While other butchers pack up and leave town, John Robinson family butchers is shifting more meat than ever and has a small army of loyal supporters. Dominic Prince discovers the secret of its success

Stockbridge is wedged firmly in the Test Valley, and it is an undeniably wealthy town. Bankers commute easily to the City from here; barristers flood in at the weekend and Sir David Frost has a country house nearby.

This is a quintessentially English town. There's a post office, an art gallery, a hotel and a couple of pubs. The River Test runs through it and plays host to anglers and ducks, fed an almost constant shower of stale bread by children and tourists.

Its wide high street is also home to a famous butcher's shop. A seemingly unremarkable affair, John Robinson family butchers has stood on the site since 1968, when the Robinson family moved there from Broadway in Worcestershire to start the enterprise.

Thirty-seven years later, the business occupies the same spot. The Robinson's shop and Stockbridge are synonymous. It is known not just as Robinson's but also as "The Stockbridge Butcher". It is testament to the family's hard work that the business continues to thrive. Others have not been so lucky.

Paul Robinson, the eldest of the three sons who now run the business, says; "When we moved here originally, there were 17 members of the Andover and District Retail Meat Traders Association. The highlight of the Andover social calendar was the butchers' ball that used to be organised by the meat traders."

Not only is the ball now redundant but also the Retail Meat Traders membership is down to just one: Robinson's in Stockbridge. "It is sad and perhaps inevitable," muses Paul Robinson. "I have the chain of office, which goes back to 1940 and is resplendent with an engraving of a bull. It's in a room above the shop."

So where did the 16 other butchers in and around the Andover district disappear to? Most just gave up or were put out of business. Those that survived the ever-increasing power of the major companies and price-cutting by supermarkets were threatened by the scandal of BSE, or finished off by the fear created by the E-coli 0157 outbreak in Scotland.

But, during the BSE crisis, it was Paul Robinson who stood up to former Agriculture Secretary Jack Cunningham on Radio 4's Today programme. In January 1998 the Government announced that it was illegal to sell beef on the bone. While some butchers then offered beef on the bone as an under-the-counter bonus, none did so openly - except Paul Robinson. He announced via national radio that he was going to continue selling beef on the bone and they could put him in jail if they liked. He did and they didn't. BSE was, in effect, good for the Robinson's: throughout the ban, it sold huge ribs of Aberdeen Angus and the punters queued right down the high street for it.

The Robinson shop itself is tiny, but there's a huge amount of activity behind it in the * smokehouse, the room housing the sausage machine, game larder and plucking room. In the large cold rooms, however, sides of beef hangs silently, darkening and maturing.

For more than 30 years they've bought Aberdeen Angus cows from the same group of farmers in Scotland. They know the origins of each and every steer; its parentage, where it grazed and the age of slaughter. They even know in what conditions it was reared. "A happy animal," says Robinson, "will give you a good covering of fat on the meat it produces, and that's the same for both cows and pigs."

However, not every shop follows this ethos. Before the BSE crisis, the supermarkets used to buy barren former milking cows from Salisbury livestock market for £50 a head and flog them off after processing for 20 times that amount. You'd imagine that butchers couldn't compete and most didn't. But Robinson has never tried to compete on price. "We try to give top-quality produce and service. If somebody wants cheap meat we are the wrong place to come," he says.

Local wine merchant John Konig concurs; "Robinson's is not cheap - but the service is brilliant and the food is stuff you dream of. I used to go down very early in the morning and they'd all be cutting and chopping away. They know you so well and know what you want, and there's always a hot sausage or a bit of bacon on the go early in the morning."

Cheap bacon oozes that revolting white slime because mainstream processors "cure" their bacon by injecting a salt-water solution into the meat. At Robinson's however, they cure sides of pork from pigs that have been reared at Longstock, a few miles down the road. Once cured in salt and Demerara sugar, the sides are smoked above oak chippings.

Going to such effort with their meat has proved a commercial success for the family: the shop takes around £30,000 a week, employs 14 full-time staff and sells 12 tons of sausages a month - even more in the barbecue season. At Christmas, people queue down the street to get their turkeys and, in the summer, fleets of vans depart Stockbridge with armies of helpers to run local barbecues. Recently, 1,500 were fed in a weekend at three separate functions.

The sausages have become famous all over the country. For those in the know, not stopping at the shop on the A30 during opening hours is unthinkable. Made only with pork shoulder - no pig skin, bone or udders in these - the initiated talk about Stockbridge sausages as much in Scotland as they do in Hampshire. One stalking party of 20 had enough Stockbridge sausages flown up to the Highlands to last them a week - it was 10 years ago and they still talk about it. To this day, even the pilot is still a regular customer.

However, alongside the quality sausages and steak, the butchers do provide some budget food options - although not what you might expect. Behind the shop sit the Stockbridge marshes, on which several hundred Canada geese make their home. Hated by farmers, the geese are regularly shot and taken to Robinson's for plucking and dressing. But it is illegal to sell Canada geese, so the breasts are then put on a tray in the window with a sign that reads, "free goose breast". There are rarely any takers simply because people do not believe things are free, in which case Robinson gives them away to the local pensioners.

Faggots are also cheaply available. Five hundred faggots a week are cooked in the kitchens and sold at just 50p apiece. One in gravy with mashed potato is a rich meal in itself - which once more demonstrates the sheer volume of produce that is shifted each week.

Local deer hang in the game larder. They produce venison sausages, stews and roasting cuts. Then, in the shooting season, pheasant, partridge, duck and hare all have their place also, hanging alongside each other in the refrigerated larder.

There are braised hand-made pies of all descriptions, frozen bakes, stews and home-made puddings all staring at you as you walk in through the single door. Outside, the butcher's bike sits alone, but it's not just a quaint decoration: it's used to do all the local deliveries in and around Stockbridge.

Robinson is keen to educate children about proper butchering. Not the pink tasteless meat wrapped in clingfilm and sold off polystyrene trays in supermarkets, but the sort of butchering where they can see the beast being beautifully prepared. Where children can smell the smokery and watch the bacon going in, and the whole suckling pig being cooked. Schools are given free guided tours in the hope that a little of the ethos will rub off on the children.

"We love every minute," says Robinson. "We love the service we offer and the whole thing is a form of entertainment - it's showmanship. People love coming in here to see the meat being cut in front of them. Can you get two-and-a-half lamb chops in a supermarket? I don't think so. Here, you can watch them being prepared in front of your eyes."

Hampshire trencherman Anthony Cazalet has been shopping at Robinson's for more than a quarter of a century and says, "When I'm driving down from London I get very excited about stopping off. There's no place like it. It's what I call old-fashioned service with a smile. I find it very difficult not to spend hundreds of pounds when I'm in the shop and I quite often think that if there is a heaven then Robinson's is there waiting for me."

John Robinson family butchers, High Street, Stockbridge, Hampshire, tel: 01264 810 609

Comments