Early one Winter’s morning a couple of weeks back I set off to Smithfields Meat Market in search of pork belly with which to make Charcutepalooza Amateur Challenge Number Two: Bacon.
Smithfields (a corruption of “smoothfield”), was described way back in 1174 by then clerk William Fitzstephen as “a smooth field where every Friday there is a celebrated rendezvous of fine horses to be sold, and in another quarter are placed vendibles of the peasant, swine with their deep flanks and cows and oxen of immense bulk.”
A meat market of sorts has been operating on the site since the 10th C, but official status was only granted in 1327 by King Edward III through a royal charter. Just 22 years earlier William Wallace (aka Braveheart, aka Mel Gibson) was hung, drawn and quartered there in 1305 – but he is just one of many hundreds of other martyrs and revolutionaries who suffered a similar fate on that spot. A place of slaughter for both humans and animals!
Digging through the rich seam of Victorian literature on Smithfield’s has yielded many nuggets of information, all of which seem universal in their condemnation of the area as a crime-ridden cess pit. I thought I would share with you a few of my favourite extracts:
Charles Dickens wrote in Oliver Twist (1838) “It was market morning. The ground was covered nearly ankle deep with filth and mire; and a thick steam perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog.” He goes on to describe how the place is populated with “thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade…mingled together in a dense mass” rendering the place a “stunning and bewildering scene which quite confused the senses”
Things hadn’t changed much 15 years later when Max Schlesinger wrote his ‘Saunterings in and about London’. He described Smithfield as being “infested not only with fierce and savage cattle, but also with the still fiercer and more savage tribes of drivers and butchers.”
But my favourite is Dr Andrew Wynter, whose literary talents I would give anything to possess. I shall include just a few lines from his scathing review of the market which, (according to him was ‘unfortunately spared’ by the Great Fire of London) appeared in the ‘The London Commissariat’, Quarterly Review, No. cxc, vol. xcv 1854.
“The whole space comprising just six acres… surrounded with slaughter-houses, triperies, bone-boiling houses, gut-scraperies, etc… The best time to see this enormous aggregation of edible quadrupeds … is early in the morning – say at one or two o’clock of the ‘great day’, as the last market before Christmas-day is called.”
Visiting the market on such a crowded day “If the stranger can manage to raise himself a few feet above the general level, he sees before him…by the dim light of hundreds of torches, a writhing party-coloured mass, surmounted by twisting horns… which run along the whole length of the open space. In another quarter, the moving torches reveal to him, now and then through the misty light, a couple of acres of living wool, or roods of pigs’ skins.
The ‘universal ferment among the beasts’ is caused by the drover ‘forcing the cattle into the smallest possible compass… the sheep, squeezed into hurdles like figs into a drum, lie down upon each other, and ‘make no sign’; the pigs, on the other hand, cry out before they are hurt.
This scene, which has more the appearance of a hideous nightmare than a weekly exhibition in a civilized country, is accompanied by the barking of dogs, the bellowing of cattle, the cursing of men, and the dull blow of sticks …”
Well, although some things have certainly changed in the intervening years, that description certainly serves to remind us that animal welfare is definitely not a new problem! Of course, gone are the heaving, bleating, steaming livestock, and the only trace of debauchery is the shouty gaggle of night-clubbers stumbling past the chip shop on their way home from a night on the tiles. One of these clubs – Fabric – used to function as cold store.
A Victorian building now stands on the ancient market site, imposing itself on the area with it’s distinctive wrought ironwork painted in vivid colours. When the building was officially opened in 1868 by the Lord Mayor of London a grand banquet was held, where over 1000 guests feasted on “boars’ heads and barons of beef” and toasted “tolls to the Corporation, cheap meat for the people and fair profits to salesmen.”
Despite the excitement drummed up in my imagination by all this fabulous and visceral history, my visits to Smithfields have been tainted by the feeling that somehow, something has been lost along the way. It could be down to the 3am start, lack of sleep, or the overbearing fluorescent lighting. But I think it is more than that. The official Smithfields website, rather than extolling the qualities of fanastic meat, proudly proclaims its EU certification and aproval, hygiene regulations and ability to adapt to ‘food fashions’.
While I’m certainly not advocating a return to ankle deep mire nor continued appalling treatment of the livestock, I do feel that we’ve missed a trick. Smithfields is a vibrant place, but I am sure that in its current state it is fulfilling just a shadow of its potential. I find it sad that health and safety, and fashion are being trumpeted above the actual product being sold…
Perhaps a rant against the ethics of the meat and industrial farming are best left for another day, but here is one example of what I mean: Before Christmas I went there to buy beef and upon inquiring after a nice piece of well hung meat I was met with a snigger. The chortle was not directed at the double entendre of my request, rather at my ridiculous expectations. ‘You’ll be lucky to find any of that round here’ Why? Of all places surely the meat market should be a reliable place to find dry-aged, hung meat of quality?
Anyway, I flapped through the heavy plastic sheeting covering the doorway and walked down the long aisles past the chilled steel cabinets of lamb, pork, beef and poultry. Finally I sidled up to a glass cabinet and motioned to an employee of Absalom & Tribe who came over to serve me. The transaction was brief. He went into the butchery area at the back and soon returned with a hefty chunk of meat. I paid up and left, popping into a local caff for coffee before heading off for the bus stop, my 7kg of pork belly safely hidden from the view of the passengers and driver of the #63 bus to Elephant and Castle by several layers of plastic wrapping.
What I have loved most about taking part in this challenge is the many different rabbit trails I have followed as a result. I love learning new things, and I have already learned so much just in this first challenge.
This post could have been about any number of things I learned about: The food I cooked, how I dealt with butchering the belly (nipples included). I could have talked about cures and salt, spices and recipes. Hanging time. Humidity, bacteria.
But in the end it seemed to me that there was only one thing to talk about: the city in which I live. It can be (and often is) a noisy, smelly, over crowded, cold, grey, wet, and frankly miserable place to live. But, I hope you can share with me in the wonder of finding so much inspiration, by tugging at just one tiny thread of the amazing historical fabric of this city. Despite it drawbacks (which in February are considerable), it is my London.
In one final reckless act of celebration, and in keeping with the English theme I will share with you the Leek Pie recipe that I made from Jane Grigson’s ‘English Food’. Although she conceded the addition of onion and flour is French, she writes “no one can deny that leeks are a thoroughly English dish”
This is my slightly adapted version.
Shortcrust Pastry (I made it using lard rendered from my Pork Belly trimmings)
butter/olive oil for frying
1 onion finely diced
500g leeks trimmed and sliced
250g bacon lardons
150g Jersey cream
1 teaspoon flour
Fry the bacon lardons til browned and crispy
Pour off the excess fat, add a little butter or olive oil and add the onion to the frying pan, adding leeks when the onions are soft and golden.
Cook slowly until leeks are reduced to a soft mass
beat the flour into the cream and add once the leek mixture is cooked and has cooled.
Pour this mixture into a tart tin lined with the pastry, making a hole for the steam to escape.
I love this next bit – Jane directs us, in a very English way to “Decorate in a restrained manner” (I hope she would approve of my simple slits in the pie-crust).
Bake at 220C for about 15 minutes, then reduces the heat to 180 and bake for a further 20-30 minutes.
I can’t work out how to footnote my post, but credit must go to the following, from which I gleaned information: