Mass production of almost everything is contributing to a loss of traditional skills across the board. Butchery is not immune, with a decrease in younger people interested in the trade and large supermarket chains cutting into profits. Meet local butcher Brian Guest, who maintains the traditional skills of butchery and has a passion for what he produces …
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
Butchering has been in the family for many years, with both of my grandfathers owning butcheries from the 1930s. My father’s father had shops in Surry Hills and Redfern, and his mother’s father had shops in Newcastle and Richmond. All of our five children know the ins and outs and ups and downs of our butchery too, as they have all worked beside us every day for the past 10 years.
I did my butcher’s apprenticeship in Macksville at the co-op from age 17 – 21, and it was a hard slog – stuck in a little room with one tiny window, 12 hours a day. I learnt from old school butchers who broke down carcasses – not like today, where meat comes in cardboard boxes and gas filled plastic bags. At 21 I travelled the world doing all types of jobs for a few years, but returned to help look after my father, who had a stroke.
What is your connection to the local area?
My family moved to Urunga from Panania in 1988. After holidaying at Valla for many years, they decided to live in this beautiful part of Australia. I attended Bellingen High School and made many friends along the way, although the best connection is that all of my immediate family are living on the Mid North Coast too.
What do you like about living around here?
I don’t think there is anything not to love about living in Valla (except for the unbelievably slow internet). We have a secluded rural home where we can bathe in the serenity, then a 10 minute drive to our shop at Valla Beach. So we have a rural lifestyle, with the sea, surfing and fishing just on the other side of the highway.
How has Valla Beach changed since you’ve been working there?
Valla Beach Butchery used to be the home of Valla Beach Bakery. We were still running the Repton Butchery when we gutted and fitted the Valla Bakery into a butchery; they were hard times on all of us! Valla Beach was just an empty shop block until we made it a butchery, now there is the Headland Café right behind our butchery and Valla Pharmacy downstairs.
Tell us a bit about how you came to be a butcher?
I tell the kids I became a butcher because I was not academically minded at school and the only way I was allowed to leave school was to have a job. I applied for the apprenticeship in Macksville and got the job. [Even when he lost his licence as a young apprentice, he never let the co-op down – he’d hitchhike to Macksville from Urunga daily.
There aren’t a lot of butchers these days who source their meat locally; why do you?
You only have to look around us to see why we source local meat; there is an abundance of prime quality meat right here in our backyard. And you only have to taste one of our juicy steaks and compare it with one from a major chain grocery store. A butcher’s steak will be real Aussie beef and full of flavour.
Also, you seem to operate as a traditional, old school butcher. Tell us a little bit about how and why?
I am a lover of good food and have a passion for providing quality in everything in my showcase, from the top of the line eye fillet down to our sausages. There is no behind the scenes going on in our butchery; everything is made from scratch, and customers have full view of everything being made.
Do you feel the skills are being lost, as less butchers are as hands on as they used to be?
Butchering skills are being lost these days, with small business finding it harder to stay in the game. Wages are a killer to small business, and even apprentice wages can make or break you. It is a constant struggle competing with large supermarket chains with their convenience of all in one shop and their huge buying power. If an apprentice butcher learns his trade through a large chain supermarket, they are less likely to ever break down a carcass from scratch, or even know what is going into the sausages that aren’t made by them, but just delivered in boxes.
Are there many young butchers taking on the trade?
Butchering is a trade with many long and monotonous hours at not a great pay rate; there are not many passionate young butchers around willing to work hard and reliably. We feel like it is a dying trade.
What is your speciality?
We cure and smoke our own ham and bacon traditionally in a smoke oven. Our ham and bacon is broken down from Aussie pigs, pickled in pieces in our top secret cure, then slowly smoked and cooked for many hours in a keg oven. The whole process from pig to ham takes about a week, but so worth it. We are very proud of our sausages and every ingredient that goes into making them. We are always trying new recipes. Every piece of meat that goes into a Valla Beach sausage has been hand picked!