December 2009 - January 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Pigs might fly

By Amanda Lohrey
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

On a recent trip to Sydney I was urged by friends to visit a new butcher shop in the wealthy suburb of Woollahra. At first I was resistant – a butcher shop? Go, they said. It has to be seen to be believed.

The establishment formerly known as Churchill’s Butchery has become a source of local amazement. A modest suburban meat outlet has been given a $1.5 million make-over by designer Michael McCann, and during the first week of September it had not one but three openings, catered for by celebrity chefs, such as Damien Pignolet, and attended by a clutch of Sydney socialites. McCann is better known for his work in high-end restaurants, but in early 2009 he took to prettifying the sawdust trade. The floor is marble, the fittings are copper and the name has been gentrified to Victor Churchill. It now sounds like a Bond Street tailor.

How can you spend over a million dollars refitting a butcher shop?  Croatian immigrant Victor Puharich and his son, Anthony, have built Australia’s largest wholesale meat business and they wanted to create a boutique outlet akin to a French charcuterie. The façade of the shop is quaintly traditional, painted in dark green and with an emblem like a heraldic coat of arms near the entrance. But it’s the window displays, with their resemblance to meat sculptures, that have become a major talking point among locals. One day, you might see a whole small pig with fairy wings suspended above a bed of white feathers; another, two enormous drums decorated with painted wooden soldiers and a pair of (poultry) drumsticks.

Inside, as well as a laser-cut white marble floor and elaborate copper fittings, there is a wall of calfskin still wearing its hair. The cool room has a kind of clinical chic, brightly lit and enclosed in glass. Through the glass wall you can watch the butchers cut your meat on three superb wooden cylinders made of American ash, a fine-grained hardwood with a golden parquet-like finish that would not look out of place in a gallery of contemporary furniture design. The food writer Jill Dupleix has compared these butchers-behind-glass to performance artists and, indeed, this was my first thought when I entered the shop; the whole place has the air of an art installation. On the afternoon of my visit, the two middle-aged tradesmen behind glass seemed slightly self-conscious; they had only been installed for three weeks and had not yet adapted to being on display.

It’s the glass that creates the atmosphere of a small gallery. Adjacent to the coolroom is the meat locker and this too is behind glass. The back wall is illuminated and made from bricks of pale orange Himalayan rock salt, and in front of the wall, carcasses resembling sculpted waxworks rotate around the space on an overhead, motorised pulley-rack. The headless decorum of these absurd moving forms only enhanced my sense of being in some kind of gallery or meat museum. It would not have been a shock to see Damien Hirst’s calf in formaldehyde behind the counter in a brightly lit vitrine.

Once you have done with ogling the installations, you can turn your attention to dinner and the big display cases. Some of the meats have their own labels, as in “David Blackmore Full Blood Wagyu ($169 per kilo)” or “Kurobuta Pork Loin” and so on. For those who can afford the top-end cuts it must be a bit like trying to choose between a Versace or a Fendi. It would take a brave soul to ask for a bone for the dog.

To be fair, there is plenty of meat that is no more expensive than at any other up-market butcher, but this is not as interesting as the large refrigerated cabinet given over entirely to cured meats, including something called Lardo, fat from the back of a pig that has been cured in a cave and seasoned with herbs. Apparently, the way to eat this is to slice it thinly onto toast – a kind of rich man’s version of that Depression-era staple, bread and dripping. This, however, is of another order because it references a fetishised peasantry (think of that cave), and the signifier ‘peasantry’ is the holy grail of food authenticity – nothing corrupted or processed.

Opposite the meat cases stands a plinth topped by a bell jar and under the bell jar is this week’s luxury item. This might be a small bottle of Argan oil, said to be the rarest oil, from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, or an exotic marinade in faux-rustic packaging that suggests, well, those peasants again: some shepherd somewhere collecting his rare mountain peppercorns and curdling his yak milk.

Customers and bloggers have declared Victor Churchill a “magical” experience, “funky” and the “Willy Wonka of meat”. Others find it decadent and deplore it as meat porn. The friends of mine who urged me to visit the butcher argued that it is offensively over-designed, and that this is not merely an aesthetic issue but a moral one, an attempt to install an aura of glamour around slaughter.

I am inclined to find this judgement harsh. Isn’t the supermarket the ultimate sanitisation of the product? In the boutique butcher’s, the provenance of the meat is never disguised; it’s not like buying jeans or sneakers that are likely to have been made by child labour in Portugal or the Philippines. Most of us don’t ask and are content not to know. But I have to concede that when I left Victor Churchill, I took with me a troubling sense of excess.

As if to augment that feeling, just a few days after I visited the shop, a huge red dust-cloud rolled in over Sydney – a message from the drought-stricken grazing land of the interior. Nature was staging a spectacular rebuke of the excesses of culture, an apocalyptic reminder of our over-consumption of animal protein.

Amanda Lohrey

Amanda Lohrey is the author of The Reading Group, Camille’s BreadA Short History of Richard Kline, and the Quarterly Essays Groundswell and Voting for Jesus.

Cover: December 2009 - January 2010

December 2009 - January 2010

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