JAMES WHELAN BUTCHERS
Pat Whelan is a butcher in the sense that Lewis Hamilton is a driver. Or that James Joyce was a writer. And speaking of writing, his books – In An Irish Butcher’s Shop and The Irish Beef Book – contain some of the most compelling food writing I’ve encountered in ages.
Pat Whelan grew up with beef. His family have farmed in Tipperary for generations and he started the process of learning the stockman’s skills and judgement as a small boy as he walked the fields at Garrentemple, his home place, with his father . The butcher’s business goes right back to 1960, but further in his maternal line for all of five generations. James Whelan Butchers started in Clonmel and more recently expanding to include outlets in Rathcoole and Kilmacanogue.
These two shops are run in association with Avoca and, as Pat says, it just shows what can be done when two Irish families decide to work together to make a real difference. The Whelans and the Pratts are fine examples of commitment to ideals that translate into business.
And of course, there’s a burgeoning online service too, with a commitment to 100% satisfaction.
While proper family butchers, with their direct link between the meat on sale and the fields in which in was reared, are much fewer and further between than was the case even twenty years ago, James Whelan Butchers means that you are never more than 24 hours away from the best meat in Ireland. That’s how quickly online orders are delivered.
“While words like ‘traceability’ sound very bureaucratic, you should be able simply to ask your butcher ‘Where did this come from?’ and expect a simple, accurate response,” he writes in The Irish Beef Book. You certainly can when you’re dealing with Whelan’s.
Their meat is sourced from Garrentemple and local farms (the pork comes from the Crowe family farm near Dundrum, Co. Tipperary) meaning that Whelan’s deal quite literally in the taste of Tipperary. They also deal in innovation with revival.
I’m referring here to Pat Whelan’s introduction, some years ago, of beef bonds. Essentially, you invest in Hereford, Aberdeen Angus or Wagyu beef, choosing a short, medium or longer term maturity date, the minimum weight being guaranteed. Longer term bonds may confer a bonus in the form of a larger meat yield. It’s a delightful and delicious way to source your meat, to connect with the process of production, to take some ownership of your food.
In terms of revival, Pat Whelan’s resurrection, in effect, of proper, old-fashioned beef dripping has been greeted with huge enthusiasm in the food community both in Ireland and Britain where it won the Golden Fork Award and was named Supreme Champion in Great Taste 2015. Personally, I can say that our fridge is never without a packet. There is nothing like the scent of it melting in the pan. And I still get a sense of national pride when I see it in the likes of Fortnum & Mason or Harrods Food Hall.
In this, and in many other achievements including his remarkable writing skills, Pat is probably our best ambassador for Irish beef.
Whelan’s have always prized true skill and if you look at how they present meat, in myriad cuts, you will be reminded more of a traditional boulangerie than the crude basics of your average Irish meat retailer or supermarket counter. These are miniature works of art, impeccably dressed, and there are unusual cuts, often marinated or scented with herbs, considerately thought out so as to provide, by just popping in the oven, the centrepiece of a proper meal.
As he says himself “Although I derive great pleasure from helping my customers to select a majestic cut of rib on the bone for roasting, or a tender whole fillet, I get just as much satisfaction from introducing them to cuts such as shin and skirt, to short ribs and hanger, which give so much flavour and are such excellent value.” (Try asking for some of those cuts in an average butcher’s and see what happens!)
I live by his advice on cooking properly sourced steaks and particularly his stress on thickness (thicker rather than thinner for the premium cuts), last minute seasoning, scorching hot pan and resting for at least seven minutes.
So, in attempting to summarise James Whelan Butchers, however imperfectly, I have to say that in addition to the family tradition and the passion (a much overused word in the food world, but apposite here), the attribute that comes to mind when I think of it is “thoughtful”.
And, in that sense, this is the thinking person’s butcher’s.
The latest additions to the James Whelan network are in association with Dunnes Stores at two locations in south Dublin.
Location in Clonmel: