I have just come back from the most splendid morning propped in a corner watching five butchers exercise their skills. And no, I was not judging some ‘freefrom’ butchery competition. In fact I was being interviewed about Victorian butchers for the BBC 1 Heir Hunters programme – a series following probate detectives looking for distant relatives of people who died without making a will….
The intestate concerned was a master butcher in Newcastle called William who was born in the 1880s so was butchering through the early years of the 20th century. Reasonably enough, the production company chose to film the interview in the lovely Lidgates Butchers who have been purveying fine meats in Holland Park Avenue since 1850. A generally splendid idea – except that Lidgates is a quite small but extremely busy and popular shop and that it was a Friday morning….
So, between the customers, the butchers, the serving staff, the chefs and the delivery men collecting the orders to be delivered, the coming and going was continuous while the chatter, the banging of doors, the sawing of bones, the hatcheting of chickens, the ringing of phones and clunking of tills – to say nothing of the builders’ drill from café conversion going on next door – made it completely impossible for me to even hear the director’s questions, let alone anyone ever hear my answers! Which is why I spent a lot of time propped up in the butchers at the back of the shop watching the butchers butcher while the poor frazzled director tried to find some corner where we could hear ourselves think but which still had ‘atmosphere’! Finally we ended up using the butchery itself with a wonderful row of carcasses as the back drop – although my backdrop was, in fact, spring lambs!
I have known David Lidgate for many years – a wonderful butcher and a great ambassador for the cause of cause of craft butchery – but although I have certainly bought meat in his shop I had never really delved into the shop’s history or the beautiful butchery that they do there.
David was the fourth generation of Lidgates to butcher in Holland Park Avenue and he has now handed the shop onto his son Danny, the fifth generation Lidgate – seen here on the right with David in the middle and his brother on the left.
Despite the relatively small size of the shop (they do go up for many floors at the back) Danny employs five full time butchers and five full time chefs to make the quite yummy looking pies, kebabs, rissoles and goodness know what else that sell like hotcakes – along with the wonderful cuts of beef, lamb, pork and birds too numerous to count. They only supply to retail customers although they do deliver to most of central London – and if Friday morning is anything to go by, they have an excellent business. Indeed my only frustration was that because it had taken us so long to do the interview I did not get a chance to buy a pie and some of the mouthwatering looking stir fried beef that I had been eyeing up since I arrived!
However, the high point of my morning was watching the butchers at work. Interestingly, of the five who were there yesterday, three had started out as chefs but had found chef-ing to be such an anti-social occupation (the hours, the stress) that they had changed to butchery. But butcher they certainly could! Watching them slice, saw, bone-out, fillet, weigh and pack the orders was like watching artists at work – but artists who had incorporated speed into their art form. The sheer volume of meat that they prepared just while we were there was amazing – and that was with us constantly asking them to move, or to stop sawing, or to hold on their trip to the chiller. Bless them, they were amazingly patient but I think they were very glad to see the back of us. (Sadly, I did not have a camera with me but this is a picture from Twitter of Butcher Nathan with a serious piece of beef…)
So, I might have left without my pie and my stir fry, but I certainly left with a greatly enhanced respect for the art of butchery. And indeed for the craft butchers like the Lidgates who are doing everything in their power to keep the skills alive and to rescue us from the drab, tasteless uniformity of prepacked supermarket blobs of mince and slabs of steak. And not only to rescue us, but to pass on their craft. Although Danny was there were we arrived he had to shoot off (armed with half a pig!) as he was doing a demonstration for children as part of a project at Jamie’s Recipease just up the road.
And, by the way…. Did you know that butchers wore chain mail? No, nor did I – but it makes total sense. I only discovered when one of the butchers who had been serving behind the counter came behind the shop to do some butchering. Beneath the thin plastic apron and the ‘Lidgate’s’ cloth apron was a light-weight chain apron – specially designed to prevent them from stabbing themselves with those razor sharp knives should one slip. The image (from a NY Times article a few years ago) shows both the apron and a chain glove. When I asked Danny about them he said that all butchers wear them but that the light weight ones are a great improvement on the much solider protective gear they used to wear which really did feel like wearing a suit of armour!