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Supply chain: The Stonemason's Arms and Owton's Butchers

Supply chain: The Stonemason's Arms and Owton's Butchers

Clare Finney 01 November 2016

Clare Finney and Joseph Fox pay chef Gavin Sinden and butcher Billy Owton a visit at The Stonemason's Arms in Hammersmith to discover a pride and passion for good quality meat.

Clare is a writer with a keen interest in anything edible and quaffable

On the staircase, a figure crouches intriguingly. An old stone dog, its collar offering ‘free 02 wifi’, sits on the bar. Upstairs, in a large, ancient dining room, the walls hang with chisels and hammers: relics of a practice which, while hardly used know, has been the foundation of human civilisation for millennia. It is not stonemasonry, however, but another craft, equally ancient and integral, that we have come to witness at Fullers pub The Stonemason’s Arms, today.

We’re here to see Billy Owton: fourth generation butcher, owner of the Hampshire farm that has been in his family for 600 years or more. We’re here because it’s his meat – the pork, lamb, beef, poultry and wild game he so carefully sources – that the Stonemason’s award-winning chef Gavin Sinden uses in dishes which include Roasted whole partridge and pearl barley risotto with blackberries, Smoked duck with beetroot textures and Loin of pork, black pudding, pineapple and truffled mash.

He’s cooking the latter. The pork, pink and satiny as a rosebud, has just been delivered – as indeed it is, each morning, six days a week. It is testimony to just how much good, honest work lies behind this cut, and every other he gets from Billy, that Gavin will never know exactly when. The Fuller’s Chefs Scholarship scheme, on which Gavin has trained, and his chefs train too, sees visiting Owton’s as a key part of their education; now they are even sending their front of house staff. ‘I know what’s gone into the produce,’ he says. ‘I know it has been reared with respect to animal welfare, seen the meat hanging for twenty-eight days, I’ve seen the butchering. I know such a careful process may mean it won’t arrive at nine exactly, but I know the quality will always be the same.’

He turns to Billy: busily butchering the loin of pig with expert strokes, scoring the skin and removing the white gristle carefully. Unlike his more commercial competitors, Owton’s Butchers favour delivering whole, or at least part carcasses of meat. It's less wasteful and, he and Gavin argue, more inspiring for the chef if they have to devise dishes using as much of the animal as possible. ‘Right now we've got venison. It's popular in the winter, particularly the shanks – but then you've got the whole haunch, say, so you have to be creative – make some bacon or some faggots,’ says Billy. ‘It is not just a cut of meat, it is showing the guys how to get the most out of that cut, so they really appreciate the journey,’ Gavin adds.

 
 

Paul Dickinson, the head of food at Fullers, is a big fan of upskilling: encouraging chefs to further their knowledge and skill base, and to push boundaries. Butchering should be a chef’s craft too, Gavin points out, but confronting a saddle of venison and making the best of its ribs (slow-cooked), blood (consommé) and back (bacon) is an opportunity few chefs ever get these days. ‘It doesn't arrive in a vacuum pack and it’s not cut by machine to a specific size, like most,’ says Billy. ‘They know its whole story,’ Gavin continues. ‘They become part it, and that’s inspiring for them.’ When his chefs come back from there, he says they bring back an energy that they can harness to create new and deeply delicious dishes; and he knows that the chefs will take as much pride in the cooking as Billy and his team does in the butchering and his farmers in rearing the animals they serve on the plate.

 
 

Owton’s moves with the times: and times have changed since the days when families had a roast at least once, often twice a week. ‘They needed a big joint of beef at the weekend,’ says Billy. ‘Changes in society are, very often, reflected in our meat eating habits.’ Now, game’s in fashion; roast beef has fallen from favour; and interesting, ‘continental’ cuts of steak have taken its place. Filet mignon, chateaubriand and hanger steak ‘cook quickly and are full of flavour, but they need to be good if they’re to be tender. It’s a bit of a test of quality really.’

Hanging meat, in the case of the beef, is vital: it tenderises the flesh, and because it’s dry aged, the meat Gavin gets has broken down naturally, so the texture and flavour is better. ‘Using it gives us a chance to sing about flavour and freshness,’ he points out – and because he has such a good relationship with Billy, his dedicated butcher (each Fullers chef is assigned their own butcher at Owton’s) and even the delivery driver, Gavin can rest as easy as seared steak knowing he will always be able to get the cut he’s after, as lean or as fat as he wants it. ’Most meat you buy in the supermarkets is wet aged in a shrink wrap over a few days, to speed things up and reduce moisture loss.’ Billy, however, will not compromise on this – or any other meat. ‘I’ve a thousand years’ worth of combined experience in my firm, and I am proud to say that,’ he proclaims.

 
 

We’re happy to hear it. Gavin’s dish is almost ready, and it smells sumptuous, the jammy notes of roast pineapple mingling sweetly with the heavy warmth of the pork loin and the rich truffled mash. ‘To balance the sweetness, I’ve added bitter leaves,’ he says. Their textured frills perch jazzily on top, beckoning us to taste. It’s an ode to craftsmanship: that of the farmer, that of the butcher and that of the chef, uniting on a plate and feeding the public. There could not be more fitting surroundings than this.

Photography by Joseph Fox.

 
 
 
 

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