It's no exaggeration to say that in recent years, Simon Taylor of Surrey Hills Butchers has helped to rejuvenate the Surrey butchery trade with his energy, passion and eye for a rare breed or forgotten cut.
While the county has always been home to a number of excellent traditional butchers' shops, Simon and his team in Oxshott have helped to inspire a new generation to take up their knives in the High Street.
Having already won numerous awards for his work, Simon is now set to compete as part of Team GB in the World Butchers' Challenge, which takes place in Belfast this month.
"I have to say the pressure is on," says Simon. "When you’re asked to represent your country in any profession, you can’t take it lightly and it's been far from an easy ride. I really believe in this team though. We are all strong individually, but together we are an absolute force."
The 'British Beefeaters' have found support in high places, with the likes of Jamie & Jimmy's Jimmy Doherty cheering them on.
"I first met Jimmy doing a little bit of filming for his Friday Night Feast show with Jamie Oliver," says Simon. "As soon as we started talking, I could tell he had similar passions.
"In the future, I hope to be doing some demos at his festivals, promoting not just Team GB but British butchery and farming as a whole. Jimmy's farm set up is something special."
An education in meat
Before competing in international competitions, however, you have to head back to Simon's teenage years for the moment he realised he wanted to work with food.
"When I was 13, I already had two paper rounds and what I look back on as a very profitable car washing 'business'. When the local butchers put a sign in the window for a wash up boy, I took that on too, Monday to Friday after school and all day Saturday.
"It was money that started my journey but I soon realised that the link to food was something I could relate to. Being a chef was probably the only thing I ever wanted to be as a child – and I think I still want to be, one these days ..."
Fast forward to the age of 24 or 25 and he found himself ready to leave the butchery trade, with foot-and-mouth, BSE and a number of other food scares causing huge numbers of shop closures.
"To be honest, I saw no future in it at the time," he says. "At this point, however, a butcher called Rob Mussell got in touch and offered me a job.
"He reminded me of the passion I had for food and that if you do things right there will always be a future in our industry. He also reminded me that one day I wanted to have my own shop."
When the opportunity came to take the keys for Surrey Hills Butchers in 2011, he faced the problem that business people have faced since the dawn of time … finding the capital.
Fortunately, such was the faith that his father in-law, Michael Usher, had in him that he put forward the money and Surrey Hills Butchers was reborn with Simon at the helm.
"That support and belief was amazing and things went so well that he had his money back within 18 months," says Simon.
Sourcing for quality
These days, Surrey Hills Butchers has gained a reputation for going above and beyond the call of duty, whether it's supplying Michelin star chefs with something unique or suggesting alternative cuts for regular customers.
"The very first thing we must always do is work on quality and finding the best produce we can," says Simon. "After that, of course, we ask whether we can we find it locally."
"We work very hard to find people like The Fruit Pig Company, who produce some of the only traceable black pudding in the country, and Etherley Farm in Dorking, who produce amazing free-range chicken and ducks.
"We're also proud to work with Surrey Wildlife Trust and their Belted Galloway herd. To be part of such a natural process, where the animals are reared on some of Surrey’s most important nature reserves to help conservation projects, is something we can all learn from.”
With so many political and social issues currently affecting the provenance of our food sources and the farming industry in general, Local Food Britain wonders what a top butcher would like to see more of in Surrey in a perfect world...
"Of course we would love to stock as much as possible from the local area and farms," says Simon. "There are plans we are working on with (fellow Local Food Britain member) Coverwood Lakes farm, near Ewhurst, which should open many doors for local sustainable traceable produce in the future - not just for Surrey Hills Butchers, but for as many local businesses as possible."
The vegan movement
Perhaps surprisingly, to those of us outside the trade, Simon believes that the current swell of interest in the vegan movement could also have a positive effect on British farming in the long run.
"It's something that I am really interested in and I think that curtain vegan campaigns are spot on, as far as animal welfare goes. The UK has fantastic standards but that does not mean we should stop there. It should always be about quality not quantity.
"We are lucky that our customer base understands we buy on quality, in all areas. There is a cost to us and our farmers, but doing things properly will always produce a better product.
"I personally hope these sorts of movements will bring people closer to food of all types, educating them in what we have become very disconnected from."
Back to the present day and Surrey Hills Butchers has been getting a makeover this spring, to provide extra space for all the new products inspired by Simon's Team GB training. They also have an interesting charcuterie project underway, which is under wraps for now but should be bearing fruit by the end of the summer.
So, whether you're looking to tuck into a succulent steak or a delicious and deeply flavoured stew, make sure you have a word with your local high quality butcher first, rather than heading to the supermarket – the animals will have inevitably enjoyed a better life, and will taste all the better for it.
- National Butchers' Week 2018 takes place from Monday March 12 to Sunday March 18.
- The World Butchers' Challenge 2018 takes place at The Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast on Wednesday March 21.