“Oh, just say ‘Love from Mum’, that’ll do”.
“Certainly Jean, that order will go out now tomorrow. Can I help you with anything else?”.
I was in a call centre, sitting alongside some lovely ladies who were taking telephone orders for the online meat delivery butcher, Donald Russell. Jean had just phoned in and ordered some meat as a gift for her daughter. Yes, a meaty gift! Marvellous. I only wish my family and friends were as imaginative when it came to gifts. I mean to say how fantastic to answer the door to a delivery of quality meat. Brilliant, a seriously loving gift in my opinion.
I had been invited to Aberdeen to visit the butchery HQ of Donald Russell along with fellow food blogger Linda Williams (With Knife And Fork). I already knew of Donald Russell (my business partner swears by their meat, his order for this year’s Christmas dinner is already in hand and he raves about their pies) but I had never tasted their produce and knew little about their business model.
Our day started with an early flight from London to Aberdeen from where we headed off to Donald Russell HQ. After a short meet and greet, Linda and I were booted and white-suited before our foray into their meaty world began. Donald Russell as it exists today is a very different business from the one prior to the BSE crisis of 1996 which saw British beef being banned from export to the EU. Prior to 1996 Donald Russell solely supplied trade and had many export clients. The ban had a devastating overnight effect on the business and it is to their credit that the company, under Managing Director Hans Baumann, regouped and slowly built up an online meat delivery business to the extent that they now employ a staff of 198.
I’ll not go into many details about the tour of Donald Russell Inverurie, suffice to say we saw lots of good-looking carcasses of beef and lamb. Lovely joints of deep red beef with fine creamy, crumbly fat stored in secure, clean, well-organised cold rooms. All as it should be.
Now here I must admit that I love looking at a good piece of meat. I love seeing the carcass, I love the colour and texture. I find it reassuring to see the animal skeleton and muscles, to see sawed-off bones, to smell the clean (but strong) aroma of well-hung meat. It gives one an appreciation of the animal and reminds one of how we should treat it both during and after its life… with respect.
And, in fact, what struck me most about the day’s visit was how both the meat and the staff at Donald Russell are treated with respect. All meat is impressively hand butchered with teams of skilled butchers tackling various parts of a carcass. It was very reassuring to see traditional butchery skills being applied in a modern commercial meat business. The butchery teams in the different areas of the butchery floor, we learned, are made up of regular members but there was also the opportunity for employees to move around to master different butchering skills if they so wanted. It was obvious from the banter as they worked that the team members worked well together and had a healthy competitive streak to see who could master their cut the best. You can easily tell when staff are unhappy with management (even on a guided tour) and I have to say that Donald Russell felt like a friendly, (very large) family business. As to butchery skills and meaty knowledge that too was obvious and was underlined by a demonstration of various butchering techniques at the end of the tour.
So it comes to the actual meat itself. We asked Eddie McDonald, Donald Russell Chef, if the company bought particular breeds or from a single source. His answer echoed one of my favourite turkey suppliers, Copas Turkeys, whom I wrote about last year. Donald Russell, we were informed, do not stick to one breed nor one source as they believe that it is not simply a breed that dictates good meat but good livestock husbandry and a good slaughter. Indeed, one sole source could not supply all the needs of their business. Eddie explained to us that their experienced buyers buy from numerous reliable UK sources who they know rear their cattle well. It may well be that at times the meat going through is indeed from a single breed (eg Aberdeen Angus) but Donald Russell do not market it as such. The consistency of excellent quality meat, butchered by hand and with care is what they strive for and what they want to be known for. They do not claim to be an artisan farmer/butcher business and feel that there is ample room in the market for artisan butchers (perhaps offering one breed from a single source) as well as the larger business model that is Donald Russell. Not only do they supply directly to the general public but they are now relied upon by a demanding high-end restaurant trade to meet their regular orders. Consistently. All year round.
Of course, we needed to taste the meat. Cooked by Eddie (who gave a brief run down on the technique of slow oven cooking of steaks to obtain exact results). We tried various steak cuts (a particularly stunning rib steak on the bone lingers in my memory buds), a juicy steak burger and a rack of lamb. All I found to be excellent. We also had a chance to taste some of their prepared dishes offerings and again I found these to be good products. I’d have no qualms about having some in my freezer for the days when I can’t face cooking from scratch but want to eat something of quality that tastes good! I was particularly impressed by the constant search for new cuts of meat (like the lamb Valentine Steaks) or new prepared products to introduce which shows that they are still hungry for business and are not willing to sit on their success. Personally, I would go elsewhere for puddings or cheesecake (I have some good patisseries locally) or indeed fish (I like to view before buying fish) but it was reassuring to see that the same care and attention to quality was apparent when sourcing such products to offer to their customers as when they source their meat. Some customers have neither the time nor the inclination to shop around (plus not everyone has good suppliers nearby!) but they still want quality and a supplier they can trust to deliver that to them.Some weeks later I had a chance to try my hand at cooking some Donald Russell pavé steaks that they sent to me. Pavé steak is a french cut of part of the animal which the British know as ‘rump steak’. Rump steak is one of my favourite steaks and by cutting as the french do and using the centre muscle one obtains a better cooking meat portion that resembles fillet steak albeit one that has more texture and, in my opinion, more flavour than the popular fillet steak. The result? My other half declared it the best steak he had eaten in a long time and I have to say… he was right, it was excellent, tender, great taste with a good texture.*
Overall I was impressed by Donald Russell. I not only liked the product, I also liked the management. I found them to be open about their business and willing to answer questions. Their resilience and drive in picking themselves up and moving on from the devastation of the BSE crisis to become a British success story in a credible manner is one to be admired. That customer service and customer satisfaction is given importance is evident in the amount of repeat business that takes place. That doesn’t just happen by accident. Caring mother Jean will be back again in a few months ordering another meaty gift for her loved ones.
In fact if you’re stuck for a ‘different’ present this Christmas for your loved one, perhaps this is one gift that I think you could consider? (Dear family… take note).
*I cooked my steak, as advised, with a meat thermometer. It was the first time I had used one for steak. Perfect.
Disclaimer: I was invited by Donald Russell to visit Donald Russell Inverurie and subsequently was sent some products to sample.