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Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Over to Wales for an exciting two days on a Gold Meat course with Tesco.

Last week I got the opportunity to go over to Wales to attend a residential course with Tesco to improve my skills and knowledge of the meat business. We have a tiered system in the thorough training on our food counters and it goes from Bronze level through to Silver then, just like the Olympics - to Gold. Each level will cover various practical skills and much theory in terms of strict rules of hygiene and safe practices of handling and the building of great customer service. The course I went on was the Gold course and I had the advantage of twenty previous years experience in a traditional butchery environment. Saying this I am always keen to learn new things and new practices.

In my first years in the butchery trade (early 1970's) I had the chance to experience the practice of slaughtering the steers and sheep in the small abattoir in a back room at Bosworth's the Family Butchers in Little Eaton. Whilst it had a strong element of animal care and humane slaughter, conducted at the time with a bolt gun, the experience in the meat plant at St Merryn Meats (2013) was so very much improved and the sheep and cattle seemed calm and fret free prior to their demise. I was very pleased about this aspect as I wouldn't have wanted to witness the slaughtering process as one to cause angst in the animals or indeed myself or the practitioners at St Merryn Meats. ' Ultra Professional' were certainly the key words as well as extremely high standards of butchery skills, hygiene and humane killing.

Reading on the train to Cardiff.

I travelled over from Nottingham on the train to Cardiff train station dressed for the heat in my shorts and then changed trains to travel up the Taff valley to Pentre Bach near to the town of Methyr Tydfil just short of the Brecon Beacons. My pre-booked Premiere budget hotel was mere 100 yards walk from the station and was very clean and comfortable. Myself and eight other Tesco colleagues and Paul the trainer from Foundations stayed for two nights. I travelled over on the Monday and the journey took about six hours with one change at Cardiff. Of course at Cardiff all the signs were in Welsh! I learnt that 'Ar amser' meant - on time. I will never, however, forget the ear crushing squeal as the various Arriva trains screeched on to platform six and seven at Cardiff! It sounded as though the entire high pitched cat population of Cardiff city were experiencing a mass tail trampling. And they weren't happy moggies by the sound of it!

On the journey up and across from Nottingham I enjoyed some hours of reading escape in a book called, My Berlin Kitchen.

The one hour long train journey from Cardiff to Pentre Bach was entertaining in a very annoying sort of way with a couple from Pontypridd bitching with each other most of the way. The man I christened No-Good Boyo from Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood. It seemed appropriate somehow. No-good Boyo's main expression was a sound that I took to mean the word 'what?'  and sounded like an agitated and prolonged version that came out of his mouse hair moustachioed mouth (all rectangular with an edge of bitter meanness) as "Wauuuugh?" She whined back in a similar tone, as if she was defending all she stood for albeit weakly and defensively. Her name was Jenn. I heard No-good Boyo say it as they tumbled out of the train at Pontypridd. "Wauuuugh, f*ckin' come on Jenn - the f*ckin' train's gauuuwin' innit." Ah, how delightful, no doubt with a little book learning and regular attendance at Pontypridd College of Further Education in The Prosaic Arts at he could have been the new Dylan Thomas, look you!

" To begin at the f*ckin' beginning innit: It is spring, moonless night on a Pontypridd council estate; starless and bible-black, no McDonald's or jockin' Wimpy's; the cobblestreets silent and the hunched courters'-and-rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. As if! Wauuuugh!"

Anyway - we can't all be as poetic as Mr Dylan Thomas or No- Good Boyo so I left the star crossed lovers to their romantic tussle and arrived at the Premier hotel about 4pm and had some quality food at the Table Table restaurant opposite the hotel. Here, and for the first ever time, I heard the expression, "Champion!". This was uttered by the young waitress after her customers declared that indeed their food was of a standard that would pass as more than edible. It was in fact blumming lovely, super dooper, top notch or "Champion" as the waitress said. "It is champion!!" the table full echoed back. And all were happy. The right words had been said, satisfaction expressed and tummies were sated. There's replete, look you.

Being of the age I am, my childhood equine hero came to mind - Champion the Wonder Horse - and just as quickly, he galloped off in a haze of thundering hooves and hot steamy breath, across  the wanly sunlit, mid-evening , yellow-green and amber-golden fields of my lucidity.

Tired as I was from my journey I equipped my ears with some earplugs and went to bed about 8pm. I slept through until 6am the next day. I had a full Welsh breakfast at the Table Table restaurant. Like a full English but with mountains of everything. Welsh mountains naturally. It's actually called the 'Table Restaurant and bar' but is referred to as Table Table in case you forget where you are or want eating space for four or more. If you are fortunate enough to get a table that doesn't wobble you then have a stable table at Table Table. "Champion!" Stop that now. Enough with the 'Champion' already!

After breakfast I met up with Andrew from a Tesco Extra store down South and also with a group of other young men from Yorkshire, Lancashire and North Nottinghamshire and, once at the St Merryn Meats meat plant, we teamed up with two ladies from Carmarthen.

With Paul, our expert trainer, we passed through security, got security tagged up and made for the building opposite to begin the training. After introductions we got dressed up to the nines to commence the tour of the meat factory. Some merriment was had at the expense of the more hirsute of the guys (comme moi) as we had to wear a hairnet and yet another to cover the hairiness of our faces. Also we all had to wear earplugs and safety helmets

It took us quite a while to get all this clobber on and woe betide you if you then wanted to visit the loo. For food hygiene sake you would have to take all the whites, hairnets, wellies, hats and earplugs off. After you had been to the loo you had to get dressed up again as well as washing your hands with soap and sanitizer and water before being allowed on the factory shop floor. We also had to walk through a disinfectant foot bath between each department of the meat plant. This happened regularly throughout the tour as we went through to each different department.

The tour started at the distribution end of the factory and finished at the lairage end so in fact we saw the whole process of live animal through to packaged primals (big joints of meat) including the humane slaughter of the cattle and sheep, except in reverse. Cameras were forbidden so any internal factory image is taken from a DVD promoting Tesco's Gold Meat and Fish courses.

All the butchers, male and female wore chain mail aprons and guards as well as ear protection (it was very loud on the shop floor) and protective clothing covering up every inch of their normal clothes. They also wore slash proof gloves and chain mail gloves and worked at a great pace. It looked, to us casual observers that they were on piece work. They do certainly work very hard.
During our tour we were shown the lamb and beef primals and each cut was explained as to where it came from and how it was cut. We were told that the butchers used as few cuts with their ultra sharp knives as possible and I was fascinated to see hind quarters and fore quarters of beef being boned in mid air and with great pace. So different to the pace and style and waist level of block boning and carcass break down that I practiced many years ago with Dewhurst and Rydes.
We also got a demonstration from Lawrence the butcher at St Merryn's on how to bone out a shoulder of lamb, a leg of lamb and the lamb loins to create racks of lamb. His saying was "Tight to the bone, tight to the bone" and his bones were very clean after he had finished.
                       Lamb joints from the whole lamb carcass. Image from a promotion DVD.
The purpose of the tour was for us to understand commercial meat processing and to understand about the primal locations of all cuts contained on a whole lamb or beef carcass. We also got introduced to the animal husbandry process in the lairage and for those who chose to witness the humane slaughtering, to experience that too plus the stripping down of the dead animal and it's organs to the point of a  hygienically checked and certified carcass  to go onward to the maturation process of hanging.
Back in the training room we reflected on this experience and learnt about other aspects of how the primals can be used on a Tesco counter and the important traceability nature of the beef.
We all met up at 7.30pm for a group meal at Table Table (Champion!) and chatted late into the evening about our day so far.
The next day we all had breakfast together and arrived at St Merryn's again to de-brief and get togged up again to go down to a preparation room to learn how to French string beef and to be creative with the leg of lamb and shoulder of lamb joints. I learnt something new here and the other guys and ladies certainly had an inspiring time boning out the lamb joints and creating 'melons' and 'cushions' of lamb.
The pictures below have been supplied by my new friend Micky from a Tesco Extra store in Sheffield. Thanks Micky mate.

                                       Joints and lamb leg steaks created from a leg of lamb

                                 Shoulder of lamb boned and rolled into a 'melon' of lamb
Micky very pleased with his French stringing

                                                   Hands on Lamb primal butchery
There were nine of us to practise all of these skills so we worked for a while, took a break and then returned to the tasks. All involved got a kick out of learning these new skills to transfer to our counters back in the Tesco branches we are employed in.
Over the course we also got classroom advice on good and bad aspects of meat display along the lines of those that promoted the delivery of quality and freshness at all times of the trading day. Additionally we discussed tips to visually improve the appearance of the meat products on display and also, with creativity and knowledge picked up from the course, be able to offer the customer more choices when selecting their preferred cuts.
We also got tips on how to cook steaks to get the best eating quality using a pre heated pan, adding oil to the steak not the pan and a 'press to test' method of telling how well done the steak is.
One of the best parts of the course was understanding about the maturation of Tesco beef and the amount of time it is actually hung on the bone and the amount of time it continues to mature after the carcass is broken up. We learnt similar information about the maturation of the lamb too.
At around 3pm the course finished and everyone was on a high. Of course there was the six hour journey back home. The time flew by and I was home again by 8.50pm.
Thanks to Tesco and Foundations and St Merryn's (Wales) for a terrific course. I now have twenty-six weeks to complete my Gold course with practical exercises and book work.
Micky, the team leader from a Tesco Extra store in Sheffield is already practising his skills on his meat counter!


Karen said...

This tale brought back happy memories of catching the train from Nottingham to Cardiff to take me to college (in Barry) when I was 18....a lovely long journey, with the joys of trying to understand the Welsh language & accent on reaching my destination. It left me with a life long love of anything & everything Welsh. Your course sounds very interesting, butchery is an Art, & I'd love to learn more about it (though I simply couldn't watch animals being slaughtered, hypocrite that I am.If I am prepared to eat meat, I should be able to watch the animal's demise.
I am sure you will achive your Gold Standard very soon.

philip lowe said...

Karen: Thanks for your comment as usual. Always something interesting to say. I too love parts of Wales especially the rugged countryside. Thanks for faith in me and my potential. I think it helps that I love what I do and share with others.

John W Parker said...

Hi phil its john who came on the course with you wad a brill experience how are you getting on with your counter and working through your training

John W Parker said...

Hi phil its john who came on the course with you how have you been since the course and how you gettong on with it all

philip lowe said...

John: Hi John, good to hear from you. Thanks for your comment on my blog. I've done about half of the training. I need to crack on really and get the rest sorted.

The best place to discuss things like this would be through my email.


Kay ward said...

I am of to do this course on Monday, I will keep you posted,