James Whelan Butchers: Simple Basics

I love cities in the early morning. Here or abroad I love strolling around quiet-ish streets observing the gentle bustle of the various businesses setting up shop for the day.  There are the familiar sounds of shutters opening and delivery vans pulling up and unloading and yet it is still quiet enough to hear the birdsong, all together creating that unique urban symphony that’s bursting with the day’s potential and the possibilities of what the hours ahead may hold.  You can also add in the odd bedraggled stray from the previous night’s excesses, a groggy student or two with languid gait slouching past and the determined strut of the young suited and immaculately groomed who sail by leaving a distinct whiff of ambition in their wake.

I found myself in this early bird environment recently in Dublin; early morning in the capital heading to a meeting but with a little time to spare before my nine o’clock appointment.  It was just after 8am and while this might normally be breakfast time, that day I had started out at the unearthly 4.30am, so it was almost lunchtime in my head.

With many of the restaurants and coffee houses surprisingly still closed or in the very early throes of getting organised for the day, I happened upon a little eclectic independent that was open.  Its spotlessly clean but worn, down to earth image complete with functional chairs, mismatched tables and poster covered walls belied the quality of the food inside.  It also had an interesting mix of clientele.  There was the obviously retired guy with his newspaper, two bohemian types who at an extravagant guess might have owned and operated some marvellous vintage clothing shop and at yet another table there were three suits having an obligatory early morning coffee. Apart from the steam and whistle of the elaborate modern coffee machine I imagine that the décor here has been almost static for decades, solely relying on the music gig posters to change regularly, adding both colour and character. Ham with Marmalade and Ginger Glaze

The glass case in front of me was already being filled with freshly made sandwiches for the lunchtime trade.  I was hungry, but I needed something easy and relatively quick.  I opted for a simple cheese and tomato sandwich and a coffee.  As I sat and waited I scanned the posters and all the gigs and comedy nights that I would never attend.  It was evidence of another world, a late night world that I have long since left behind.  I was pulled from my reverie by the arrival of my plain sandwich on an old fashioned side plate and a steaming mug of coffee.  Then I took the first bite and I was amazed.  My dull and predictable sandwich of cheese and tomato was a revelation.  My own mantra of excellence rang in my head, “simple, excellent ingredients will make fantastic grub every time”.  This was superbly fresh and soft batch loaf, with sweet juicy tomatoes, crisp cucumber, tasty cheese and uncomplicated mayonnaise; nothing fancy here but a combined taste sensation all the same.  From feeling rather boring for ordering a plain cheese sandwich, I suddenly felt like the cleverest person in the room – like I had discovered something wonderful that no one else knew about.  It was the marriage of simplicity and excellence and suddenly I knew why this place was popular with everyone – good food was the common ground that transcends all tribal behaviour.

One of our biggest problems with food today is that while things may share the same name, not all things are equal.  We live in a world where there are just too many choices and trying to buy one ingredient can offer up quite the conundrum.  Let’s take a simple sandwich filling like a slice of ham.  How and where do you buy ham?  If you purchase it in an average supermarket there are decisions to make.  Do you buy it in a pack from the fridge or from the deli counter?  Do you choose branded or own brand, high end or low end, smoked or unsmoked, sliced wafer thin or sliced thick, crumbed or plain, square shaped or large shaped?  Decisions, decisions and then there are differences in price to be considered.  Go to the bread section and you will be faced with the same dilemma.  So in effect my ham sandwich and your ham sandwich could be two entirely different taste experiences depending on the quality of ingredients chosen and it is remarkably easy these days to fall into the tasteless and bland pothole on the culinary highway.

Apply this to all common food and the problem for the consumer becomes very obvious.  Take a basic Cottage Pie as an example of an economical family meal.  By using excellent quality mince, fresh carrots, high quality stock and superior potatoes the resulting dish will be well above average in the taste stakes when compared with a supermarket mass produced, pre prepared, boxed freezer version.  Yet they will all claim the name ‘Cottage Pie’.  I am convinced this is why some people have little regard for old fashioned simple dishes; at some point in their lives they were scarred by convenience junk using the same name as classic dishes, masquerading as real food.  That early morning sandwich alerted me to the fact that even I had one foot in the trap.

So first things first if you want great food you have to use great ingredients.  It’s a simple philosophy shared by the great chefs all around the world.  And I would also stress that ‘great’ is not interchangeable with ‘expensive’.  At all times buy good quality, fresh and local wherever you can and even if you stick with simple food combinations your satisfaction levels will go through the roof.  Don’t think price, think excellence and before you know it your appreciation for the food you eat will undoubtedly increase.  Don’t cheat yourself, food is too important – buy the best you can afford and enjoy the results thoroughly.  Drop by James Whelan Butchers the next time you are in the area and catch a glimpse of what we mean by simple and excellent.

This post was written by me, Pat Whelan, owner of James Whelan Butchers and a passionate advocate of local artisan food. My family have been producing quality Irish Angus beef for generations using a traditional dry aging process. This tradition is one that I continue to practice at our abattoir on our family farm in Garrentemple, Clonmel. These posts aim to impart some of the wisdom to readers and help them get the best out of the meat they eat! Our meat is available online here! I welcome your feedback to Pat@jwb.ie

We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of  James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Handweavers Rathcoole and Kilmacanogue, Dunnes Stores Cornelscourt, Rathmines and Swords in Dublin. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers

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