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.

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Life and Style
The veteran poverty campaigner Sir Bob Geldof issues a stark challenge to emerging economies at the Melbourne HIV/Aids conference
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich talk Penguins of Madagascar at Comic-Con
comic-con 2014Cumberbatch fans banned from asking about Sherlock at Comic-Con
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
filmGuardians Of The Galaxy should have taken itself a bit more seriously, writes Geoffrey Macnab
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Commercial Litigation Associate

    Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

    Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

    £65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

    Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

    £40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

    Digital Content Officer - Central London - £33,000

    £28000 - £33000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive (Digital Marketi...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform