There was a duck in my freezer, and it was time to bring it out. One of AJ’s beautiful birds, it would do wonderfully, I was thinking, for Gwyneth Paltrow’s Duck Ragu which I planned to serve to friends. Out of the freezer it came and I peered closely at the fine print. From frozen state, I read, use within six months of purchase. That had been April; now it was January, which meant that it was two months beyond its usability. Did this matter? Suddenly I was panicking, visions of my guests ending up in hospital attached to drips after I had inadvertently poisoned them with old duck.
And so I rang John at Wholly Smoked Butcher, in Byron Bay – John who immediately allayed my fears. No, I would not be posing any health risks to my friends – in fact, he reassured me, the only possible danger lay in the fact that the duck might have suffered a little freezer burn, evidenced by small white dots (easily washed away) which may have very slightly dried up the precious, flavourful juices and rendered it slightly less succulent. But apart from that, he said, all I needed to do once it was thawed was to soak it for about an hour in slightly salted water to restore its moisture then proceed with the recipe. Which I duly did: the resultant sauce, bathed in eggy strands of pappardelle, was a great hit.
And yet the experience fascinated me because it made me think that surely I was not alone in periodically needing a culinary problem solved or question answered, despite mostly feeling both confident and competent in the kitchen. Especially with regard to freezer-related issues, thawing meat, handling poultry, the lives of protein from frozen to cooked state.
And so I visited John, who confirmed that indeed I was not alone: every single day someone will ring with a question.
John Garrett has been a butcher in the Byron Shire for around 20 years. His blissfully cool all-organic shop tucked right down the end of Jonson Street near the ex-Services Club has been operating for the last ten; before that he had premises in the Woolies Plaza and before that at Suffolk Park.
Many of the questions he is asked relate to freezing and temperature. ‘I always say there are two indicators – especially with chicken and pork – and they are sight and smell. If something smells, discard it immediately.’ A lot of meat these days, he told me, has been gassed in order to extend its life, especially items like mincemeat. ‘All meat today is about long life’, he said, ‘but it should get back to how it used to be. Gassing meat to give it that extra week takes away that sensory thing we were talking about. If you take the eye and smell sensors out of the equation you’ve got no criterion by which to judge the freshness of meats. Gassing is now a standard thing – but it goes against what butcher shops are all about – that freshness!’
Gassing, of course, is the last thing John and his team would do. Their freshly made sausages are snap-frozen and, in the same way just-caught prawns will be frozen on the trawler; you can’t get fresher than that. John laments the fact that butcher shops are ‘a bit of a mystery to a lot of people – it’s the communication thing; people don’t seem to know how it works’. He is referring to the old-fashioned dialogue between butcher and customer, the reticence many people seem to feel. ‘People have a lesser understanding these days of different cuts of meat and how to use them, than ever before. It’s the fault of the supermarkets, people losing that knowledge. There’s a lot of ignorance out there. I’ve had people buy fillets for stewing – really soft fillets! That’s not uncommon!’
He is encouraged, however, by the fact that these days people are increasingly interested in ‘the story behind things’, the provenance of food, the notion of eating locally and sustainably. ‘And fat’s coming back!’ he said. ‘There’s a resurgence of interest, and people aren’t so scared of it as they used to be.’
‘Communicate your concerns’ might be John Garrett’s message. Do not be too shy to ask.