Herculean tasks? Breaking down a whole carcass of an ex-breeding Red Poll cow might count. It requires much grappling and knife skills. This particular beast in front of me is destined for Shaun Moffat, chef and carnivore extraordinaire at the Edinburgh Castle pub in Ancoats. He’s the reason I’m here at Littlewoods Butchers in Heaton Chapel, suppliers to at least half of the chefs nominated for Chef of the Year in the 2023 Manchester Food and Drink Awards (Shaun among them).
A week previously I enjoyed one of the great meat dishes of my life upstairs at the EC – a wild boar Barnsley chop. Proper beef dripping chips and mixed kale on the side and a big puddle of Shaun’s sauce, concocted from a stock from duck carcass and pig trotters, mirepoix and herbs, then reduced and infused with pepper dulse, lemon thyme and a snifter of Julian Temperley’s Somerset Cider brandy (we enjoyed a shot later with our post-prandial madeleines).
Agreed such a treatment would enhance any meat main, but the quality of the boar double loin was exceptional; as the gobbets settled they tasted even more entrancing. Littlewoods had made the boar sausages I had for my starter; not quite on a level with their acclaimed merguez but it was all part of the boar trail that eventually has led me to their cramped basement meat store. Here, among some prize carcasses, owner Marcus Wilson explains the Forest of Dean connection that put that fabled boar on our table.
The classicists among you will recall the Fourth Labour of the aforesaid Hercules was his quest to capture the fearsome Erymanthian boar alive, which he eventually did through a mixture of guile and strength. It was easier meat for Marcus’s Instagram buddy Chris, charged with culling stags in the historic Gloucestershire forest and chancing upon a herd of wild boar, which his licence allowed him to shoot.
“They were quite young, each only 25kg in weight,” recalled Marcus. “I was sent a couple. Unlike pigs, it really is hard to skin them with all that bristle sunk into the fat layers. When I posted a picture of one of them Shaun got in touch and said he must have a whole one. I told him these were cut up and spoken for but he insisted, so I persuaded Chris to send me up a third one, which helped provide your dinner.”
Shaun, once of East London cool spots Manteca and Berber & Q, has an engaging commitment to proper sourcing and using the entire animal (check out our chat). Witness his constantly changing menu name-checking his suppliers, so a perfect Littlewoods trade customer. That 11-year-old Red Poll suckler upstairs in the School Lane shop is destined for him, prepared by Marcus’s team of six specialist butchers. Its source is tagged – ‘The Langleys at Bunbury, Cheshire’.
The Cheshire hinterland is a great source of animals for Marcus, who made the decision several years ago to go down the grass-fed, sustainable butchering route. For the public and now increasingly those cutting edge restaurants. My readers will be aware of my devotion to the exemplary Jane’s Farm at Poole Hall near Nantwich, profiled here – Farmer Jane’s Herd Instincts are spot on. It is umbilically linked to Higher Ground, Manchester’s top restaurant of the moment, whose Cinderwood market garden is on the same site. Perfect examples of regenerative agriculture and its wonderful to see livestock of this quality, reared permanently on grass, given no antibiotics, featuring on restaurant menus.
Jane and Marcus make use of the same private abattoir on the Wirral, Edge and Sons Butchers, run by Callum Edge, who shares their ethical commitment. This is how networks are built.
The destinations of the produce hanging in Littlewoods’ basemen read like a litany of Manchester and Stockport’s finest eating places. The small but perfectly formed Dexter steer is promised to Climat on the eighth floor of city centre Blackfriars House, the red deer stag from Lyme Estate for Higher Ground and the 20-strong squadron of two-week aged, salted ducks is booked in for Where The Light Gets In down the road in Stockport. The link-up with its chef/patron Sam Buckley when it opened seven years ago was the Littlewoods launch pad. Marcus, then 39, had worked in the butchers from the age of 11, so knows everything about the trade, but this was a new challenge. These days he even makes his own salami. Just a home project, he quickly qualifies; there’s a strong influence from his French wife’s family down in the Dordogne.
What is key to his influence, I believe, is the way he imparts meat-handling skills to the talented chefs he works or has worked with – Joseph Otway (Higher Ground), Luke Richardson (Climat), Sam Buckley (WTLGI), Julian Pizer (Another Hand), Patrick Withington (Erst), Iain Thomas (Our Place), oh, and that persistent Mr Moffat.
Invasion of Aussie beef and lamb – the sticking point
As I was penning this piece I received an email inviting me to a tasting of imported meat that has proved somewhat controversial. It read: “The world-renowned Aussie Beef & Lamb brand has now launched in the UK following the UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement, meaning it can offer a point of difference for UK consumers looking for high-quality, consistent and sustainable red meat that complements but does NOT compete with British product.”
I immediately texted Marcus, who as it happens was away on holiday, lunching off horse meat tagine in Marrakech. He was, as expected, scathing about the deal with Down Under:
“I’m not if the opinion that importing cattle/livestock which rely greatly on water for grass/feed from one of the driest continents in the world, or promoting stall reared grain fed cattle, is a good idea. The UK has the perfect environment to rear cattle/sheep without a cost to the environment and, if reared in a regenerative manner, will increase carbon capture and diversity. The recent deal, was one of the worst trade negotiation outcomes I think I’ve seen in the agricultural sector. The callous disregard the Conservative government show to our farmers is shocking.”
Tusks, bristles and tempers – the wonderful world of wild boar
Among the most sustainable of animal meats, boar has traditionally been imported from Eastern Europe, where it has been a fixture in the forests and latterly in farms, though much is not generally the true tusked terror but a cross with feral pigs. In Japan, where it is a surprisingly popular meat, they call it such a cross-breed Inoshishi; in Germany Wildschwein, though here he discovery of excessive radiation in the breed has caused health scares.
The French call mature boars sanglier, younger, tenderer specimens marcassin. In my Boar-Googling I found a Lidl online recipe for Ragoût de marcassin aux chicons et sauce aux canneberges (stew with Belgian endive and cranberry sauce). I’ve yet to encounter wild boar on any supermarket shelf, even though they do roam wild in selected woodlands. Approach with caution, especially if you have a dog with you.
The Forest of Dean does appear to be Wild Boar Central. It’s positively bristling with them (sic). Here’s a precis of the Forest’s information on them: “Wild boar are stocky, powerful animals covered in bristly hair that can vary from dark brown almost black in colour to gingery brown. Mature males have tusks that protrude from the mouth. Females also have tusks, but these do not protrude. Piglets are a lighter ginger-brown, with stripes on their coat for camouflage and are affectionally known as ‘humbugs’. Wild boar can stand up to 80cm at the shoulder and they normally weigh between 60–100kg. Though short-sighted they can move surprisingly fast for their size. They will also readily move to defend their young when they feel threatened, so should always be treated with caution and respect. Sows can give birth at any time of the year, although there is a peak of births in the spring and early summer. Average litter sizes in the Forest of Dean are between six and 10 piglets, which is nearly twice that of their continental cousins.”
The last time I ate wild boar regularly was 30 years ago. The farmed variety sourced from a smallholding above Oxenhope (think Worth Valley and Railway Children), whose owners bizarrely doubled up as wedding limousine providers. Their meat wasn’t a patch on our fateful Barnsley chop.
• The main image is of a boar hunt by 17th century Flemish painter Frans Snyders. It doesn’t represent how the animals are culled these days.