The Meat District

By Colman Andrews

Published on November 6, 2000

The General Market building, Smithfield, east-central London, 9 a.m. Trucks full of meat and fowl of every description, in every stage of wholeness, from every temperate continent, fresh and frozen and ''chilled'', arrived here late last night. Unloading began at midnight. At 4 a.m., a bell just outside the market rang, as it does every weekday, to signal the official start of trading. By now, most of the deals have been struck. There is still plenty of activity, though, and many of the six hundred or so market workers—among them Smithfield's famous freelance porters, called bummarees for reasons no one remembers—are still at their jobs.

Old-timers say the spirit of the old market is gone—the salty language, the cheeky patter, the bonhomie. Maybe so, but this morning, the General Market seems alive with an unmistakably earthy, primal feeling. Along the broad, brightly lit aisles of old stalls, where almost everyone wears a bloodstained white coat and some sort of headgear, ivory-hued animal carcasses hang from gleaming metal hooks; heroic beef hearts glisten on tables; ducks are garlanded like ancient talismans along the front of one stall; mold-crusted hams, like archeological relics, are lined up at another. The air smells of blood and fat, and buzzes with patter, much of it in clipped Cockney accents, some of it still salty enough.

This is a fragment of real London—lively, mercantile, unpretentious, intimately (and literally) linked to a storied past. And by the middle of this year, it will have disappeared forever.

The animals on the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom are a unicorn and a lion rampant, but the real heraldic animal of Britain might well be the cow—the yielder of beef. Domestication of cattle began here as early as the Neolithic era, and by the 17th century, an agricultural pattern had developed: Beef cows were raised in the vast pasturelands of the north and west, fattened in southeastern England on grass and turnips, then driven into London for slaughter and sale. By the mid-1700s, the average Londoner was eating half a pound of meat per day—more than twice as much as the average Parisian. Visiting London, Count Cosimo of Tuscany gave Britain's Yeomen of the Guard their nickname when he noted that they were ''great eaters of beef, of which a very large ration is given them daily at the court, and they might be called 'Beef-eaters'''. The modern British attitude towards beef is neatly summarized in the 1945 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which states unequivocally that the meat ''contains the highest form of protein for human consumption, in the most palatable, stimulating and digestible form''. Beef was the Englishman's meat—and his birthright.

Then came ''mad cow disease'', or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. BSE, which kills cattle by attacking their central nervous systems, was first found in Britain in 1986, and by 1993 had become an epidemic. Then, on March 20, 1996, the British government announced that BSE was probably linked to its equally lethal human equivalent, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Panic ensued: McDonald's switched from British to Dutch meat patties in its UK restaurants; British Airways took English beef off its menus; and France's L'Oreal SA even announced a recall of cosmetics made with beef tissue. ''British beef is being treated like a dangerous drug across international borders,'' reported Reuters. ''Britain…brought steaming steak and kidney pies to the world. Now British beef has become the pariah of the international dinner table.''

Smithfield has been synonymous with beef in Britain—with meat in general—for more than a century, but its origins are far older. A ''smooth field''—a grassy plain outside London's city walls—Smithfield was a burial ground in Roman times and later the site of a public gallows. Religious martyrs were burned at the stake nearby, close to one of London's oldest hospitals and its oldest parish church, both named for St. Bartholomew—as was the notorious cloth fair held here annually for more than seven hundred years. There was an animal market at Smithfield by at least the 12th century, when a clerk to Thomas a Becket reported the sale here of horses and of ''…long-flanked swine, cows with swollen udders, and woolly flocks and bodies huge of kine [cattle]''. Smithfield later degenerated into one of London's seediest, seamiest quarters, a hotbed of the colorfully sordid vice so vividly depicted by Smithfield-born painter and engraver William Hogarth.

In 1855, the cloth fair was suppressed for debauchery, and the animal market was moved to suburban Islington; 13 years later, an indoor meat market opened on the site, occupying two ornately handsome Victorian pavilions designed by Sir Horace Jones, London's city architect. Today, Smithfield—officially called the London Central Markets at Smithfield—consists of four structures running between Farringdon Street and Lindsey Street and between Charterhouse Street and West Smithfield/Long Lane. Besides the historic Jones-designed East and West Markets, there are the General Market (opened in 1879) and the Poultry Market (built in 1873, destroyed by fire in 1958, and rebuilt—in Sixties-modern style—in 1963).

Recent years have not been kind to Smithfield. The rise of supermarkets (which buy directly from slaughterhouses and account for almost 70 percent of all the meat now sold in Britain) and the decentralization of London have robbed the market of much business. ''The trend is downwards,'' admits John Mann, whose official title is The Clerk and Superintendent, London Central Markets, and who runs Smithfield today. ''There were originally 162 tenancies in the market, and we'll end up with only about 50.''

The panic over BSE (now subsided, though a European Community ban on British beef persists) didn't help Smithfield—nor did recent concerns about E. coli and contamination, or the increasingly vocal anti-meat efforts of animal rights groups and militant vegetarians. Reporters have toured the market with smiles and interested questions, says Mann, then written pieces denouncing its perceived barbarism. And when he arranged for a radio program to give away a £50 ($85) gift certificate for Smithfield meat, Mann was startled to hear the host tell the winner, on the air, ''I hope it kills you!''

Other venerable London markets, like Billingsgate for fish and Spitalfields for fruit and vegetables, have relocated to the city's edge; Covent Garden has become a sort of British Ghirardelli Square. Smithfield seemed destined for a similar fate. Economic decline aside, there was growing concern about its hygiene and security standards, especially in the face of tough new European Union standards. But the merchants who remained at Smithfield resisted closing down or moving. Besides, notes Mann, ''The Corporation of London has a statutory duty to maintain a market here unless we're relieved of it by an Act of Parliament.''

In 1992, then, instead of closing it, the city undertook a £70 million ($118 million) redevelopment of the East and West Markets. In July 1996, the former opened, with its original ironwork repainted (in colors including viridian, magenta, and blue-violet—all of them previously used at the market) and its gray Portland stone and red Kentish brick exterior supplemented by reinforced glass and stainless steel. More importantly, the interior of the East Market has been transformed: Meat is unloaded into a sealed entryway and placed on moving hooks instead of being lugged in by hand; stalls are no longer informal shop fronts, but slick refrigerated chambers, clean as hospital rooms. The air smells faintly of disinfectant. The aisles are eerily quiet. The West Market is being given the same treatment. When it is finished this summer, merchants now in the General Market will move there. The European Union will be satisfied, consumers will have their fears assuaged, and the spirit of the old market will be a memory.

The ironic thing about Smithfield's transformation is that it comes just as the market's neighborhood is undergoing a renaissance. Markets imply—demand—places to eat and drink, and those places tend to reflect the nature of the markets they serve. The pubs of Smithfield have been famed for centuries for their raffish working-class atmosphere and their basic, hearty fare—and for special licensing laws that allow alcohol to be served to market workers as early as 4:30 a.m. Today, these pubs are attracting a broader clientele, stylish new restaurants are flourishing, and hip shops are opening right and left. Smithfield is a bit the way Paris's Bastille area was five years ago—a formerly neglected part of the city in the process of becoming the place to be.

The Cock Tavern, now located beneath the Poultry Market, has been a Smithfield institution for 160 years. Businessmen from London's nearby financial district come here for lunch to eat such ancient London meat-district specialties as sirloin steak mexicaine and rump steak teriyaki, while about half the breakfast business still comes from the market workers. Guinness stout seems to be the most popular morning fare among these Smithfield stalwarts, but the menu does offer various combinations of sausage, bacon, kidneys, black pudding (blood sausage), bubble-and-squeak (potatoes and cabbage fried together), baked beans, eggs, fried potatoes, grilled tomatoes, and grilled mushrooms.

Another old Smithfield pub is The Hope, where a serious crowd of market workers gathers downstairs—while upstairs, at the cozy Sir Loin Restaurant (under different ownership), a more genteel clientele drinks champagne as well as Guinness and samples more refined interpretations of traditional market pub fare—like duck and chicken liver pate or Dutch calf's liver with bacon and onions. Refined isn't quite the word, though, for the Sir Loin's heroic mixed grill (available with 24 hours' notice), overflowing with the bounty of Smithfield—steak, bacon, sausages, kidney, liver, lamb cutlets, and chicken, plus mushy peas, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, chips (french fries), and a couple of fried eggs on top. The whole thing costs about $25 and weighs five pounds. ''Two pounds of that,'' says proprietress Christine Twilley proudly, ''are chips.''

''Having Smithfield just across the way does give rise to a very particular kind of atmosphere,'' says Fergus Henderson, chef and co-owner of St. John, one of London's most confident and original newer restaurants. ''I think we benefit from being a part of the general life a market can bring to a neighborhood—the pubs being open in the morning, the workingmen drinking and eating, just the proximity to someplace so ancient and important.'' Indeed, it's hard to imagine St. John working anywhere else in London quite as well as it does within Smithfield's orbit. It betrays the same primal simplicity, both in design and in the uncompromising starkness with which it presents a truly Smithfieldian variety of animal parts, including marrow bones, pigs' tails, and duck necks. It occupies a former smokehouse associated with the market. ''When we found this space about three years ago,'' says Henderson, ''it was all rubble and smoke. It was irresistible.'' Today, it's clean and spare—a kind of 19th-century high tech, with whitewashed brick walls, expansive skylights, and accents of ironwork and old wood. (It is somehow not surprising to learn that Henderson studied architecture.)

The menu at St. John is a model of verbal economy: Asparagus. Whelks. Ham. Grilled dover sole. Squab and broad beans. Summer pudding. Pear fool. The food is sometimes equally simple (gulls' eggs with celery salt, perfect radishes with just butter and sea salt), and sometimes slightly more elaborate—like deep-fried ling cod with aioli or a subtle duck neck ter-rine inset with gizzards and brandy-soaked prunes. There is beef, of course—slabs of roast Angus sirloin with horseradish, upright marrow bones with crisp bits of meat still clinging to them—but also pork aplenty. Henderson buys some meat at Smithfield, but the pork—from a breed of pig called the Gloucestershire Old Spot—comes directly from a farm near London. His smoked Old Spot chop is in effect a back bacon—similar to what we'd call Canadian bacon—loin with the rib bone still attached. It's salty, meaty, and attractively chewy. More daunting is a presentation of long, curly pigs' tails, braised, then coated with English mustard and bread crumbs and roasted. The meat is improbably sweet and satisfying. Still another porcine dish, slices of blood cake (blood sausage in loaf form), like some dark, mysterious terrine, topped with a fried egg, suggests a riff on those robust market pub breakfasts.

''I do have leanings towards celebrating indigenous food,'' says Henderson. ''It seems strange to me that 'modern British food' means using ingredients from all over the world and cooking them here. I'm not sure I see the point. Nor do I see the point of the Olde Worlde sticky taffy school of revival cooking. We're trying to glide through the middle with a sense of good food. Some things might sound daunting, but they're not meant to be. We do serve organ meats, but often when people try them, they discover they quite like them. And anyway, that seems like the sort of thing one ought to serve at Smithfield.''

Continue to Next Story

Want more SAVEUR?

Get our favorite recipes, stories, and more delivered to your inbox.