Samuel Muston: Dinner at my butchers with a glass of wine? I'm all for it
Samuel Muston is deputy editor & food editor of The Independent Magazine. He writes a weekly food column – On the Menu – which appears in The Independent on Friday and i on Monday. And also travel and general features. Follow him on Instagram at @smuston
Thursday 10 April 2014
It is 7.30pm and I am sitting at a marble-topped table in Hill & Szrok, a newly opened joint on Broadway Market in east London, with a quickly reducing plate of steak and stew in front of me. This is something of a first for me, because, to the best of my knowledge, I have never eaten dinner in a butcher's shop.
In fact, I don't think I've even been in one past sundown (in Stoke, the nearest town to where I grew up, butchers closed at 5pm sharp and 1pm on Thursdays) and certainly not with a glass of Bordeaux in hand.
But then this is not, as you might guess, your common-or-garden supplier of chops and chitterlings. This is one of a new breed of butcher shops that has begun popping up on high streets around the country: these are the hipster butchers. You will find them in Clifton in Bristol at Ruby & White; in Battersea, London, at The Butcher & Grill; in Clerkenwell, London, at Turner & George and The Quality Chop House Butchers and in many other towns around the UK.
You can spot them at 50 paces, for they tend to serve food, or are attached to restaurants. Some have done away with counters and instead use cold slabs. And absolutely every last one of them seem to subscribe to Design Week, or certainly that is what their finely crafted interiors imply. They are places you go into and don't mind whiling away an hour; places where you can buy your meat, sauce and wine all in a single swoop. These are shops for the generation reared on a diet of Gordon Ramsay.
While they may be an easy target for teasing, they are actually doing something laudable by re-energising the storm-battered high street. And while the bells and whistles employed to ensure their success may be new, what they are doing with their supply chains is actually very traditional. Many buy all their meat from one farmer and take pains to use the whole animal and demonstrate the versatility of so-called "lesser cuts" to punters.
The question is, why is butchery enjoying a second summer when decent fishmongers are rarer than blue diamonds? The answer, says Luca Mathiszig-Lees, co-owner of Hill & Szrok, is simple – and equine. "The horsemeat scandal undoubtedly damaged confidence in the supermarkets' supply chain," he says, "and butchers have benefited".
That said, they are still not able to compete with the supermarkets on cost. Lacking the buying power to drive down costs (the price of a bullock has doubled in 10 years to about £1,200) they instead concentrate on selling expertise with their sausages.
Richard Turner, the front half of Turner & George, is executive head chef of the Hawksmoor restaurant mini-chain, and Hill & Szrok has its chef in from midday, despite not opening for dinner until 7pm. Both are on hand to advise customers on how best to grill their onglet or char a T-bone.
On my way home from Hill & Szrok, I make a pit stop at one of the supermarkets to check out their offering. There is no butcher, the meat is all shrink-wrapped unto death, and its sirloin seems to be in the winter of its days. I know, I think, where I would prefer to buy my own Sunday lunch.
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