your meat is cooked to perfection. “Buy a meat thermometer,” recommends Rick. “It takes all the guesswork out of everything. No matter what you are doing — turkey, ham or beef — a meat thermometer is essential. There is a real fine line between done to perfection and overdone. When you buy your meat from us, we give out cooking guidelines and pop up timers. We stick them into the breast and when they reach temperature a little widget pops up.”
Sarah’s advice is to ‘scale back’. “You don’t need seven different types of side dishes. The other thing is to ask for help. People take on a lot and they want it to be perfect and it just gets very overwhelming. You want to enjoy the day and enjoy dinner. So just calm down, scale it back, ask for help and it usually all works out.” Apart from the Christmas counselling services, Sarah also offers knife sharpening services which she says makes all the difference when it comes to serving dinner and stopping your meat from shredding.
For anyone who is unsure about cooking their Christmas dinner, both Sarah and Rick have the same advice: go to your local butcher for a chat.
“I love when people come in and ask questions like, where did that come from? How do you cook that? What do you do with that? What’s the best thing to do with that? That’s my comfort zone,” Rick reveals. “I love standing behind the counter talking about what I know. Come down. Ask questions. Your butcher can advise you about sizes, cooking times and what’s best for you. Even if you want an alternative, your butcher can advise you on that too.”
As for when customers should start ordering their meat?
Sarah says from early November. “Pop into me for a chat. We don’t foresee any issues with supplies because we deal with the same producers. We’ve been buying our turkeys off the same guy for the last eight years and we get our chickens and ducks off him all year round. So, we don’t foresee any issue with supply, but we do expect it to be busy.”
As for Rick?
“We’ve already got orders coming in and last year we sold out in record time. We do house deliveries, but we don’t do nationwide delivery on Christmas week because we rely on couriers. If they get something wrong, I’m just nervous about making a mess of someone’s Christmas dinner. So we pull nationwide delivery a few days before Christmas unless we are delivering ourselves. I just can’t take the chance of ruining someone’s Christmas dinner.”
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