No major highway will take you all the way to the Lincolnshire Wolds, an austere, gently undulating landscape at the eastern edge of England. There's an uncanny beauty to the place, remote and sparsely populated as it is. "We're on the road to nowhere, really," was the way Jim Sutcliffe put it to me the last time I visited that part of England.
Sutcliffe is a butcher in Louth (rhymes with "mouth"), also known as the Capital of the Wolds. It's an exceptionally good place to be a butcher, not to mention visit one, with no fewer than five in this small town. Louth's relative isolation has made it a veritable Galápagos of Lincolnshire butchering traditions. I went there to observe the delicate balance of environment, resources, and relationships that allows a distinctive regional cuisine to flourish. And because I love a pork pie.
The name of Sutcliffe's shop is Meridian Meats—as in the Prime Meridian, the line of longitude that runs down one side of the store and through the farm nine miles due south where the Sutcliffe family raises cattle and sheep. The family opened the shop in 2008, after a butcher who'd long occupied the space retired. Sutcliffe is earnest, baby-faced; even so, I was surprised to learn that he's just 25 years old. When I asked why he became a butcher, his answer was both philosophical and practical. "It benefits me on both sides, being a farmer and a butcher," Sutcliffe said. "You spend the best part of two years putting tender loving care into the animal. I know what qualities I need as a butcher—the size and the shape and the cover of the fat. Our animals are slaughtered at a small abattoir very close by. I can monitor all of it." Still a teenager when he decided to seek an apprenticeship, he began in the only way he could think of: by writing letters to all the butchers in Lincolnshire. Finally, Eric Phipps, in the nearby town of Mareham-le-Fen—a butcher so old-school he slaughtered animals in his own abattoir behind his shop—agreed to teach Sutcliffe what he knew.
That included how to cure and stuff a chine, a meaty cut from between the shoulders of the pig that is found only in Lincolnshire. "The native Lincolnshire Curly Coat pig was hellishly fat," Sutcliffe explained of the now-extinct breed. "They'd keep them until they were something like 40 stone [560 pounds], and there would be two or three inches of fat on the back." Once it was slaughtered—typically in cool weather—and hung up overnight, that layer of fat would solidify, making the animal difficult to break down. "They would have looked at it and said, Right, it's easier to cut through the ribs either side of the backbone than it is to cut through the middle of the backbone," Sutcliffe said. After brining, the chine is scored with deep slits, stuffed with chopped parsley, and simmered. Sliced thin and served on buttered bread with malt vinegar, the cured pork striated with herbs is one of the world's great cold cuts.