We thought we’d introduce you to a few of our butchery team to celebrate National Butchers Week!
Ben’s Farm shop started making sausages and bacon from the Riverford Farm pigs and selling them at the farm gate and in Totnes market. Fast forward 35 years and the business now employs eight butchers and two butchery production assistants and makes all its own sausages, bacon, charcuterie, terrines, stocks and more.
We’d like to think that we have our roots in traditional butchery but don’t bury our heads in the sand. Things are changing and meat isn’t always at the centre of the plate, but we’ll go on promoting a varied and balanced diet of a little of a lot – including the odd sausage or two.
Ali is our head butcher and manages the team that staffs our three butchery counters. He’s worked for Ben on and off for about 15 years in various roles since leaving college.
“I first got a job here after I left college and this is where I learned to be a butcher. I like the simplicity of butchering, the skill of cutting up the animal, but I also enjoy making it look appealing for the customer, keeping the counter stocked and looking good.
It’s quite unusual for a small independent butcher like us to buy virtually exclusively whole carcasses straight from the farmer (via the abattoir of course). A lot of high street butchers will only buy in boxes of meat cuts but we buy whole lambs, pigs, chicken and beef.
We do get occasional top-ups of beef cuts and some chicken – you’ll only get 4Kg of fillet for 150Kg of beef trim on a body of beef, so it’s a balancing act, using all the cuts of meat.
I like dealing with the customers – over time you do get to know them. Many of our customers come in once or twice a week and after 10 years you really build up a rapport with them. One of my customers is a Norwich City fan like me and we spend 10 minutes a week bemoaning the fate of our football team!”
“I work in the production side, I make the sausages, meatballs, burgers and pie mixes and cure and smoke the charcuterie (bacon, gammons, chorizo, salami and air-dried meats). I learnt how to do it from Ben and we use his recipes in the butchery.
I also make the stocks and it’s great to be making something good out of bones that would otherwise be going to waste.
It’s a really varied job – we like making sausages, but slicing bacon is not the most interesting. But we love the products we create and we really stand out by making all our own sausages, chorizo, black pudding etc. We even make our own sausage seasoning – very few people do that these days.
As much of the meat we sell as possible is organic and the butchery buys in whole carcasses, straight form the farm, and uses them – nose to tail. It’s more economical for us, better for the farmer and better for the industry. Short supply chains leave less room for skulduggery.
We also make the pie mixes for the kitchen, smoke the chicken, do kebabs for the Tapas bar, make the pâtés and terrines and even make bone broth. Nothing is wasted here.”
“I’ve been with Ben’s for about three years but I’ve been a butcher for 42 years. I’ve worked in lots of places, my last job was at Bookers Cash and Carry.
I enjoy it here – it’s the first butchery I’ve worked in which is organic. The emphasis that customers put on the fact that the animal has been on soil that has been untreated for four years does sometimes seem a bit strange to me, but we’re all different! I’m learning all the time about the organic side of things.”
As we talked Steve deftly turned a line of chickens into breast pieces, legs, hearts, livers and carcasses, lining them up neatly on the block that sits behind the butchery counter at Staverton.
“I like getting on with the job out the back, but the customers like to see the theatre, it adds interest and they like to see us working here at the block, cutting up the meat. It does add interest for them.
We sell absolutely everything – customers use the carcasses for stock, soup, their pets. One buys a lot of carcasses for the foxes in his back garden. We even make raw pet food – nothing is wasted.”
Peregrine has been with Ben’s for 2.5 years and works with Guy in the production butchery, preparing bacon and sausages, smoking and curing. He was a farmer for 25 years in Zimbabwe where he grew flowers, vegetables and raised livestock for export. His flowers ended up in Holland, the US, South Africa and Covent Garden.
Peregrine’s mother was Ben’s aunt – the sister of John Watson who originally farmed at Riverford. When he had to leave his farm in Zimbabwe and head back to England he worked originally at Riverford farm and then came to Ben’s Farm Shops. It’s a very different England from the one he left 28 years ago, he says.
“I wouldn’t claim to be a butcher but I do enjoy serving the customers and working in production. If they ask me something I don’t know the answer to I can always ask one of the butchers here, it’s a good team.”
Morgan is probably our most over-qualified butcher, having completed a Fine Art degree at Leicester’s De Montfort University in 2011!
To keep him afloat as a student he had a Saturday job in a butcher’s shop and realising it was going to be tough to make a living as a fine artist, he asked his boss to train him up. He’s been a butcher since 2012 and joined Ben’s last year to run the butchery counter in our Exeter shop.
“It was just a Saturday job at first, but butchery has become a passion. I’ve always wanted to do something hands-on as a career and you can be a bit creative with butchery. It involves a skill too, which I like.”
When not wielding his knives Morgan still does a bit of drawing and photography.
Steve has been a butcher for 30 years and before coming to Ben’s owned his own butchers shop in Bovey Tracey. He now works as the assistant butchery manager and says that basically means he has to do the paperwork.
“It’s pretty much the same wherever you work – you pick up the knife and play with the meat. Working for someone else means you do get a holiday now and then – for seven years with my own business I didn’t have a week off.
Customers these days want to know a lot more about where their meat has come from – traceability is so important now. It does give a sense of satisfaction here knowing exactly where all our meat has come from.”
Steve originally got a job as a counter assistant after his family moved to the area and his stepdad saw a job advertised. He trained with Dewhirst butchers in Newton Abbot and has worked in Crediton, Exeter, Teignmouth and Dawlish.
The Co-op moved into prepacked meat and Darren left to become a hygiene technician at Hilliers, which made pies for Asda. Fire gutted the plant and all staff were made redundant and Darren went to work at Princess Yachts as a boat builder. He then went back into the food trade and worked for Morrisons, at a catering butcher in Plymouth and a local abbatoir.
“I’m also a qualified DJ,” Darren laughs. “I used to do loads of weddings and parties at Boringdon Hall. I’d really love to get into music production.”
Darren joined Ben’s in July 2017 and is enjoying interacting with the customers and talking to customers who will cook and enjoy the meat he prepares.
“I love the Kitley pork – I know quite a lot about that now because Sonya who owns the pigs comes in here and talks to us. You couldn’t get much more local than that pork!”
Georgia says she fell into butchery accidentally, but has discovered something she clearly enjoys. She used to work in the Staverton shop and was asked to cover the butchers counter from time to time when people were on leave or off sick. The butchers asked her if she’d like to become a full-time trainee and a year later she is learning on the job.
“At the moment I’m learning to cut up lamb – there are so many different parts and I can do a fair amount of it by myself now, which is good.
“You do have to have a certain mindset – it’s messy and dirty. But I like the fact that everything can be traced and we know all about where the animals came from. I would recommend working in a local butcher over a big chain for that reason.”
You don’t meet many female butchers, and Georgia is obviously at ease with the banter from her butchery colleagues.
“It’s quite a physical job but I’ve always been pretty strong – my parents had a plant nursery when I was young so I was always lifting heavy stuff. The main problem is that they’re all quite tall and I can’t reach things on the higher shelves!”