If you’re leery of commercial corned beef — all those nitrites and who knows what else — you could make your own: Just buy a beef brisket, whip up a few gallons of brine, throw it together in a big plastic tub, and let it sit for a few days.
Or you could take yourself to Butcher Shop Market in the Adams Village neighborhood of Dorchester, where corning beef is in high gear in anticipation of the St. Patrick’s Day rush. Owner Alan Gibson, a native of Ireland who opened the shop in 2009, says that last year about 2,500 pounds of corned beef flew out the door for the holiday. While many customers order in advance, Gibson says, “We always carry a surplus amount. There are lots of last-minute shoppers, and we always make sure we have enough.”
The butcher is happy to meet the demand, but admits that corned beef is an Irish-American tradition, not one he knew growing up. “I never heard of it until I came here,” he says, in the large, pristinely clean shop. Far more popular in Ireland is the pork equivalent, a brined loin known as boiling bacon, which can also be purchased at Butcher Shop Market.
The shop’s corned beef is the gray version (nitrites lend the red color to commercial meat), and Gibson takes pride in distinguishing it from other preparations. “The mass-produced ones, all they want to do is pump water in it,” he says. But don’t try to press him for specifics of what goes into the brine for his beef: “That’s the secret.” Corned-beef customers are given a packet of spices with their purchase, to use when they simmer the brined brisket at home.
But there’s more to Butcher Shop Market than corned beef. Behind the counter, butcher Jerry Donohue is carving a primal cut of brined pork into salable chunks. “At home,” he says (“home” meaning Ireland, though he’s been in this country 16 or 17 years), “we used to get whole pigs and break them down.” Here, he says, tastes and customs are different, as he ties a tidy bundle of Irish ham. And beef has a different flavor than he was raised on. “Most of the beef over here is grain fed. Over there, it’s off the land. Grass fed. It’s stronger.”
Donohue brings a couple of hams to Kim Doherty, who is in the shop’s small open kitchen. In the back of the market there’s a small restaurant called Mrs. Murphy’s Kitchen, where customers can dig into a full Irish breakfast, a corned beef dinner (Thursdays only), or a steak selected from the meat case. Doherty does the cooking, and she says that the Irish breakfast — two eggs any style, two Irish sausages, two rashers (Irish bacon), black and white blood puddings, home fries, and soda bread (Batchelors beans optional) — is by far the most popular item on the menu. All meat products are made in-house, bangers (Irish sausages) seasoned with a spice blend Gibson brings over from Ireland.
Bangers are very much the tip of the sausage iceberg here. Sausages are a Butcher Shop Market specialty, and in season — which would be summer, when New Englanders are grilling — the shop carries as many as 18 house-made varieties. Even on a dreary winter day, there are several types in the case: lamb, curried chicken, chicken with spinach and feta, Buffalo chicken, Italian sweet and hot, Guinness and leek. Also popular are turkey and steak tips, in bourbon or teriyaki marinades. And the shop carries a small selection of groceries, Irish and otherwise: Barry’s Tea, tins of treacle, Weetabix, and Bird’s Custard Powder share shelf space with udon noodles and arborio rice.
Customers come from as far away as Maine, and Gibson is on the verge of opening a second store in Brighton. Supermarkets, it seems, haven’t yet squeezed out the neighborhood butcher. In fact, Gibson sees a resurgence in businesses like his. “Believe it or not, there are quite a few butcher shops opening,” he says.
He thinks he knows why. “If you want some ground beef, we’ll grind it; if you want a fresh steak, we’ll cut it for you. The staff is really friendly, and you get a welcome when you come in. The personal touch goes a long way.”
Butcher Shop Market,
782 Adams St., Dorchester,
Jane Dornbusch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.