From time to time I get rather strange requests to review things for the blog, and this one just about takes the biscuit, or perhaps that should be ‘takes the beef’.
Nottingham University Press have been kind enough to send me a copy of “Shoulder of Mutton Field – The retail butcher’s trade in Camden“, by Des Whyman. Now I’m a big fan of the rise and fall of retail institutions – I’m on labelscar.com, which records the demise of American malls, all the time – so I opened up the book with a very open mind.
Taking its name from the scrap of land in Kentish Town where meat animals were raised in the 1700s, the book is a complete historical record of the rise and fall of the butcher’s shops, slaughterhouses and street market stalls that used to exist on just about every high street in the Borough right up until the present day. It’s filled with stories about the most colourful of characters, such as Councillor Cogan, who was variously a Special Constable, the Mayor of St Pancras, and ended his career as the President of the National Federation of Meat Traders, or the Kimbers who at one point delivered meat to Yuri Gagarin when he was staying in London as part of a world tour after his successful orbit. You can also read about the likes of the Randall brothers who had a veritable high-class ‘meat empire’, with royal appointments to Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Sutherland to their names. Throughout the book you’ll find illustrations, advertisements and photographs of the butcher’s trade – I was particularly taken with a rather gruesome photograph of a group of pig’s heads lined up outside J Rayner Limited, taken in 1926, proudly proclaiming their origins with cards with the word “English” written on them.
In the final chapter, entitled “Time and Fashion”, the book looks at the demise of butchers’ shops contrasted with the increasing influence of supermarkets. Interestingly, it speculates that the rise of gourmet cooking and its need for unusual ingredients, pigs trotters and calves feet for example, is continuing to keep some butchers shops in business, and notes that increasingly they are also diversifying into stocking delicatessen products to match their high quality meat.
If you’re an enthusiastic cook or a gourmand, I can see that this volume might sit well alongside your recipe books and restaurant guides, and if you actually live in the environs of Camden you might want to seek out one of the remaining butchers in the area next time you’re considering putting meat on the table for dinner. You can pick up a copy of this interesting record of retail history online here.