Donald Russell Christmas Party Box

Christmas parties can be such a drag as there is so much to shop for and prepare. How great would it be if we had a team of elves helping us out in the kitchen. It’s not just the big Christmas lunch, there are also all the canapes and tid bits that we ambitiously want to make to thrill our guests with.

How about a little short cut? I got a Party Pack from Donald Russell to try and it came with a variety of finger foods like meatballs, little ham croissants, sausage rolls, fish cakes, mini burgers and chipolatas.

They all came frozen and oven ready which made is a cinch to prepare. Half an hour before my guests arrived, I egg washed the sausage rolls and ham croissants and brushed the fish cakes with some oil. I then popped them in the oven as they took about the same time, 20 minutes. I served them as canapes but you could serve the fish cakes as a starter with some salad.

Donald Russel Christmas Pack

Next I started pan frying the mini burgers while I prepped the buns for my designer sliders. I slathered on some beer mustard, fried some onions and out them all together. I also fried the meat balls and served them with a sweet chilli dip but in hindsight should have done something different with them.

My guests were really impressed by the sausage rolls and fish cakes.  They also loved the meaty sliders.

Donald Russel Christmas Pack Mini Sliders

For main course, the meat fest continued. We had a roast belly of veal which came all trussed up and ready for the oven. I roasted this with some vegetables in a pan and added some red wine, orange juice and some stock about half and hour before the end to make some gravy. This was also used to baste the veal.

Donald Russel Christmas Pack

The veal came out tender and delicious and was so easy to carve. Served with roast potatoes, it was a very substantial meal. The veal served about 6 and there was some leftover.

To finish, we had the Anton Mossiman’s Christmas Pudding. This we microwaved in the oven for 4 minutes and served with some double cream and custard. This was declared the best Christmas pudding by my guests as it was not overly sweet or stodgy and had quite a light texture. My friend who does not eat Christmas puddings even had 2 helpings.

If you are fretting over how to cater for your New Year’s Eve party, get one of these packs. It’s easy and delicious and saves you time to doll yourself up and enjoy the party instead of slaving in the kitchen. You can order from their online store here and pick your own delivery dates.

Donald Russell – More Than An Online Butcher

Pavé, that is a word that I know very well. Learnt it years ago when I was shopping for diamond jewelry and learning about different stone settings. In jewelry, Pave setting is when a lot of stones are set very close proximity to each other, with no metal showing, creating a smooth surface. I would never have associated that word with meat, let alone rump steak.

At a recent visit to the Donald Russell operations centre in Inverurie in Scotland, we were introduced to this cut of meat. A perfectly sculpted piece of meat sculpted from the centre muscle of the rump steak, the Pavé Rump Steak. This cut has been trimmed of any fat or sinew and resembles a fillet steak but is much thicker than a normal rump steak you would find at your local supermarket.

Donald Russell online butcher Pave rump steak

Pave rump steak

Danny of Food Urchin fame and I arrived in Aberdeen on a uncharacteristically warm winter’s morning and were driven over to Inverurie where we were to undertake a Butchery Masterclass.

Donald Russell, the online butcher, has been selling meat for many years but mainly to trade and not retail customers. They have been supplying restaurants and hotels like the Grand Hotel in Monaco and Simpsons in the Strand. They also hold a royal warrant for supplying to Kensington Palace. Their business suffered during the BSE crisis in 1996, causing a rethink in strategy and repositioning. To diversify their business and reduce the reliance on a few trade customers, they decided to start a mail order business and this has now grown into the largest seller of meat online in the UK.

Donald Russell buys in their beef from a number of slaughterhouses in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but their beef is not selected by breed, rather they buy the best tasting beef. This is dependant on feeding, breeding, husbandry and maturation which they do in house. They only buy in meat from audited farms and slaughterhouses. I expect they have similar accountability measures when they buy lamb, game and fish from other suppliers, but we didn’t have time to get into that.

Up to this point, my only impression of Donald Russell were the ads in newspapers, suggesting a large faceless corporation. It has never occurred to me to buy meat online as I like to see and touch what I am buying. I am also very geeky about the provenance of my meat and tend to now buy from the higher end butchers in London than the local supermarkets. One exception is a Scottish Aberdeen Angus farm, Hardiesmill, that I visited where they sell exceptional 100% Aberdeen Angus beef which they sell online in small quantities.

So, on touring the butchery, we were pleasantly surprised to find out that they are more like a massive butchers shop than a large corporate machine.

We were first shown into the room where they receive the ribs that are bought in. Racks and racks of prime beef, meat heaven. What hits you first is the smell of fermentation in the air but it’s a sight that will get any meat lover salivating. These are placed on racks and aged before they are cut up and sold. The level of aging can be seen by the level of oxidation on the surface of the meat and it gets darker as it ages. They use the dry aging method which allows moisture to evaporate which enhances the flavour of the meat. This aging process causes the total weight of a piece of rib to reduce, hence the higher cost of dry aged beef. Wet aging is when they age it in a sealed bag where evaporation is not possible, the weight remains the same which works out better for selling but not for the flavour.

Donald Russell online butcher beef maturation room

Next we were shown into the massive cold room where several rows of carcasses were hung. These carcasses are also know as “roastings” which is basically half a cow (or steer or whatever the technical term is.)

Donald Russell online butcher with Mark Farquhar Head Butcher

Mark Farquhar, Head Butcher

The main butchery floor was a bevy of activity with rows of butchers deftly demonstrating traditional butchery skills, carving away at racks of lamb, ox cheeks, slicing up steak, all with such speed and precision. Most of their butchers were obviously quite experienced and have been with them a number of years and noticably, quite a few were from Eastern Europe. The most experienced butcher(ess) was a lady, which I understand is quite unusual. They are talking about running butchery apprentice schemes to train up some young blood, which were noticably absent.

Donald Russell online butcher

In other parts, they were busy churning out pure beef patties for burgers and hand rolling pastry for sausage rolls. It might not be a corporate machine but the operation seemed like a a very well orchestrated dance. It also struck me that the staff were all happy and smiling and there seemed to be a family vibe of carmaderie.

By now, we were absolutely freezing as all those rooms were super chilled. Thankfully, our next stop was lunch in their warm test kitchen.

How to Cook the Perfect Steak

Chef Eddie McDonald had prepared 3 pieces of Pave Rump for us to cook. Using the instructions in the Pave Rump instruction booklet, How To Meat Perfection, (which they supply with all purchases), we attempted to cook these to rare, medium and well done.

Steps to cook steak:

1. Make sure that the meat is at room temperature

2. Oil the meat, not the pan as the oil in the pan will burn too quickly

3. Make sure that the pan is super hot so that the meat sizzles when you place it down on the pan.

4. Cooking times : (this is for the thick cut Pave rump steak, other cuts differ)

  • Rare : 4 mins each side
  • Medium : 5 1/2 mins each side
  • Well done : 8 mins each side

5. On finishing, brush with melted butter

6. Rest the steak for as long as you have cooked it to allow the meat to relax and the juices that were forced out with the heat to migrate back to the centre of the meat, making it juicier.

In the meantime, Chef Eddie was cooking a few different cuts of steak; a fillet, a sirloin and a rib eye,  on a low temperature in the oven using a meat thermometer. I have always pan fried my steak and have never considered this method but the results were stunning. The meat is seared before being placed in a low temperature oven, at about 80C and cooked for about 2 hours, depending on the weight.

While waiting, we got to sample their fish cakes and amazing sausage rolls. These are the tastiest sausage rolls I have had and they were enormous too. We were also introduced to their range of ready to bake German breads, a product that Hans Baumann, their Swiss managing director found at a food show.

Donald Russell online butcher chef Eddie McDonald

The tasting: of all the cuts, the rib eye had the most flavour, helped along by decent marbling and a seam of fat through the meat. The pave rump was tender but since all the fat had been trimmed off, lacked a bit of flavour. Interestingly, the rare and medium cuts ate well but the well done piece was a total waste of time. Tough and horrible. Really not the best way to eat steak.

The fillet was tender but again, did not compare favourably when tasted with the other cuts as is a part of that doesn’t do any work, has no muscle and very little marbling. The fattier end of the sirloin was great.

We also got to sample their range of ready to bake German breads their new range of puddings. The lemon meringue was terrific.

Butchery Masterclass

After lunch, dressed in an added layer of a body warmer, we ventured back into the butchery. This is where it all got a bit more hands on and the fun began. Andy Grant one of the master butchers demonstrated how he would carve up a “roasting” into all the different cuts that we are more familiar with. (see video)

There was so much information to absorb about the style of butchery, the different steaks, etc. From the video above, you can see Andy breaking up the Roasting into the 4 main parts below and then these are cut into steaks.

  • The fillet
    • ladies steak, what a stupid name
    • chateubriand
    • fillet Tails
  • the sirloin
    • rump end which is seamed off to create Pave Rump steaks
    • vein end - skimmed off for sirloin steaks. The smaller end pieces are then sliced thinly and sold as minute steaks
    • tail end – sirloin with an added piece of muscle, not a true sirloin. Never noticed this before and is not the best cut of sirloin, take note when you next buy a piece of sirloin. Lower parts are used sold cubes or strips for dishes like stroganoff.
  • the prime rib
    • rib eye
    • rib trims, the meat between the ribs which are great slow roasted or boiled like in Pastrami
  • the rump
    • rump steaks
    • rump cap is usually cut into a roasting joint
    • the tafelspitz (an Austrian cut, traditionally boiled with vegetables as a quick meal, a recipe that was devised for the court of Franz Joseph I) This is where the uber trendy cut of Picanha steaks are cut from against the grain.

The other trendy new cut is the Flat Iron which is very popular in the US and has been increasing in popularity over this side of the pond. This is cut from the shoulder feather blade and Andy demonstrated this and it was super fiddly and looked really sinewy.

Out of the 30kg of Roasting, the resulting saleable meat is about 15kg. The waste meat is sometimes used in other products.

Danny and I then had a little competition cutting up steaks. This involved getting kitted out in a chain mail apron and chain mail gloves. Funnily, the chain mail apron resembled a chain mail dress from Burberry Prorsum that I had seen recently and just as heavy. So that’s where Christopher Bailey gets his inspiration from.

We had a choice of weapons, a butchers knife and were let loose on some nice hunks of beef. We had to slice them up to within 10g of 220g portions by eye. Watching the butchers do this with such speed, it didn’t seem too difficult but most my attempts were out by 50g. Not so easy, but Danny hit bullseye when he managed an exact slice at 220g and did a little victory jig. Seriously competitive that food urchin.

For our efforts, we got a little certificate but I would have loved to have had a go at breaking up a roasting than just slicing up steaks. Another time maybe.

Donald Russell’s Ready to Eat Range

So in addition to beef, they sell lamb, pork, game, fish and added value products like burgers, sausages, delicious sausage rolls and even puddings. We didn’t get a chance to talk about where the other meat, game are from but this seems to be a growing part of their business, with beef still making up about 60% of total sales.

In February 2012, Vestey Group, a privately held food company bought a majority stake in Donald Russell, signalling a possible shift in direction for them. Management has retained a stake in the company and have been told that their existing businesses strategies will be upheld. This might see a significant shift for Donald Russell using the synergies of Vestey Groups food businesses to expand their reach and market.

Our butchery day ended with a much greater appreciation of butchery skills and all the different cuts of meat and how muscles affect the flavour and how a steak eats. I was impressed by the skilled butchers and was pleasantly surprised at how artisanal the whole operation was, which is not reflected in Donald Russell’s slick sales brochures or website. I found out that they ship their meat after blast chilling it, in insulated boxes that can keep meat optimum for 72 hours. This will be a great way of buying beef to take back for my trips to Asia, as they can’t get decent steak out there. Will definitely do this for my next trip. Buying meat online? I think I might just be a convert.

Donald Russell online butcher

EatCookExplore was a guest of Donald Russell’s.