When your future is in the mincer

It is estimated that two to three small butcher's shops are closing every week. Since the link was established between BSE and CJD, followed closely by an outbreak of food poisoning caused by a new strain of the bacteria E.coli, the small butcher's business has never been more vulnerable. Bad practice at factory farms has been repeatedly exposed; and two weeks ago a report claimed that eating more than three ounces of red meat a week increases the risk of cancer. The Government has raced to keep up with consumers' demand for safe meat with a never-ending stream of legislation. Many of the changes shops must make are costly.

The high-street butcher, already competing with edge-of-town superstores, becomes more threatened with each scare. You would have to be an optimist to go into the business, but John Cross, a 19-year-old who has just finished three years' training with the John Robinson butcher's shop in Stockbridge, Hampshire, feels differently. "I've known the shop since I was a child and it's always had a reputation for being a great butcher," he says. John is the son of a gamekeeper, and he realised he couldn't follow in his father's profession - the game business also has a shaky future. He is self-possessed for someone so young, certain that he has made the right choice despite the fact that other butchers are looking to sell their shops and businesses.

A butcher's apprenticeship is hard. Often you are working in cold conditions, walking long distances on hard flooring, back and forth from the larder fridges to the counter. An apprentice is unlikely to clear much more than pounds 100 a week, and the training can take up to five years; a large part of it is menial work: scrubbing cutting rooms, boning out endless shoulders of pork for sausages, gutting and plucking chickens are a few of the trainee's unexciting but regular tasks. Brandishing a long shiny knife and confidently asking the shop's most treasured customer what size piece of beef they would like from a whole fillet valued at pounds 80 is a long way off for the new apprentice.

ARRIVING at opening time - 7.30am - I am put to work with John Cross filling the shop window. There are various walk-in fridges at Robinson's. The largest houses the beef, lamb, pork and a few fat geese. Sent to get the beef joint, I was told to bring out only the darker coloured joints that have been hanging for at least two weeks. Newly arrived sides (the whole beef carcass split lengthways) hang from the ceiling, their flesh red, the fat yellow and carrying various stamps bearing proof that the beast is pure Scotch, with other labels showing the name of the man who slaughtered it, where, when and so on.

It is Thursday, so the window must look good. As the weekend gets closer, business picks up, culminating in mayhem on Saturdays. Wise customers order in advance, and the rest of the morning is spent with Brian Cheeter and Don Roberts, two of the shop's experienced butchers, preparing each order. Good butchers know their clients like a hairdresser knows his or hers. A local doctor is insistent that his rump steak is hung for three weeks, cut two inches thick, and only prepared by Brian. People come in continually; pensioners after a small piece of something cheap - one woman, holding a tin of peach halves, went away disappointed that the ox liver had not arrived. Many locals are smartly turned out - the Test valley is very affluent. Ladies who have tied the Jack Russell up outside don't blink at paying pounds 8 for a chicken.

Many people come in to collect their trophies from recent shooting and fishing expeditions which have been dressed ready for the oven or table. Judging by the state some of the birds are in, it is a source of relief to Robinson's that they would like the very bird they have killed themselves back for their supper tables. Robinson's charges pounds 3.50 per brace (two birds) for this service. At the back of the shop they gut and fillet up to 700 large rainbow trout a week fished from the River Test which are then sprinkled with salt and laid to cure on racks for 24 hours before being cold smoked over oak dust for a further 36.

Entering the game fridge you see a great selection of edible British wildlife, both furred and feathered, at this time of year. Biscuit-coloured roe deer, spotted fallow, grouse, partridge and pigeon, hare and mallard line the walls. At the back of the fridge, hang some large free-range farm chickens; heads still on and guts in, they will have a flavour quite unlike any other.

I am told off for forgetting to wash my hands in between cutting some raw meat and slicing some freshly pressed ox tongue, and so have to begin again. This is the easiest way to spread disease. If there are bacteria on the raw meat and they spread to the cooked, which is unlikely to be cooked again, someone could be in for food poisoning. At Robinson's, an apprentice is drilled in hygiene as soon as he begins his course, long before he handles the knives. If a butcher buys from a reputable supplier or abattoir, it is unlikely that there will be any outbreaks - particularly of the feared new strain of E.coli.

A large order for some stewing steak requires boning out a neck of beef. This huge wedge-shaped piece of meat hides half a dozen vertebrae. To make the most of the meat, the flesh has to be cut cleanly from the bone. This is a fiddly job for such an inexpensive finished product and it is therefore an ideal training ground for the apprentice. Imagine six fist- sized octopus with rigor mortis that are locked together covered in cold hard meat. Prising them apart is tough work. Much wriggling of the wrist holding a short and pointed boning knife is needed. You must find the gaps between the joints with the point of a knife, to break apart the gristle that binds them, while cutting away the surrounding meat. Your own wrists will be hurting after a few of these, and if possible you should take a break since this is when accidents start to happen.

AT 1pm the shop closes and most of the 11 butchers, along with the cashiers, Maggie and Jenny, sit down for a lunch of pork chops and roast potatoes. Most are very tired by now. They have sold 800 sausages, 80 faggots, 57 chickens and 100lbs of bacon.

You must be strong to be a butcher - most have forearms shaped like the hams they sell - but this will never stop your legs aching at the end of the day. Physical strength is the most likely reason why there are so few women in the trade, but it is a macho business and I am aware that I have been steered away from the more gruesome tasks.

At lunch there is talk of the new regulations that will come into practice on 1 November. Notices of new rules drop through the letter box regularly, and usually mean yet more cost to the butcher. On this occasion they announce the new beef labelling scheme, which requires a butcher to display a certificate for the beef on sale, proving the provenance of the meat. This certificate must be provided by a third party - not the supplier or the butcher - and it all seems quite sensible if rather time consuming, but there is a glaring loophole. You do not have to prove the source of the meat in such products as steak and kidney pie and beefburgers. It is widely recognised that the dubious manufacturing processes employed in the production of such products have given British beef its bad name.

Paul Robinson, one of the three brothers who owns the shop, is shocked at this omission. "I cannot understand why the hamburger chains do not have to comply. It is no wonder we feel discriminated against. Businesses like ours are not at the heart of the problem, but are punished for it all the same."

This year, smaller firms are under more scrutiny than ever. Strangely, for good quality butchers like Robinson's - and there are still many - the BSE crisis improved sales. They are enjoying a new kind of patronage. "There are younger meat lovers who would rather pay more for excellent flavoured safe beef, and eat less of it, than take a risk on a cheap beefburger," Paul Robinson says. E.coli was, however, damaging for all butchers. The now infamous J Barr was regarded as a fine family butchers, but after the E.coli outbreak for which it was held responsible and which caused its temporary closure, butcher's shops suffered badly. It is not fully understood that while J Barr - in Wishaw in Lanarkshire - had a family retail front, it also had large catering contracts for which it made meat pies, manufactured on a production line. If J Barr had been a factory, the scare would have been less harmful to small shops.

John Robinson's Butcher in Stockbridge has a good chance of survival partly because it continues to try hard to please customers; but also because it is situated in an area that is generally regarded as wealthy. Almost equidistant from Basingstoke, Winchester, Romsey and Salisbury, its business rests on foundations that are traditional, people who happily take a shopping basket from greengrocer to fishmonger to butcher, enjoying the contact with the shop assistants - people, in other words, with time on their hands. Other good butchers who are less fortunate in their location regard a traditional apprenticeship as an unwise career choice for a 16- year-old school leaver - "You'd be potty!" a south London butcher laughed when I suggested it.

Try telling that to John Cross.

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