When Premier Dan Andrews announced an abattoir slowdown during stage four restrictions, he assured Victorians there wouldn't be food shortages, while also warning shoppers they may not be able to buy the exact cut of meat on their shopping lists. So, while panic buying is not necessary, a more open-minded approach to meat would be helpful.
Frank Del Balso, owner of Trialto Meats in Elsternwick, says his customers are branching out. "They are asking about different things and being more adventurous," he says. "I've never sold so much beef cheek and oxtail in my life."
Normally these so-called secondary cuts are cheaper because they need slow cooking to braise to tenderness. "People are buying in bulk, making casseroles and putting them in the freezer," says Del Balso.
He's also selling lots of chicken bones and necks for soups and stocks, though in general people are still looking for popular cuts. "We've run out of chicken each day," he says. "If everyone calmed down, stock would be OK."
Chicken specialist Marty Dixon has two stores, including John Cesters at Prahran Market. He's more than doubled his chicken orders and he's still selling out.
"Normally, I might move 800 kilograms to one tonne a day," he says. "This week I sold about three tonnes of chicken a day." He hasn't noticed customer preferences changing markedly. "People still want breasts and thighs," he says, noting that Australia exports chicken feet and other less popular cuts to Asia so customers aren't necessarily pushed towards them.
Dixon encourages people to try chicken ribs, drumettes and wings. "They're cheap, kids love them and they're not hard to cook," he says. He also sells game meats such as rabbit, venison and kangaroo. "They're the forgotten foods; they're really good and there's still plenty of them out there," he says.
Jerome Hoban runs specialist meat wholesaler Gamekeepers of Australia. He hopes that changes prompted by COVID-19 will force people to think more broadly about what they cook and about supply chains in general. "It's an opportunity," he says. "It would be great if people asked more questions and realised there's a whole lot more out there than fillet steak and rib-eye."
Empty supermarket shelves may encourage people to get closer to the source of their food.
"It's good news for smaller, less mainstream players," he says. "People can talk to the local butcher, call people like us and get a full range of game meat, talk to friends and get inspiration," he says.
Fighting over the last eye fillet is definitely not an answer. "We're going to be fine," says Hoban. "There will be meat this week and the week after, and it's good to be a bit more adventurous and flexible."
Secondary cuts primer
Oxtail, beef cheek, chuck steak and shin: braises, curries, soups and casseroles; shred the meat to use in pasta sauces.
Brisket: roast low and slow then shred for taco fillings.
Chicken ribs: marinate in honey and soy or dust with five-spice and quickly grill.
Chicken wings: dust with corn flour, deep-fry in olive oil and dip into honey-lemon sauce.
Lamb shanks: slow-cook with barley for a soupy casserole.
Pork hocks: cook up with split peas then shred the meat for classic pea-and-ham soup.
Kangaroo loin: cook hot and fast and eat rare.
Kangaroo tail: slowly braise in soups and stews.