Eating arrangements, like much else in my childhood, were very controlled not to say regimented, therefore delicious Sunday roasts and, for a short period, grilled sausages, were a welcome relief. Sunday lunch and the atmosphere were dominated by the main course, which might be roast chicken with bread sauce, a shoulder of pork with crackling and apple sauce, a leg of lamb and mint sauce or, on special occasions, a rolled rib of beef with its own particularly delicious gravy. The weekly menus were written by my mother and pinned up on the kitchen notice board a week in advance, so I could look forward to the Sunday roast with added precision.
From the age of about six, each Saturday I would walk the mile to “Ripley’s the Butcher” to collect next day’s main course. I loved the smells of the shop, the feel of the sawdust underfoot and the sight of the meat hanging in the window. I was mesmerised by the skill of Mr Ripley as he chopped through joints or, with his ever-sharpened knife, cut through flesh. The blood stains on Mr Ripley’s apron did seem wrong, but I forgave him that – he was one of my heroes, and one who would later help me recover from serious illness.
When I was eight, I developed a limp associated with wasting and weakness of the muscles of my right calf. It was due to polio so there were real concerns that it might spread and affect my breathing. In fact, it stayed put, and my parents were told that if exercised, eventually my leg would regain its full strength.
As a child I loved football and sausages in equal measure and to encourage me to exercise, Mr Ripley would award me a sausage for each goal scored. Whenever I scored I would go to see my hero Mr Ripley on my way home from school to tell him of my successes – and to claim my prize. It was not until thirty years later that I learned that the scheme had been secretly hatched and paid for by my mother and not done purely out of kindness. The sausage arrangement did more than encourage me to exercise, it also gave me secret pleasure as my sausages were the only food that I chose by myself, and that were allowed to be served outside the week’s strict menu list.
My love for butchers has remained, and when we need meat for special occasions, I buy it from a renowned butcher four miles up the road. Several years ago, I was invited to go to Smithfield market with one of the owners. Though that arrangement never materialised, just before Christmas I went to market with another member of staff – the celebrated Nick [see Heart of gold, 11 February 2016].
My taxi delivered me to the front of Macken Brothers just in time for our 4.00am start. As we we were about to leave, Nick rushed back inside the shop to pick up an essential package he had forgotten. For much of our journey into the centre of London the streets were dark, empty and unfamiliar and then, suddenly, we arrived. The 800-year old, night-time market was much as one might imagine. Bright lights shone out from the market buildings, rows of white refrigerated delivery vans were parked along the surrounding kerbs and on the pavements and men were scurrying in all directions moving pallets of meat. Nick’s essential package turned out to contain a butcher’s white coat. Wearing it allowed me to go with him anywhere; it would serve, he said, as my badge of office. I was able to follow Nick into the depths of the market, areas otherwise forbidden to the general public.
Our job was to collect the large cuts of meat from a variety of specialist meat traders, and to get them back to the shop by 6.00am, in time to be cut up into saleable portions. When we arrived our van was empty; after an hour it was packed full. With its thousands of butchers, hundreds of shop-fronts and stalls, and row upon row of suspended carcasses in the background, my pre-dawn tour of Smithfield had been a real treat.
On the way home we talked. Nick loves being in the butchery trade about which he bubbled excitedly. He told me of the history of butchers, of their importance in community life, and boasted about the skill of his work colleagues – one of whom can prepare a shoulder of lamb in eleven seconds!
He also reminded me of the old butcher’s adage, “Never buy meat from a butcher wearing a clean apron – only fresh meat bleeds.” Memories of Mr Ripley flooded back.