butcher |ˈboŏ ch ər|nouna person whose trade is cutting up and selling meat in a shop.
Pulling away from a blinking amber traffic light and negotiating my way around a deep puddle of black water a beige estate car behind me vented its frustration aggresivley on its horn.
Kebabs, fried chiken, halal meat, a dirty chippy, boarded up pubs and vast supermarkets are all in good suply but it is clear from the weather, that my first visit to the Old Kent Road isn't going to be the romantic gastronomic quest I had in mind when I conceived, what was starting to look like foolish way to keep me cycling, eating and writing during the winter months.
But taking a right off The Old Kent Road hidden amongst lurid neon signs, chip shops and a newsagents window filled with gaudy interantional calling rates and mobile phone unblocking services the smart lettering of a butchers shop and its clean interior mades W.F Bunting stand out like a well-loved vintage car in a carpark of otherwise run down vehicles.
Cuts of pork, lamb and beef were laid neatly in the window, surrounded by a trim of verdent plastic leaves; duck breasts sat next to plump free-range chickens and a couple of brace of skinned rabbits hung in the window. Metal rails run around the shop hung with menacing looking hooks and a few smoked hams and three blushing pig's head rested on a heavy wooden table by the door, presumabley watching the traffic. The door of the shop was wedged open and inside the temperature was as icey as the street.
This may sound like any one of the fine butchers that survive in the more gentrified corners of London, or perhaps one of the traders who work amongst the moneyed clientel of Borough Market, where the traditionail 'ye olde English butcher look' means you can charge a little more for your orgainc suasages, and where performance and costume are almost as important to the customer as the product itself, but here on this side street, surrounded by local-authority tower blocks just off the Old Kent Road the scene I had walked into came as a surprise.
The two burley men going about their business inside could not have looked any more like butchers. Forget the spaced-out teenager behind the meat counter of your supermarket, more intersted in texting her mates about the impending semi final of the X factor than what beef looks like. The two broad-shouldered men that greated me in W.F Bunting were clean shaven, ruddy cheeked and thick armed. They had hands like dinner plates decorated with thick fingers and they wore white coats stained with blood and other meat juices. The heavy shodows under their kind eyes told of late nights and early mornings. These men were the real thing and I felt shy and uncomfortable. I asked them if I could take a few photos and ask a few questions. They ask what I did…
Author, writer, journolist, blogger, photogratpher – I was always told a man should have a trade and at 30 I am still not sure what I am as mumbled through an explanation, but these men were butchers. Part of a community, masters of their trade and I was jealous and slightly ashamed as they both went about their work calmly and efficiently as I chased them with my camera.
Chris was busy making 20 pounds of Cumberland sausages. The pork had been ground with some other ingredients, that he assured me are top secret, and as he turned the handle on a heavy metal machine, that looked as old as the shop, ground sausage meat squirted into the pig intestine pushed onto its wide nozzle. The thick meat-filled intestine snaked and coiled into a bucket below, as meters followed behind. The whole things was horribly close to home, but putting one last turn on the machines well worn handle, Chris started tieing the stuffed casing into tidy bunches of fours while chatting and answering my questions. Like a old lady knitting a jumper he worked without thinking while chatting to customers and answering my questions. The rythem of the work looked therputic but when I suggested this to Chris he reminded me he has had his hands submerged in minced meat and wet intestine since 4.30 am. Its close to midday and still freezing.
Mark and Chris have been working in the shop since they were children. Their father did the same and his father before him. They know all their customers by name and as the morning drifts by and customers come in and out everyone gets a few questions on their well-being before being served with their ushual or something diffrent that comes with expert advice on prepping and cooking.
"how's the little un – sleeping through yet is he?" a young mother comes and picks up some stewing beef.
"dad was thirteen when he opened a butchers shop – had nine people working under him"
Chris informs me before telling me a little history of the shop. During the Second World War the small shop supplied the meat for most of the hospitals in South London. Upstairs the top two floors still have the metal tracks where meat would have been curred, smoked and dried. And in the yard at the back there are signs that there was once a blood pit. The whole house was and is devoted to the preparation, preservation and sale of meat to the area. Today they supply restaurants all over London, as well as people who knew their father and their grandfather who pop in for 'the usual'. Chris and Mark know what they want and the gentle flow of customers that fall in and out as the morning goes by are testament to this attention to detail and the shops important role in the community. Chris is briefly interupted by an elderly customer who pops his head through the door.
"ow much is the rabbits Chris?"
inishing tieing his sausages Chris hangs them proudley from the metal hooks on the rails that run on the wall, be he doesn't stop working. Wiping his board clean and washing out the sausage machine his attentions move to pulling lumps of congealed white fat from a plastic sack of claret- coloured lambs kidneys. Leaving Chris with his kidneys I chat to his brother Mark who is busy tieing green gammon joints for boiling hams on a contoured chopping board next to the shops old till.
"Why are they green" I ask.
"Unsmoked" he replies, I guess I should have known that.
After almost two hours chatting in this shop I'm feeling the cold and that Im in the way. I say goodbye and take home eight sausages at just under £2, and a kilo of stewing lamb.
Back at home in the evening and warmth of my own kitchen I cook my suasages. Plump, full of falvor and with just enough fat they are wonderful and the natural casing crispy and brown. I eat four for my supper and turn in knowing I will have two cold for breakfast. After all I always believe the test of a good sausage is how good it is the next day.
My first journey on my unauthodox culinary pedal powered trip through of London is not going to turn out how I planned but at W.F Bunting I believe I may have found the perfect sausage. Made in my opinion in a perfect butcher shop, by a perfect English Butcher. Because as the dcitionay tells us a butcher is a person whose trade is cutting up and selling meat in a shop. At W. F Bunting they have been doing this for generations.