I ate the best steak of my life in Aberdeen at Mal Maison. That was because Donald Russell supplied them with the meat. Rib-eye, rare. They also supply to The Queen so I think that says it all about the quality. Donald Russell flew me up to Aberdeen for a butchery masterclass at their factory. I stayed over night and spent the day with them. And who else flew in the same time as me and was eating the same steak as me at the same restaurant? Donald Trump!
Mal Maison – Aberdeen
Other people go to the beach! I go to a butchery! I made a lovely short break of it. A car picked me up, then I had lunch at Gordon Ramsay’s Plane Food at Terminal 5- surprisingly nice. This tripped appealed to me especially because I cook very often and I really should start to know my rump from my rib-eye, where they belong on the cow and so on.
I only ever buy free range chicken from a supermarket and always use my local butcher for meat. I am rather used to seeing them bring in carcasses and dissecting the required cuts for me. I remember when I was a child, London was filled with butchers and fish mongers but now, it is disappointing that they are so scarce because they have been out lived by big supermarkets who have taken over the monopoly board.
Donald Russell had been a favourite of mine after they supplied an event I participated in, at Henley Royal Regatta a few years ago. Whenever I hear that Donald Russell’s produce is on offer, I would jump to order it because it is good. I mean it is really really good! Here was a chance for me to have a masterclass in butchery and this opportunity wasn’t going to be missed. They supply to top chefs and restaurants like Marco Pierre White and Le Gavroche.
When I went into their offices, immediately I saw a poster of the Swiss supermarket, Migros, which brought back a ton of good memories as I was commuting in and out of Zurich for 7 years of my life in my twenties (due to a long distance relationship) and always loved the meat they had. I remember thinking, if only supermarkets in London would supply its customers with such good quality meat and spent many hours planning dinner parties over the meat counter.
Turns out, Hans Baumann (Managing Director) from Switzerland was employed to set up Donald Russell by a Mr Donald, a gentleman farmer with his own slaughter house and a Mr Russell a supplier of the meat. Hans ran the old round Swiss Centre with the Swiss clocks in Leicester Square back in the day of the late 80s, when we were buying posters from Athena. This was how Donald Russell eventually came to supply the wonderful supermarket Migros with its beautiful tasting meats.
I met the charming Hans over tea at the Donald Russell head quarters and he loved that I remembered the Swiss Centre and knew much about his native country and had unknowingly enjoyed and desired his produce way before I knew what Donald Russell was.
As a typical Swiss, Hans was all about quality. It was no wonder that he had turned Donald Russell into a brand with a Royal warrant. What does the Queen usually order I queried. “It is not for us to disclose”, he chuckled.
“In Switzerland, we would cut everything according to the different parts of the cow”, says Hans. “But when you came to Scotland, people could cut meat with a chain saw!” Hans Baumann then applied new rules of cutting meat, sending butchers to France and Switzerland to train. “We dare to cut and trim how it should be to bring out the best. We dare to charge more for it, make less profit for more quality. We dare to do what we believe to make the best steak.”
So why are Donald Russell products so good, I asked? “We take two steps further than anyone else, we cut more off for more enjoyment. We take all the muscles off, the chain and silver skin. We were the first to go and say that we have to mature meat for 28 days and others follow our example.”
I was shown around the butchery, looking at every station, from rib-eye to sausages and it was interesting and almost beautiful to see how they treat the meat, as if every piece is treated with prizing care. Portions are cut to chef’s orders or for online sales. They take out connective tissues, waving knifes like in a martial art movie and weigh pieces to be vacuumed packed. I am told it is all very labour intensive but it looks effortless because the butchers who have decades and decades of butchery experience. They also train young apprentices in the art.
The hanging room was haunting. Headless carcasses are left to mature in a refrigerated room, each with a label of which farm it came from, when it was slaughtered and by whom and who ordered it. Everything is traceable. The butchers buy cattle at a particular weight so that they can get more of a uniform cut. All in all, a remarkable insight to where this good quality meat comes from.
Afterwards, I was shown a whole lamb. Within 30 minutes, the butcher had butchered every part of the animal. Demonstrating each cut and its uses. It was like being a a science class, watching the anatomy of an animal dissected into edible cuts. His knife was bendy and sharp. He used all his strength to pull the carcass apart and sometimes used a saw. It was hard to comprehend that the lamb was once a furry, cute living thing as each piece became more or less a jigsaw that would never be put together.
But I was in for more than just butchery at Donald Russell. Stefan Kolsh, Head Chef of Donald Russell’s ready meals was waiting to feed and I didn’t realise how exciting that was going to be – to enjoy ready meals as if they had been cooked by someone at home. I live alone and I also cook for a living so when its just me and I really don’t feel like cooking, I am partial to a ready meal and have tried most supermarket’s ready made lasagnes, curries and shepherds pies but have never tasted anything as good as what Donald Russell offers.
Stefan is also a Swiss man who experiments in his kitchen: ways to make the ready meals taste delicious and homemade. He tells me stories about how he has painstakingly experimented with ingredients because when they have to be frozen and stored over a certain period, then they change so he has to understand all these elements. He uses chicken thighs for his chicken curries because the meat is moist and tender. He rejects the nation’s love affair with chicken breast, commonly used in curries. This raised his kudos by miles and just goes to show how Donald Russell is a leader in good taste!
I tried the entire range, from the canape quiches to pork pies, beef wellington and curries and fell in love. I need to buy myself a bigger freezer so I can stock up on dinners. It is highly recommended.
Thank you to Liz Webb who looked after me for two days. My wonderful stay at Mal Maison. It was wonderful to meet Hans and Stefan and all those charming Scotsmen at the butchery. I will take what I have learned from Donald Russell to choose better cuts of meat. It is for sure that I will only shop at a supermarket as a last resort.
Donald Russell also kindly supplied beef, pork belly and prawns at my recent event at Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. (another post to follow).