A tour around Smithfield

Smithfield

Waiting for the first tube of the day

Ah dawn, only ever viewed through blood-shot or sleep-filled bleary eyes, and it’s the later that look upon the low sun at the end of Gillespie Road N5 this morning. It’s 5:15am, and I find myself staring at the locked gates of Arsenal tube station that should be open by now. A yawning member staff comes over and slides back the barriers and 7 minutes later I’m on the first Piccadilly line tube of the day. The early start is necessary as I’m off for a tour of London’s historic Smithfield meat market.

Upon reaching Farringdon things are eerily quiet a la 28 days later, only the distant rattling and ‘vehicular reversing’ beeping coming from further up Cowcross Street belies any human activity. As I approach the building I see white transit vans clustering round each hole in the market’s side, doors open like mouths. Each of these vans is attended by somebody in white overalls and boots – and the first impression that comes into my head is, I’m sorry to say, maggots. I head up to the Superintendent’s office where I walk into a room of slightly bored looking students from Thanet catering college, who along with myself are here for a tour. A guide is recently retired market copper Tom Hunter, who for 37 year pounded his beat either side of the Grand Avenue and all around the 10 acre site.

After donning white coats and hard hats we’re off downstairs following Tom like ducklings. Everyone it seems knows him and he stops to shake hands and say hello to various stallholders. He leads us round the back to where the meat is unloaded or ‘pitched’ and shows us the rail and hook system that moves the heavy carcasses around to the rear store room of each unit.  “In the old days men would carry it all by hand, and when lifting a frozen pig carcass on or off their shoulder men would often rip their ears, which would bleed badly.”

Tour of Smithfield

buying lamb for a big party

We stop to admire some fine looking welsh lambs hanging up waiting for processing before moving onto the trading floor. The market is about 80% wholesale and consequently caters to many price points, and so there’s plenty of large blocks of industrial orange cheddar and intensively farmed Chinese chicken on offer as well as quality UK lamb and beef. Further on I peel away slightly from the group and stop to chat to three West Indian ladies who are shopping for a party. Jackie says she’s making curried goat (though she’s using lamb) with rice and peas, she’s also got chicken, beef, more lamb and two lambs heads. They’re shopping for friends’ freezers too. “We come here once a month – it’s much cheaper and the quality’s good” she says “I can get three, four times as much meat here as what I can get in Morrison’s. For under a £100 they’ve got an old shopping trolly packed to the gunwales with quality meat from Stephen at Andrade’s Butchers.  Tom later tells us that this is the only business that’s been here in the same family since the market opened in the 1900s

I then talk to the owner of another stall, Kentas ltd. I ask him how the market’s changed over the years. “It used to be brilliant here, but with the congestion charge everyone wants to be long gone by 7am. Add to that the health and safety, it’s gone mad.” He says, going on to quotes this story about stepladders in the Bodleian and finishing off with a pop at Brussels and the EU. “I’m not allowed to have anything open or out on display here, how can people try things? Years ago at Christmas we’d do a big urn of hot punch, and have mince pies out for the customers and other traders, we’re not allowed now.” It may sound like a rant, but he’s got a point, his stall has huge parma hams hanging up, as well as Italian cakes and salamis, it’s a shame he can’t open them and perfume the air.

Tour of Smithfield

Buying the Waygu

We move on to the Poultry hall where I buy a French rabbit and four quails to be used at some future date (any suggestions?). Here again I loose the group and fall in chatting with a North American guy at the counter who’s buying wagyu beef. “For a special occasion?” I ask. “Yeah, it’s a treat for myself” – Spencer Morley it turns out, is a cage fighter. It’s partly for the fitness and the discipline he tells me, but also as a foil against what he feels a safe, cosseted, danger-free life. He also has a day job as an IT consultant. Spencer eventually settles on a huge rump costing over £150, he’ll cut this into steaks, cook it sous-vide and then on a high hot flame. “It’s the best way I’ve found of doing steaks”. He shops for more ordinary meat at the market too, “Fighting means you need a lot of protein, and it’s just to expensive in the supermarket, here it’s much cheaper”.

Smithfield

Fight night!

Indeed the pugilistic arts and the market have a long history, later on back in the office Tom tells me of Tommy McGoven, who as well as being a porter was the lightweight champion of Great Britain. He shows me a poster from 1951 detailing a bout at the Royal Albert Hall in which Tommy was the main billing, and guess who else is further down the bill? Charlie, Ron and Reggie Kray.

The students having moved on, I sit and have a chat with Tom. He only retired 18 months ago, and says it’s hard leaving something he loves so much, so he does these tours. “I’m from Scotland right, but I think London, and round here especially, is the best place in the world”. Like the owner of Kentas, Tom too tells me of a certain loss of jour de vivre within the market; how it used to be a community full of characters. “I used to nick ‘em sure, but they were great guys”. There used to be barrowing running competitions and carcass carrying races between the porters too. “Every Christmas we’d get a barrow full of toys for this kids at St Barts, Homerton and the London hospital” Tom tells me.

He also tells tale of one porter who was, despite a love of the booze, a good singer. “The Queen mother was coming to visit and I wanted them [the traders and porters] on their best behaviour. Well after she’s out of the car this chap rushes forward, drops onto one knee and starts to sing ‘If you were the only girl in the world and I were the only boy’. It brought a tear to her eye I believe.” He says. “The Queen Mother came here many times, she new when the people here spoke about things, they were telling the truth”. Indeed she was made a horary freeman of the company of Butchers, and took a great interest in them.

We then look at a supplement published by the Meat Trades Journal in 1968 for the centenary of the market. It’s full of history, but also Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ and a belief in the future. These were times when science and farming were going to feed the world, where communication and commerce were near instant and global. What caught my eye is this image in a section about the future of the market. ‘Advance methods of selling may include phone-vision during which the seller will be able to show his meat in perfect colour’. Next to it an image straight out of Thunderbirds, ‘Smithfield may one day be on the ground floor of a multiple storey building with office and even flats above it’ and finally ‘no method has yet been discovered to move quantities of meat mechanically, but this problem will be solved.’ At least the last one came true.  The future Smithfield actually got was courtesy of Thomas Bennett, who designed a new poultry hall after Horace Jones’ 19th Century original burnt down in 1958. Other modernist roofing and adornments were added, the result not so much being a ‘carbuncle on the face of an old friend’ as repeatedly hitting said friend in the teeth with a breezeblock. Later additions glass and steel additions in the 90s are now too looking jaded and worn, making Smithfield look a mess. The fish market is abandoned, and some of the stalls in the poultry hall are boarded up and empty.

Smithfield

Could this space be put to use?

And yet, if you close your eyes and imagine you can get a sense of what this place was and what it can be again. What Smithfield needs I feel is restoration not development, Even the modernist additions are getting on for 50 years old now too, well on the way to becoming historical and, like them or not, are part of the history of the place. Smithfield is one of the few markets left in London in its original Victorian location.  Look at Borough market, you can hardly move there at weekends, and yet here across town stalls are boarded up and empty.

We’ve had a huge resurgence in produce and provenance over the past 15 years. The Smithfield site restored to it’s former glory could be a dream location for food fans, diners, catering students and businesses. Just across the street from the market is St John, Hix Oyster & Chop House, Smiths of Smithfield owned by John Torode, Comptoir Gascon and many others, all of whom are trading on the location and yet are thoroughly contemporary in outlook and service. What if the big names behind those eateries got together with the traders and the powers that be, and came up with a plan that promoted both history and heritage hand in hand with produce and provenance the area?  Could Smithfield once again be, as Daniel Defoe described in 1726 “without question, the greatest in the world”.

Epilogue

Smithfield

Not the best fry up in the world

Leaving the market at 8:30am, hungry and swimming against the tide of office workers, I sought to canvassed opinion on where to go for a breakfast. Smith’s of Smithfield seemed to be doing a roaring trade with plenty of suits chowing down, and there’s always the Cock Tavern in the market itself. But their was something sinister about their ‘special’ of a fish finger sandwich (in the middle of a meat market!) that put me off. I took the advice of one of the porters and headed for the Hope and Sirloin. The sign on the door said breakfasts were available upstairs, but after getting up there and finding no one I came back down. The guy behind the bar said I could order and eat downstairs, so I ordered a full English and customary pint of Guinness and waited. 10 minutes later the chef himself brings me out a fry up poorly piled together on a oval plate no bigger than 8” across. The beans were watery, the egg snotty in the middle and the kidney bloody. In its defence the sausages were good, as was the black pudding, but the liver was tough as old boots. It then took five minutes to find a clean knife and folk (followed by a ‘sorry mate’), and once I set to I felt less like a diner and more like a watch maker taking apart a pocket watch. There was so little room on the plate for any cutting of it’s contents I ended up spilling beans over the edge of the plate. Add to this the fact that I had to ask for the toast that was meant to accompany it, (followed by another ‘sorry mate’) and the fact that they were playing The Stones’ ‘Biggest Mistake of my Life’ and you can see where this is all going. As I left I read the board outside to the bottom, potato spelt with an e says it all. Still, you live, eat and learn.

Smithfield

Spot the typo

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2 Responses to “A tour around Smithfield”


  1. 1 Mary-Rose May 19, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    I’ve worked within spitting distance of the market for the last 8 months now and never knew the public could go into it. I just get my meat from the butchers that’s open just off it.

    Still find it funny to see the city girls tottering around on heels trying to avoid the blood being blasted with water by the cleaners.

  2. 2 Katie Smith November 25, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Hello

    Thanks for this very good write up. I’m trying to find a tour of Smithfield to give my boyfriend for his birthday (or alternatively a taster course in butchery) but I’m having no luck. Do you know how I could get in touch with Tom Hunter or other organised tours?

    Thanks

    Katie


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