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Michael Twomey, butcher, Macroom

Michael Twomey, butcher, Macroom

Michael Twomey’s butcher shop is on the entrance to Macroom from Cork and is marked by a special commitment to supporting local agriculture. Firstly, this is Ireland’s only Guaranteed Irish butcher shop, to use the logo Michael cannot sell any meat from overseas. He tells me that he started down this path in 1996 when there were scares about antibiotics in pigs and medicated ration was banned in Ireland. He now sources pigs directly from a local farm (about 10 per week) and cures most of his own bacon. He also buys beef directly, primarily Angus but also Hereford. This year Twomey’s will be Ireland’s first food company to be awarded the EU Eco Label for environmental practices in production, packaging and sourcing of local meat. Michael buys his lamb from Cristóir in Ballincollig through whom he sources quite a bit from Tim Keohane in Clonakilty (see above). He tells me that there is very little lamb produced around Macroom anymore reflecting Tim Keohane’s experience.

 

 

 

Spring lamb is generally hung for 8-10 days and more mature lamb for an additional 4 or 5 days. “I like to see a nice white cover of fat and would rather have excess fat that I can trim off if needs be. In this meat the quality will be there, if it’s not there to begin with you can’t put it in”. Michael notes an increasing sophistication among his customers who are asking for a wider range of joints and methods of preparation. It was the interaction with customers that drew him to the trade initially, he loves to exchange cooking ideas over the counter and was happy to share some advice on preparing lamb with me:

 

  • When cooking Spring Lamb, Michael suggests doing very little with it, perhaps a rub of lemon juice and thyme being the extent of tampering.
  • In choosing any joint Spring or otherwise, Michael recommends the rack as the tastiest, though it might be best to wait another month until there is a bit more meat on the rack.  Michael will also French trim the rack to reduce the fat. If you’d like to introduce other flavours try stuffing the rack with Stauntons black pudding. Open the rack for stuffing with a cut between the eye and the bone.
  • Leg is the best known joint but others like the shank are well worth a go. Generally tough to chew, shank is altogether different when slow cooked on the bone until the meat almost melts off. Serve with a rosemary gravy.
  • If cooking time for a leg is an issue, try a butterflied leg. Your butcher will remove the bone, resulting in a large butterfly shaped piece with the tough muscle tissue removed. Score the back and rub in garlic, curry paste and oil both front and back. If possible allow to marinade overnight in the fridge. To cook, brown on both sides in a frying pan and cook in a hot oven (200˚C) for 1 hour. To keep the moisture in you can cover with tin foil and add the juices from the pan. This can also be barbecued, continue to baste while cooking.
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Tim Keohane, sheep farmer, Clonakilty

Tim Keohane, sheep farmer, Clonakilty

Spring has finally sprung, there is warmth in the sunshine and life in the fields. The liveliest of springing is from lambs, most of which have been born in the last few weeks. Early lambs, born in January are just reaching maturity now and from this week on Spring Lamb should be available in our local butchers and meat counters. Lamb is my favourite meat, so sweet and flavoursome and along with beef tends to be the best meat we produce in Ireland. I visited Tim Keohane at his farm near Clonakilty to find out a bit more about lamb farming in West Cork and to see what Spring means to him.

 

 

 

Beef is the main income on the Keohane family farm, but in addition to the cattle Tim and his father John have 120 ewes, producing about 200 lambs each year. They are close to finishing lambing and the last few weeks have been the busiest period of the year, during which they’ve had to keep a 24 hour eye on their sheep. Apart from helping with any difficult births, it is also very important to attend to the bonding between mother and offspring. Tim explains that one of the biggest threats to a lamb’s survival is rejection by its mother. This can happen for a number of reasons including if it were to inadvertently suckle from another ewe, which can easily happen when they are inside in close quarters. Rearing rejected “orphan” lambs is a time consuming task that Tim can ill afford and it can be difficult to get them to a good weight in time for market. One solution for orphaned lambs is fostering to another mother by covering the lamb with the afterbirth from a new born at time of birth. The foster mother will be fooled by the smell into accepting the orphan as one of her own. Fostering is also used when the birth of triplets may put too much strain on a ewe and one lamb is fostered out to a mother with a single birth.

 

After a few days inside mother and lamb are released to the grass, so with Tim’s dogs Max and Ben for company we went out to look at the rest of the flock. Ben is semi-retired now having injured his back legs in an accident, but Max was bursting to show what he could do and with a few calmly spoken commands from Tim he brought the flock to us. Tim’s sheep numbers have fallen back a lot from what he used to keep – 500 ewes at one stage, and the profit per lamb is very low, each fetching €70-80 when they are sold in the early autumn. But it was evident from watching Tim work in partnership with the dogs that there’s more to this than money. For me it was a real treat to see a trials standard sheepdog in action and for Tim a source of quiet pride. He and the dogs had been in constant communication since I entered the yard and Tim was particularly conscious of the relationships and hierarchies between the dogs themselves. He told me that he finds the hands on nature of sheep rearing satisfying, if demanding, in comparison with the mechanised business of managing cattle.

 

Raising lambs profitably is very dependent on the markets they find, the optimum being local butchers. Butchers like larger lambs with a bit of fat on them, typically from 45-50kg, whereas factory lambs will usually be sold at a liveweight of 42kg. These lighter lambs suit the supermarkets better and the carcasses do not have as much fat for trimming. Of course individual joints sold in a supermarket are also going to be cheaper simply because they are smaller. Tim remembers when there were up to a dozen butchers buying at Bandon mart, creating a bit of competition and happy to buy larger lambs. But the number of butchers has declined sharply in the last 20 years, falling from 7 in Bandon to 2 now. The trend for buying smaller lambs in supermarkets works against an operation like Tim’s. To service this market profitably a farmer might need upwards of 1000 ewes and be located closer to a main factory, the nearest being in Wexford.

 

Easter came a little soon for Spring Lamb in 2008 but it should be plentiful from the end of March. When it is in season the more delicate tasting Spring Lamb is a delight but do look for meat with a generous coating of creamy-white fat, for which your local butcher is generally the best bet, a conclusion which brings me neatly to my other visit of the week – Michael Twomey in Macroom.

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