We are all familiar with the concept of our ancient ancestors discovering fire for the very first time. After closing your eyes, you can almost picture the scene. A heavy-browed brute witnessing a tree bursting into flame after been struck by lightning, or accidentally striking a flint and setting alight to some dry grass. Finally, humankind discovers the magic of fire and all that it encompasses - warmth, light and the ability to cook things. It’s a great leap forward. Meat for instance, does not have to be eaten raw anymore. Roasting or grilling must come as sweet relief!
The interesting thing though, is evidence that butchery may have also played a key part in our evolution. The development of our ability to break down animals after hunting them down, could almost be as important, as finding that bright spark.
In the UK, the biggest sign that points towards this bold statement was the discovery of elephant remains at Ebbsfleet, in Kent; discovered during the construction of the HS1 rail link, in 2003. Set amongst the scattered bones, archaeologists found a vast array of sharp flint tools and artefacts, that suggested some sort of butchery must have taken place. Further still, a lot of the bones had cut marks that are consistent with techniques seen today. And this is from a site that is estimated to be over 420,000 years old.
Plenty of other areas have been found to support this idea and it is compelling that remains show that prehistoric tastes were varied and diverse. Up until 100,000 years ago, much of Europe’s terrain was similar to the plains of central Africa and as such, hippopotamus, rhinoceros and lion all seem to have been big features on the menu. Along with smaller creatures such as rabbit, vole and shrew.
As well the usual of collection of stone tools, it is also not uncommon for serrated bones, heavy rocks and petrified wood to be found either. Which has lead experts to surmise that nothing was wasted at these butchery ‘centres’. Particularly with regards to the larger animals. After stripping away the most prized cuts, skulls would have been smashed open to get to the brain, tongues were freed from jaws, levered off with heavy wooden branches and invaluable hides were sawn off; to provide clothing, protection and shelter.
Food historian, Annie Gray backs up this assertion of making the most of the hunt by saying that ‘Even bones where splintered in half, to get access to the prized marrow, as it was an essential source of energy.’
The Romans have been credited with introducing many things to this country. Such as straight roads, plumbing and our calendar. But they were also responsible for delivering concepts of fast food, advertising on billboards and the distribution of fine wine. Given the food led angle then, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that Roman butchers were also in demand, as they brought with them a new set of skills and approaches to meat.
Prior to this, slaughter of animals was still very much tied to ceremony and rites of passage, with distribution of meat sent out to the community, to be smoked or salted for the long haul ahead. But with the burgeoning development of towns and increasing populations moving in from the countryside, there was a significant shift toward wholesale procurement, whole carcass butchery and secondary, small scale processing to meet demand. Butchery suddenly became commercial and the butcher’s shop was born. Except it probably resembled nothing more than a cart, with various joints and parts hanging haphazardly about the place.
Again, there was an emphasis that nothing was wasted but according to the archaeological and historical record, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that distribution was undertaken by various specialists. So, in other words, alongside regular meat merchants, you would have your butcher who dealt specifically with heads and hooves. Some butchers would sell nothing but bone marrow, others just offal. And going on from there, came the rise of the horn butcher; who may well have sold horns and horns only. Which doesn’t sound like much of a butcher, but there you go.
Probably the most significant and recognisable feature of Roman butchery though, is the rise of the cleaver and chopping block. Because speed had become a central factor, chopping out joints and simply slicing with a curved cleaver was very much the dominant method. There just wasn’t the time for intricate knife work and as such, Roman butchers had to be very accurate with their swinging actions. There is no mention of any severed finger bones being found in the record of any Roman sites, so we can only assume that they were very skilled indeed.
Come the onset of the Middle Ages, butchery as a trade and institution, again made a step forwards. But in some respects, it also took several steps back.
According to Annie Grey ‘Medieval butchers were headed by a guild (the butcher’s guild still exists) and regulated by assizes, copies of which still exist. Selling poor quality meat, or falsifying weights, was punishable.’ And the penalty really was severe. Butchers found selling rotten meat would be dragged through the streets, covered in excrement, made to drink sour beer and slammed in the stocks. So, thank goodness that some sort of regulation existed back then.
However, a feudal system meant that meat was largely procured for nobility and those with wealth. If you were a peasant, well it was largely pottage and porridge for you. With perhaps the tiniest scrap of bacon. For those who could afford it, there was a vast amount of meat available, with a strong emphasis on game and exotic birds, such as starlings, peacocks and swans. They would eat it all.
And in London, a large majority of that was to be found at Smithfield Market; which by the late Middle Ages had become the most famous livestock market in the country. It was also the site of many executions, including that of Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt and Scottish hero, William Wallace; as played by Mel Gibson; in the historically inaccurate ‘Braveheart’. But by and large, Smithfield was a happy go lucky and lively place to be, with much cavorting going on in the surrounding streets.
In terms of the art of butchery, some of those in the trade enjoyed the same level of respect that a physician or doctor would expect, given their superior knowledge of anatomy. But, paradoxically, they were also seen as slightly shady. Given the unhygienic state of most cities and towns in the Middle Ages, the butcher’s reputation was also constantly under fire.
But Annie Grey believes that to be a touch unfair:
‘Can we put the pervading myth that medieval people disguised tainted meat with lots of spice to bed now please? Meat was very expensive, but spices were even more so - you'd never waste spices on bad meat or risk eating bad meat - medieval medicine wasn't great and really bad food poisoning could, if you were weak already, kill you.’
Although the Victorian times might be remembered for dodgy health and safety and questionable pie fillings, the 19th century saw a huge shift for the local butcher. You’re used to seeing black and white photos of menacing looking blokes and their ten-year-old assistants standing in a row in front of bloody carcases, but the reality was far less gruesome. According to Annie Gray: ‘Butchers were busier than ever as Britain urbanised rapidly, becoming the first country in the world where more people lived in towns than in the country in 1851’.
Victorians ate a lot of meat, and you could even say that we might owe the culture of nose-to-tail eating right down to them. Not one single part of the animal was wasted, with the animal divided in terms of cuts and their tenderness. The upper classes bought large feasting joints, the bigger the better, for their three meals per day, each of which were based around meat. Bones were bought to flavour soups, and less meaty and less tender cuts were sold to the poor including salted fat for nutrition. There’s even stories of blood being sold by the pint for drinking – supposedly good for combatting Tuberculosis.
Shopping at the butcher was usually done daily, thanks to the lack of refrigeration. To combat this, salt preservation was huge, and helped to keep pieces of meat fresh for longer during warmer times. Things started to change a little towards the end of the century, when beef was kept in an ‘ice safe’, with ice delivered by the rather ominous sounding ‘ice man’ who delivered huge iceberg-like blocks one his horse drawn cart.
Animals taken to the butchers’ shop were brought from around an ever-growing London, in more rural areas, and drove through the city to markets where they were slaughtered on spot and sold, and believe us the demand was high. The Victorian era was characterised by the ‘eat, drink and be merry’ attitude, with the main part of their diet based around meat consumption. Tables were stacked with feasting joints made to look gruesomely lifelike – whole rabbits, whole birds and legs of pork with trotters still attached, and game birds with the heads and legs still on. Annie notes: ‘Eating meat continued to be a mark of prestige and wealth, especially roast meat, always carried out on a spit in front of an open fire.’
The demand for the butcher was at an all-time high, leading to the establishment of the Meat Trades Journal 1868 – a publication which noted the sale and price of meat per region of the UK.
With the First and Second world war came humongous changes for the local and high street butcher. Rationing changed the way that the butcher sold their meat, as well as preservation, with butchers being given a miniscule meat-buying allowance to produce sausages, pies, and other products. Butchers fell within the ‘reserved occupations’ list (as shop assistants) of World War Two, meaning that if they were above thirty-five, they were exempt from serving, as there was still a huge demand for the butcher, still the only place from which you could buy your meat.
The end of the second world war was, unfortunately the very beginning of industrial farming as we know it, with the UK government introducing the Agriculture Act that promised farmers greater subsidies in return for a greater output. The aim was to reduce Britain’s reliance on imported meat, but unfortunately the act, along with the introduction of pre-packaging meat in a supermarket, led to some serious over-industrialisation. As Annie Gray says: ‘when meat finally started to become freely available once more, people demanded choice cuts and increasingly rejected, if they could afford it, offal head meats which were associated with poverty and desperation’.
The 1960s saw the beginning of the butcher’s decline and the movement of the consumer away from the high street. Before the 60s, self-service shops were a rarity, but as time went on the supermarket began to take over, and whilst there were only 10 self-service shops in the UK in 1947, by the 1960s there were several around the UK.
Supermarkets removed the need for customer’s interaction with a butcher altogether by stacking shelves with steaks, mince, portions in packs of two and four, and pricing them ready to be checked out. With the extreme ease of shopping, butchers started to see their profits dwindle and were forced to close.
Closing figures reached an all-time high when the Meat Trades Journal reported in 2008 that by the year 2000, 23 butchers’ shops around the country were closing every month. In the mid 1990s, they reported that there were 22,00 butchers, whilst only 7,100 remained in 2010. As a comparison, by 2013 there were almost 10,000 supermarket stores in the UK alone.
The outbreak of BSE near to the millennium was a huge hit to the meat industry and the butcher, with a block on overseas UK beef sales, and a limitation put on bone-in cut sales.
But, the growth of the supermarket was hit with a bit of a blow in early 2013, when it emerged that traces of horsemeat had been found within burgers at Tesco, Aldi and Lidl. There was a sudden surge of supermarkets rushing to cover their meat products with provenance in the need to win back the trust of the consumer, but the damage was already done. Over the last few years, the high street has been planning a comeback; seen by consumers as the place they can go to buy food from the people that they trust.
Butchers nowadays have to adapt to an ever-changing market to keep their customers returning thanks to celebrity chefs and an increasingly broad food scene. Influences from Europe and particularly America on the cooking scene have led to butchers changing the way they look at their meat, introducing U.S style BBQ cuts and moving away from the traditional cuts that would’ve been seen 50 years ago.
Outside of supermarkets, the butcher accounts for 1 in 9 food industry jobs, and contributes £550 million to the British economy. The local butcher is back; and this time it’s for good.