Meat ain't what it used to be

Food has become a global commodity. People can no longer name the parts of an animal. But Peter de B

My father had very distinctive hands. The fingers were thick cut, slightly fleshy, the palms wide and smooth. There was evidence of mistreatment, scars and blemishes that bore witness to his trade. He had the soft but powerful hands possessed by all master butchers; soft on account of the frequent libation of animal fats and grease, and powerful since they were constantly exercised in the daily practice of his craft. Even if they were well worn by the time he died, they remained as sensitive as a surgeon's.

In the early 1950s when he started his business, Miles and Sons, in south London, butchers were the nobility of the high street. They were proud of their craft - my father's shop was built upon a simple principle: to supply the best meat at a competitive price. A typical working day began at 3am with a drive to the central London meat market. On returning, the window was prepared: hind quarters of beef were cut up, standing roasts prepared, and shins boned for casserole meat; lambs were split lengthwise, the loins cut into chops, breasts rolled and stuffed; sides of pork were broken into roasting joints; chickens quartered and, at Christmas, turkeys boned out, stuffed and reformed. Along with offal and all manner of game, the meats were displayed on the marble slab. He would then stop the traffic, stand in the middle of the road and inspect his handiwork. In the evening, after the shop had been meticulously cleaned, he loaded the van and made his deliveries. Supper would often be eaten after 10pm.

My father was introduced to farming when, aged 17, he was adopted into my mother's family, who kept goats, three pigs, chickens and geese. The company he later founded was very much a family affair. My grandmother, mother, uncle, three brothers (two of whom took over when my father retired through ill-health) and I all helped, and his lifelong fantasy was the foundation of a retailing dynasty to rival Sainsbury's.

But economies of scale crush all competition, which shows up in the decreasing diversity of animals bred for human consumption. Over the past 20 years, more than 300 breeds of farm animals worldwide have become extinct. The foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 accelerated this process alarmingly.

The beef my father sold came from animals that had spent most of their lives grazing the lowlands of Scotland, moving from pasture to pasture through the season. Only during the harshest winter months would the cattle be moved to shelter and feed on hay or other winter feeds. He was passionate about the breeds he bought - Aberdeen Angus for rib, and the less common Dexter, which provided meat with a nutty flavour for small tenderloins. Late in life, with a couple of empty fields lying idle next to his house, he tried his hand at rearing animals. He began with chickens, producing free-range eggs, and these were a revelation to me since their size and taste were unlike any I had eaten. Lambs and cattle followed. By the time the lambs appeared I was an ageing adolescent with little time for my father's practice of feeding them out of a baby's milk bottle. Furthermore, I thought he was getting far too attached to them. Indeed, when the time came to take the lambs to slaughter, he could not see it through and had them sent to market instead.

Cattle were less lovable, but he still took them to the slaughterhouse and did all in his power to ease their way. He was very proud of the meat he sold to his best customers. He knew how these animals had been cared for, what they had been fed, and how the meat had been prepared and hung. He was connected to the entire process and felt it to be quite natural.

One day my father showed me how chickens were killed. This was how I found myself in the yard helping him fetch dinner. Chickens do not willingly give up their freedom, and the one we had in mind escaped the coop as soon as it realised our intentions. Its shrieking alerted the 80 other birds, which led to a huge commotion, with feathers flying everywhere and laying hens knocked off their perches. The old bird headed for my father's prize geranium bed, destroying it, before reaching the greenhouse. We were soon among the tomato plants. It was only a matter of time before the bird was cornered and its neck broken with a powerful twist of my father's hands. Animals, like humans, react to danger physiologically. High secretions of adrenalin immediately prior to slaughter makes for bad meat. Supper that evening tasted like shit.

Meat brought us together as a family. It had a ritual significance and we marked the seasons with it - Michaelmas goose, Christmas turkey, spring lamb - which my father believed connected us all to a long and deep cultural tradition.

The meat came from London's Smithfield Market. There has been a market there for centuries. When I first visited it as a child in the 1960s, it still felt like a Victorian trading hall. The "shops"- the areas of the trading floor allotted to different wholesalers - were minimally equipped with rails for hanging sides of pork or hindquarters of beef. Sawdust was on the ground to catch the drips from the hanging carcasses. Chickens, with head and feet still attached, grouse and pheasants were packed in boxes; rabbits and hares in their fur slung against walls. The market had its own language, "backslang", and fluency was essential for bartering and negotiations. The shops employed "cutters" to break down the large carcasses, though my father disapproved of wholesalers doing any butchery at all, since it impinged on his expertise and role in this complex system for the provision of meat. Once the item had been selected, a "bumeree porter" loaded the carcasses on to barrows and transported the meat to purchasers' waiting vans. By the 1970s, with the rise of the supermarkets, the volume of meat passing through the market was declining.

Today, the market is not much more than a food mall. It looks splendid - in the early 1990s, the City of London Corporation spent millions refurbishing the old Victorian trading halls to current EU standards. Each shop is now refrigerated. Only those wearing all white - hard hats, overalls, trousers and shoes - are allowed in to the partitioned areas where the meat hangs. Everyone else is permitted only to browse the chill cabinets at the front of each shop. These are full of vacuum-packed lumps of meat - a whole beef tenderloin or leg of pork - that have been butchered in the chilled rooms out back. The morning I was last there, I walked along the main aisle of the market behind two elderly women. They were able to buy cakes from one shop and large jars of pickled cucumbers from another.

My father's skill lay not only in driving the hardest bargain, but also in selecting the best carcasses. His eye was impeccable. He could tell a steer from a knackered dairy cow without pausing for breath; the age of the animal at slaughter was assessed from the size of sections of the carcass; the feed it had been finished on was indicated by the outer covering of fat. Buying ready-butchered, vacuum-packed meat yields rather less information, but this hardly matters since there is no longer the range of products. The bumerees and their barrows have been replaced by fork- lift trucks and the 19th-century cold store is now a nightclub. Smithfield is a thriving "foodie" destination - a deli sells four kinds of foie gras and hand-crafted French tableware. The market is now a meat boutique.

Meat these days is a global commodity. On a recent visit to my local superstore, I bought pork from the West Country (300 miles from where I live), lamb from Wales (200 miles), beef from Scotland (400 miles), chickens from Loue in France, salami from Tuscany, ostrich from the United States and venison from Ireland.

In this changing food culture, the meat industry develops "value-added meats" and "home-replacement meals" to cater to altered lifestyles. This contributes to the extinction of both knowledge and expertise. Where once my father demonstrated to his family how to carve a saddle of lamb, and discussed subtle changes in taste and texture depending on the method, today many people would be unable to locate a shoulder of lamb on the living animal; even fewer know where sweetbreads come from.

There was a butcher at 121 Kirkdale, the site of my father's shop, for nearly 200 years. The delicate Georgian ladies of Dulwich would buy their meat there, the Victorian grandees of Crystal Palace would have known the shop. Miles and Sons ceased trading in 1998. The premises are now a fast-food chicken outlet. It would have broken my father's heart.

Peter de Bolla is reader in cultural history and aesthetics at the University of Cambridge