WITH the end of British ‘summer time’ and the turn of the month edging us ever closer to Christmas, producers of prime cattle and sheep will be looking ahead to the winter prime stock shows held both locally at auction marts as well as on a national scale across the country. 

Winning at these events is a prestigious accolade for the breeder, owner and producer, but it’s the butcher who is the important man at the end of the day, often buying many of the top animals to sell through their shop and promoting the skills of the country’s farmers in the process. One such butcher who did just that last year was Anthony Kitson who, in what was thought to be a first, bought the champions at three of the UK’s principal Christmas primestock shows – LiveScot, the English Winter Fair and the Royal Welsh Winter Fair. 

“My father came back from Smithfield in 1978 with a champion and since then we’ve always done so,” explained Mr Kitson, of Kitson and Son Butchers, established in 1694.

“Unless we, as butchers, promote the idea of selling and buying a champion, these competitions will no longer exist,” he pointed out. “I always buy my stock live and it’s all to do with conformation and fat cover. The three I bought last year were kept for another month to get that extra bit of fat cover. 

“If you look at a line of 20 carcases that all graded 3L, you could still line them up in the order of most fat cover to least fat cover, so what I’m trying to do is get them from the very bottom of the grade to the very top of the grade, but not necessarily pushing them in to the next fat grade – it’s like putting the icing on the cake.”

It’s a method that has clearly been working, as Anthony buys around 500 cattle per year to supply the two butcher shops in the Northallerton area as well as the recently opened Five Houses Farm Shop, in Yarm. While breed or type is not of utmost importance to Mr Kitson, the upbringing of the animal is. 

“I am absolutely looking for the man who breeds, helps birth, raises, feeds and loves his beast as it really does make a difference. When I buy something, I have to fall in love with it as, if I don’t, the buyer will see that when I’m trying to sell the meat over the counter.

“I have no preference on size, breed or colour – no-one gives a white beast a championship but there’s nothing wrong with a white beast. I’ve been asked to judge a lot of shows and I judge as a meat man so will always pick different to breed type as I’m looking for a barrel of meat, not how it walks or how much character it has.”

He continued: “Length is not particularly important but the depth and width across the back is critical. The only thing worth a premium is the middle cut – sirloin, rump and rib – and the front end is worth the same as the rear end, as brisket is the same price per kg as topside. 

“But you can tell if it’s well-bred and well-fed when you pick it up – if you pick up a sirloin, the whole cut – not just a steak – and it weighs more than you think and feels dense, it will always mean the meat is tender.”

As well as finishing 500 cattle per year, Mr Kitson buys in 2000 lambs and hoggs which go straight to the abattoir instead of being finished at home, and he’s not afraid to travel to get the best product available. 

“I like to 'shop' local, but if there’s better on offer further away then I will travel as I want the best product I can get. Most of my lambs are sourced from Cumbria, where increased rainfall means more grass and a better product. 

“I’ll always look for Beltex and Texel types as, again, the only worth in the carcase is in that middle portion. I have to say, though, the industry has done a good job on lifting the quality of the fore quarter meat to equal the rear end – but it’s all about the breadth and thickness of the loin.”

Mr Kitson will know better than most the tightening of purse strings and prices received brought on by supermarkets, but is keen to point out the superior product on offer in Britain’s butcher shops. 

“If the folk on the continent realise we have a fantastic product in lamb and want to buy it, then surely we should want to keep a hold of it. Supermarkets, because of the importation of New Zealand lamb, have been trying to undervalue British lamb, which is a real shame. The general consumer doesn’t always identify that the best lamb products come from the butcher, but beef is different. If they want a good bit of beef, they go to the butcher, as they know then won’t get a decent rib that fits in a supermarket plastic tray and that’s the real reason for abattoirs calling for smaller carcases.”