Friday, 1 June 2012

The Butchery in Bermondsey

Nath The Butcher
at Spa Terminus, Bermondsey

A version of this article appears in The Foodie Bugle  (Winner of the Guild of Food Writers New Media of the year Award 2012)

The last railway arch in the row which houses a little enclave of artisan food businesses is rather hidden.  A raised-bed of herbs and a butcher’s block outside alerts you to what lies within.  OK, so it’s a butchery, The Butchery in fact, but Nathan Mills is no ordinary butcher.   Sourcing rare-breed, free-range animals from small farms, either direct or via the Traditional Breeds Meat Market, the emphasis is on pasture-fed native breeds.   These include White Park, Red Poll, Hereford or Dexter beef, Tamworth or Gloucester Old Spot pigs, Llanwenog lamb, hogget and mutton when in season.  Sourcing  from farmers such as Michael Bancroft in the Midlands for Dexter cattle; Sue Money-Kyrle farming Llanwenog lamb in the Wye Valley bordering Wales; and Nick Ball and Jacob Sykes of Fosse Meadows Farms in Leicestershire for free-range chickens.

The Butchery is about more than ticking the ‘careful sourcing’ boxes.  They buy whole carcasses, taking seriously the traditional practice of ‘nose-to-tail’ or whole-carcass butchery.  This means every part of the animal is valued, not just the prime cuts, for, as Fergus Henderson puts it in his seminal book ‘Nose to Tail Eating’, “… it would be disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast …”.  This commitment to respecting the animal is at the core of The Butchery.  It requires the customer, or chef, to approach the counter with an open mind.  Of course we can buy fillet and loin but rather than insisting on a Rib-Eye steak, maybe we should try a Pope’s Eye and if there’s no shin beef left opt for some Bolar (from deep within the shoulder).   

The Cold Room at
The Butchery
Being brought up in a family immersed in the art of butchery in his native Australia, Nathan has 20 years’ experience at every level of the meat trade from abattoir to counter.  This means he knows exactly how long, and under what conditions, he should age (or not) his carefully raised meats as well as all the ‘sneaky butchers cuts’ he can get from them.  Cuts you may never have heard of include Teres Major, Goose Neck, Pope’s Eye, and Bolar.  The blog page of The Butchery website explains all.

Arriving in London in 2005, Nathan’s experience includes spells at the highly respected Ginger Pig, Jamie Oliver & Adam Perry Lang’s Barbecoa Butchers and Whole Foods UK flagship store in Kensington.  Nathan and partner Ruth Siwinski  opened the doors to The Butchery in 2011, initially from a temporary home amongst the Maltby Street group of businesses.  All these award-winning enterprises are gradually moving to their new location, the little centre of excellence off Spa Road, Bermondsey, known as Spa Terminus, where The Butchery is established.  All the businesses here sell directly to restaurants, cafes and other outlets, opening their doors for retail trade on Saturdays. 

The plan for The Butchery is to allow the business to grow organically, gradually and steadily without any compromises to the ethos.  Ruth and Nathan cite Joshua and Jessica Applestone, who in 2004 opened their own uncompromising butchery store in New York State,  as an inspiration for The Butchery.  Their book ‘The Butcher’s Guide to Well–Raised Meat’ tells the story of how and why, against all the odds, they came to do it and is packed with helpful advice.
The Butchery arch

The Butchery arch is also the location for popular courses where you can learn everything from knife sharpening or sausage wrangling to how to butcher a whole pig, lamb, or even, a whole cow.  It’s a great opportunity for chefs, customers and enthusiasts to learn more about the meat they cook and eat.  You can take your cuts away with you or leave some of them for a while in the perfect conditions of Nathan’s ageing room.  Nathan and Ruth also cure bacon, make their own sausages, and their burgers are 100% beef.  They even stock sustainably produced British charcoal to cook them over.   

Debate is currently raging over how to increase food security whilst reducing the environmental impact of its production.  Some argue that raising cattle intensively on a cereal-based diet results in a reduction of methane gas production.  However, recent studies carried out at 10 National Trust farms in the UK have reached a quite different conclusion.  The National Trust report, ‘What’s your beef?’, issued this month concludes that feeding cattle on grass throughout their lifecycle is the most environmentally sustainable way to rear beef.  The report states "The results are contrary to recent thinking that livestock farming methods must intensify further in order to lessen carbon emissions to feed an ever-increasing world population.”  You can read more about this on their website

Studies have shown that lamb and beef raised slowly on pasture have higher vitamin content than intensively-reared meat.  A report funded by the Economic and Social Research Council states that “Cattle and sheep raised on natural grasslands help maintain biodiversity and produce tastier, healthier meat”.    It’s known that higher rates of Omega 3 fatty acids, essential for physical and mental development, and lower levels of saturated fat  are present in pasture-fed beef and lamb. 

An old recipe book from William Douglas & Sons
butchers shop Farringdon Road, London
If you are going to follow the sustainable ‘nose to tail’ approach to eating you need to develop a relationship with your butcher.  It’s interesting to hear the customers at The Butchery debate the merits of particular breeds.  We all have our preferences, in my case I love Dexter beef and when Rib-Eye is available I will home-in on that, but because I trust Nathan I will try other cuts from the same animal.  Nathan and Ruth are more than happy to give advice on cooking and if you need more help, try Fergus Henderson’s books  ‘Noseto Tail’ and ‘Beyond Nose to Tail’.  Another useful book is ‘OddBits: how to cook the rest of the animal’  by American author Jennifer McLagan.  The writer concentrates on “all animal parts we have forgotten not only how to cook but also how to eat” and poses the question “Why is it stranger to eat a beef cheek than a cow’s back?”  There’s also a rather wonderful blog out there at

Purebred Certification
If you care about well-raised British meat and you’re shopping for a good butcher in London, I recommend you check out The Butchery.  They’re bringing the best of British farming to London.

Short Q&A with Nath the Butcher:

A “Banter with customers and watching a progression of meat from a chat with a farmer about their breeds and raising methods to delivery of a whole carcass, aging in my coolroom to cutting up a beast, then having a customer come back and say how much they enjoyed it.”

A “What breed is it ? What has it eaten and where was it killed ? Do you know the real history of your meat in other words. In the UK meat is stamped with a number that can give you all this information and more if you want to know.”
Nb. The website is where to go to make sense of these codes

The Butchery
Arch 13 Dockley Road
Spa Terminus
London  SE16 3SF