Riverford Wicked Leeks

meatbox newsletter - the man behind your meatbox

A couple of newsletters ago I mentioned our manager, Mark Slade, but compared with a couple of the butchers, Mark is the new kid on the block. Master carcass cutter, Ken George, for example, was involved right from the beginning. Now sixty-five and working a three day week (in which he does the work of at least two men half his age), Ken started in the trade as a Saturday lad in a butchers shop in South London. His career path took him on a long tour around London, including stints in catering butchers, Smithfield Market and managing a shop in Atlantic Road, Brixton, before buying his own shop in Kent. I remember him telling me how the queue at the counter was the 1980s equivalent of social networking, with everyone talking to everybody else and a jolly time had by all.

It all sounds a bit ‘Darling Buds of May’ and the truth is that, by then, the high street butcher, independent or otherwise, was in terminal decline in the face of the relentless utilitarianism of supermarkets. Maybe they could have been a little more proactive and forward thinking, but not every shop had a catchment area as affluent and foodie aware as those two shining beacons of survival, Lidgates of Notting Hill and Allens of Mayfair. The hysteria (quite justified as it turned out) surrounding BSE, in the 1990s, was the final straw for Ken, so he sold up and moved to Devon.

Back in the ’50s when Ken started in the trade, most meat supplied to shops was in carcass form and came straight from the abattoir. The skills learnt during his apprenticeship were second to none: everything from rendering dripping, to breaking carcasses into primal joints, to cutting uniformly perfect 8oz steaks. It all used to happen in the back of the shop. Now, for better or worse, most of that has been lost. Trainees are taught a specific job, which they do all day long on a cutting line. If the tide does turn and globalisation becomes localisation there won’t be many people left to show us how to do it. Finding an alternative to producing and marketing intensively reared, machine-cut meat is a challenge and needs input from all directions, including customers. But with such talent at our disposal, along with a healthy dose of traditional skill, we like to think we can make a good job of it.

Ben Watson