National Butchers Week: 10 mins with Master Butcher Mark Turnbull

The Staff Canteen

Mark Turnbull is a fifth-generation master butcher in his award winning family butchers, Turnbulls of Alnwick in Northumberland.

Started in 1880 by his great, great, great grandfather, Mark has worked in the shop since the age of 14 and jokes that he was the only one daft enough to have stuck at it. We ask him about how the industry has changed, what he thinks of National Butchers Week and how exactly you become a Master Butcher.

Mark Turnbull, master butcher, Turnbulls of Alnwick, National Butcher's Week
Mark Turnbull

Mark knew at a young age that he was to follow in his father’s and relatives' footsteps before him into the family business, he remembers going down to the abattoir with his father on a Sunday but he didn’t start actually start working in the shop until he was 14.

He explained: “I started working in the school holidays and as a Saturday lad for pocket money. Really by the time I had reached school leaving age at 16 my mind was made up. “Even before I took my exams I knew I was going to come work in the family business, so I left at 16 and have been here ever since.”

It was a decision that came naturally which Mark says was without any pressure, he said: “My dad was in the business with his two brothers and at the time there were other family members that came in so I was fortunate that there wasn’t a pressure really. “I was the only one daft enough to stay but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time here and never regretted it. Cousins have worked here but moved on, I’m the only one that’s stuck at it and it kind of just happened but it’s because I enjoy it.”

Turnbull's Old Shop Front
Turnbulls old shop front

Exactly what it is that he enjoys about the job, Mark isn’t sure as he says he simply loves everything about it. He explained:

“I think when you talk to other butchers you see the similarities, butchers always get on with butchers, I think is the best way to explain it. It’s just in you and you enjoy what you do, you’re just passionate about the job and you live and breathe it. “It’s something I’ve always enjoyed and there are always different challenges, it’s an interesting job to do and I just love everything about it.”

What is a master butcher?

It’s this passion which has earned Mark the title of 'master butcher'. He might not be 100% sure on who gives the title, or what the exact definition is, but for Mark it’s about knowing everything there is to know from slaughter to customer, and everything in-between: “For me personally and our business it’s about being a traditional butchers shop," he explained.

"We used to have an abattoir so we’d buy an animal at market, slaughter it, bring back to the shop and cut it in the shop. “For me it’s about moving all of the carcass and understanding about all the different cuts and joints and getting as much value out of that; that’s the real skill I suppose to the job.

He added: "A master butcher - I suppose - is someone that has served their time and learnt all those jobs and learnt from the cutting, to the presenting, to the serving and selling. There are a lot of skills involved in butchery, it’s not just cutting meat.”

Mark Turnbull, master butcher, National Butcher's Week
Mark Turnbull

This is something that Mark says is important for chefs to know and especially young chefs wanting to learn. He said: “I think it is important for young chefs to learn these skills but I am a bit of a believer that butchers should be butchers and chefs should be chefs, although I know there are a lot of chefs now wanting to learn the butchery skills. “But unless you are doing it day in day out in a butchers shop it’s very hard. There are aspects of the skills you could take but I’m not convinced that a chef can ever learn it. “It’s about taking that carcass and taking it through the various stages right through to the customer which a chef can’t do if it needs to be served in a certain way, it’s not just about picking it off the shelf; we’re there for the customer.” These are skills that have been passed through the business.

Keeping butchery in the family

Mark has never had to go elsewhere to learn his craft as the wealth of experience in the shop has been preserved through the generations. He said: “Everything has always been done in-house. It’s one of our values in the business is to preserve and pass on those skills through the generations. “For example my son is 24, he’s been passed on those skills. We’ve got three butchers, one is nearly 60, the other two are in their 50s and they’ve been with us since they were 16; so we’ve got an awful lot of experience that we are able to pass on.”

For Mark it’s nice to have this experience celebrated in weeks such as National Butchers Week, he said: “I think it’s nice as we do the same every week so it’s nice to have a celebration of what we do. “It would be a great shame if butchers shops were ever lost, I see a bright future but we have had to change a lot. The ones that haven’t changed are the ones that have disappeared, the market has changed from when I came in, but it’s just nice to celebrate the skills that we’ve got and we should be proud of those skills.”

Talking about these changes Mark highlights that it’s more than just serving joints of meat now, he explained: “It was very much just joints and cuts of meats but now it wouldn’t work if you just sold meat and you didn’t add value. “For example we do stir-fries or ready prepared dishes such as beef olives, stuffed loins of pork etc. We do a lot more work for the customer but that’s great for us as well as it allows us to showcase what skills we’ve got in-store.”

Shop Front Web

Restaurants taking meat off the menu

The industry has also seen some more recent changes with both Bruno Loubet and Alain Ducasse deciding to take meat of their menus, although Mark isn’t worried that many are going to follow suit. He said: “Hand on heart I don’t think we’ll see a high percentage of restaurants not selling meat dishes and that’s not knocking it. But I think people would always want to eat meat, I’d make a poor vegetarian to be fair but we respect that point of view.”

How will you be celebrating, will you be heading to your local butchers for National Butchers Week? Taking place from 23rd to 29th, the week "aims to support and give butchers an opportunity to set out their stall for consumers, who traditionally may have avoided the high street when it comes to buying their meat."

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 23rd March 2015

National Butchers Week: 10 mins with Master Butcher Mark Turnbull