Tom Sutcliffe ponders the French/English divide in household matters
On my kitchen noticeboard there’s a lovely old butcher’s card, with a red embossed head of an Aberdeen Angus at the top between the phone number Battersea 5191 and ‘Established 1889’. H.G. Dove was the best butcher around in Northcote Road SW11 when in 1974 we moved into our first house on Gorst Road just off Wandsworth Common (price £17,000, mortgage £12,000). The card said, ‘Purveyor of English and Scotch Meat Only’, underneath that, ‘CHOICE COUNTRY PORK’, and lower down, ‘Specially Noted for Home-Made Sausages’ and, ‘Pork 1/6 per lb Beef 8d’. The prices have been crossed out with a stroke in pale blue ink. They certainly did not apply when we made our first purchases there in 1974. I can remember buying my first shoulder of lamb in Shepherds Bush in 1964 for about 1/8, and beer in the Westgate opposite Magdalen when I was an undergrad in 1960 was 8d a pint. The butcher’s cat in Dove’s shop in 1974 was one of the largest I have ever seen. It presided over the establishment on a shelf just above the desk where Mrs Dove sat and took one’s money. Every so often it lumbered down to ground level and cleaned up any scraps that had fallen into the sawdust.
Almost twenty years later, I was in Lyons with my wife Meredith, reporting for the Guardian on the opening of the new predominantly black opera-house there; this was during the régime of Mayor Michel Noir, who was later given an 18-month suspended sentence for corruption and banned from holding office for five years. We went on to visit Antoinette Chatin (mother of Luc, with whom I had done an exchange learning French in 1957 at their house in Cannes, long since sold to developers). M. Chatin was an engineer whose head office was in Nice, but Madane kept the key to the booze cupboard in their huge Cannes house, built in the 1860s by an Englishman, and decorated with roses and thistles and leeks in the woodwork.
By the 1990s Mme Chatin was alone in her wonderful 17th-century flat on the Quai de Serbie in Lyons above the Rhône with its beautiful inlaid wooden floors, slightly creaking, though she still had with her the same cook/housekeeper as had run the establishment in Cannes when I was there. We were given tea, with incredibly delicious savouries and beautiful cakes and chocolate inventions. And to finish, she ceremoniously – just before we sat down and started – plonked a bottle of whisky in the middle of the table, suggesting we might need something ‘un peu plus fort’, as a pick-you-up at the end. She had invited a cousin who spoke some English to come and share the tea with us, and when the talk veered on to the fame and distinction of Lyons’ great eating places, run by such as Paul Bocuse, she told us with an air of finality, ‘Mais il n’y a pas de mères’. The institutional character of restaurants in Lyon had depended on mothers presiding over more than just payment at raised desks near the entrance, but whose eagle eyes were noticing if diners were happy and waiters attending.
At Dove’s butcher’s shop Mrs Dove’s desk was removed after she and old Dove retired and handed over the family business to Bob, their only son, who was apprenticed with another older learning butcher when we had first shopped there. The old man was ironic more than jovial. When I purchased my first oxtail from him he quipped, ‘Last over the gate.’ And when I asked him if there were any lambs’ brains in stock, he replied, ‘If I had any brains I wouldn’t be doing this.’ But in fact it was an excellent and wonderful well-run business in a street with about four other butchers in the 1970s – and Dove was very decently profitable, I am sure, as it remained until a couple of Saturdays before this Easter. Bob Dove the son married, and the business thrived. But times had changed. The French care about their meat, so butchers are still very much in business – despite French supermarkets being bigger than ours, and well-established out of town. Despite meat counters in Tesco and Waitrose, the bulk of meat sales in England are ready-packed and off the shelves. Packed meat in Lidl and Aldi can be excellent quality and well-priced; real butchers cost more for better meat and involve older shops with queues. Shopping for food in markets is an adventure, and the partly-visual pleasure costs you. Bob and his wife went into pies and a wider range: not just meat and eggs. The business thrived, but Bob resented the fact that customers who clearly appreciated his expensive meat were also getting meat elsewhere. People’s ways of shopping had changed. Delivery was standard in town and country when I was a boy in the late 1940s and 1950s; now it was coming back with online ordering and large vans, not butchers’ boys on bikes.
In the 1970s Harrod’s meat counter had the cheapest quality streaky rashers you could find: no added water then. Dove went on listing useful cheap cuts such as chump ends: the last of the loin chops on the lamb carcass that could not really be made to look proper because they were just a chunky triangle of flesh on an awkward bit of bone – perfect for best hotpots. Dove lamb shoulders, slow-cooked to reduce fat, were as sweet as you could get. His beef rib on the bone was a tastier bet than smarter rolled sirloin. And what about the boned shoulder of veal waiting to be stuffed? A proper butcher wants every bit of carcass usable. With industrial packing and cutting now, difficult bits end up in low-grade sausages full of bread, or in pet food.
Bob was downright unfriendly to people who did not come in that often, and would comment on how long it was since he’d last seen you, even if (as we had) you’d moved away and were making a special effort to come and get meat from him. Yes, we often bought at our local Sainsbury’s. We went to Dove for game but not for chickens, even though his were excellent. He never went organic – had his ideal top-grade contacts at Smithfield, but did not see that customers were wanting to know what exactly was being injected into the live animals. His bronze turkeys and geese at Christmas were very dear, but not organic. Cooked superbly and obviously sourced ideally – but not that extra step. The good days had passed, and profits were not what they used to be. Moreover, he had nobody coming along to take over the business when he retired. And it just pained him how things had changed. One day he said to me, buying best steak for a treat, ‘Yep, I have sold it to developers – and I am closing down.’ An old friend, that shop, has died. I will not find any equivalent in the south suburbs.
Modern change is not all bad news. We are beginning to follow the French demand for better bread in London. The French want their daily bread fresh and will go and get it – as long as it’s nearby. Being a boulanger means seriously early rising for you as well as for the bread. It’s harder now in France to find people with that vocation, but in that culture they are still there. In Streatham the local petrol station gets ready-made croissants and pains au chocolat to bake, which I swear are as good as what you find in France. Plus we have the West Norwood branch of Blackbird Bakery which sells sourdough both brown and white, and a sublime spelt loaf and multigrain etc. in large sizes for £3.50 a loaf. You can get good coffee there too, and sandwiches etc. The best cakes for miles around include a fabulous carrot cake, lemon poppyseed, apple cake, banana and date cake. The baker has cut out the sublime lemon polenta he used to do, and has now abandoned the superb ginger cake which was a regular buy at £8.50. Change and decay. But his Simnel cakes for Easter sold out at £16 a time. And they are not just sponge – they are the cakes my mum and grandmother made. Of course, almonds and preserved fruit are no longer so cheap, but why should Dundee cake have become a seasonal Christmas thing – when it used to be an all-year-round staple?