For the finest meat in the land top chefs all call on one Coventry butcher, writes Richard McComb.
Heston shops there, and so do Raymond, Alain and Michel.
When Messrs Blumenthal, Blanc and the cousins Roux want the best meat for their culinary flights of fancy, it is to a third generation Coventry butcher that they turn.
The city may not be known for its rolling green pastures but it serves as the HQ for the nation’s finest catering butcher, Aubrey Allen.
Founded by the man himself in 1933, the businesses now supplies the country’s leading restaurants, including many in Birmingham. A family butchers has gone from bangers, black pudding and bacon to a business with a £15 million turnover.
Beef is a speciality. Remember the last time you enjoyed fantastic steak at Simpsons, Purnell’s or Opus?
There is a fair chance it came from Aubrey Allen. The company’s adoption of time-consuming French seam butchery techniques, in which the meat is cut into individual muscles, leads to consistent cooking. Allied to other innovations, it makes Aubrey Allen’s meat an irresistible proportion for top chefs seeking the best quality.
Luke Tipping, executive chef at Simpsons, goes as far as saying Aubrey Allen’s fillet on the bone transformed the cut for him.
The often succulent but sometimes blander premium steak suddenly takes an altogether richer flavour.
But it’s not just the posh cuts that the butcher does well. Today, I am eating a daube of beef at Purnell’s with Russell Allen, the managing director and grandson of the founder. It’s meltingly good meat, an awesome dish, brilliantly prepared by the kitchen.
“It’s all down to the beef,” says Purnell, who pops out to say hello.
Russell, aged 39, has been running the business for two years, taking over from his father Peter, who these days is Aubrey Allen’s chairman.
The manner in which Peter developed the company places him in the upper firmament of butchery gods.
If they gave out Oscars for beef selection, preparation and sale, he’d have bagged a locker full of gongs over the years. (The company, incidentally, owns a restaurant called Oscars, in Leamington Spa, but the name is coincidental.)
Russell couldn’t really help but pick up an interest in butchery from an early age, working as he did in Aubrey Allen’s shop in Leamington.
However, it looked at one stage that his future might lie in cookery rather than the family trade. Having trained in catering at Solihull College, Russell acquired a grounding in classical French cuisine working under chef Remi Loth at Les Plantagenets in Leamington.
Russell recalls: “I started washing up in the restaurant and just got a knowledge and enthusiasm for cooking.”
He lived in France for a while, in Vouvray, picking grapes and working in restaurants on “basic stuff”.
Returning to the Midlands, he became a commis chef at the then Michelin-starred Buckland Manor in the Cotswolds, picking up invaluable lessons under Martyn Pearn (now of Hampton Manor, near Solihull). His cooking CV also includes a stint at the original Simpsons in Kenilworth.
Russell eventually returned to the family fold. He worked in sales and took a lead role in developing the Leamington shop, which remains the business’s only retail outlet.
“The big thing we did in 2000 was put in a traiteur counter. We employed a chef who modelled it on a French and Italian shop,” recalls Russell.
The new section produced pâtés, beef Wellingtons, boeuf bourguignon, garlic mash, vegetable dishes and salads as well as traditional British favourites such as shepherd’s pie and pork pies.
Russell expected the new concept to be a runaway success, based on the popularity of high quality European “ready prepared” food outlets. It wasn’t.
“It was a disaster. People didn’t understand it,” he says. “There was nowhere like it outside London. People would look at the traiteur counter and say, ‘That looks nice’ but they wouldn’t buy anything.
“We believed in the idea. For the first three months, we gave food away until people realised it was actually very nice. It is phenomenally successful now. We have four full-time chefs. The team has gone from six to 14. We started to cater for dinner parties. A lot of people in Leamington now buy the food and pass it off as their own.”
Could Aubrey Allen, then, be the answer to Birmingham’s prayers? The city has a small number of good independent food shops and delicatessens, such as Anderson and Hill and The Grocer, but it hasn’t got anything approaching the scope of a Franglais traiteur. What about a shop in Brum? It’s the nation’s second biggest city and has a growing food culture.
Russell’s response surprises me. He doesn’t think there would be sufficient demand in the city.
“Birmingham can’t hold the attention of one food hall,” he says.
Certainly House of Fraser’s food hall bears no comparison with the lower-ground floor area of the former Rackhams just 15 or 20 years ago. Russell says he’d love to have a thriving shop/traiteur operation in Birmingham but he remains to be convinced of the business case. Others have tried and had their fingers badly burned.
If Birmingham remains an enigma, Warwickshire isn’t. Aubrey Allen has gone from strength to strength, launching an event catering wing. After our interview, Russell is heading off to oversee a tasting for a forthcoming wedding party.
The company bought Oscars, a Leamington restaurant, in 2003, and the butchering business started online trading in 2005 to tap into the home retail market. Online sales are seen as an area of huge potential growth simply because there are few traditional butchers left, says Russell.
“People desire to buy great meat. There is also an aspiration to cook like chefs and having so many chefs who are clients of ours helps with endorsements.”
Everything stands or falls on quality and Russell insists there will not be any compromise with sourcing. When it comes to beef, that means selecting farmers dedicated to traditional herd rearing, typically in Aberdeenshire, Cornwall and Devon.
He says: “We believe beef is predominantly a grass-fed animal, a converter of grass into protein. We like beef from wilderness places, rolling hills, fresh water. If beef is fed on flowers and good grasses it makes for wonderful meat.
“A lot of beef now is too young. It is slaughtered at 18 months. We look at 24 months as a minimum. All our beef comes from suckler herds. They are out in the fields. We also make sure we use abattoirs we inspect ourselves so there are high welfare standards. We insist the animals are relaxed.”
All the beef is dry-aged on the bone for a minimum of 21 days, which intensifies flavour. The process incurs higher storage and labour costs but the benefits in texture, succulence and eating quality is immeasurable.
Russell, needless to say, has the pick of cuts for dining at home with wife Esther and children George, seven, and Mary, six. It is, however, one of the cheaper cuts he selects as his favourite meal. “I love bavette of beef with a shallot sauce and chips. St Marcellin cheese. A bottle of Côte du Rhône.”
Russell likes value for money. You can tell he’s a butcher’s son.