To Smithfield on the morning of Christmas Eve, to pick up a bargain or three at the annual meat auction. This event, which takes place annually at London’s famous meat market, is one of the London Christmas traditions that I wrote about for Londonist recently, but not something Allison and I had ever gone and seen for ourselves. Clearly, this was something that needed to be rectified. After getting off the train at Farringdon, we saw a few people with shopping carts making their way towards the north-western corner of the market building, close to the junction of Charterhouse Street and Farringdon Street; they, and we, congregated by Harts of Smithfield, the butcher’s that does the auction and which has a sign (there all year, apparently) proclaiming their shop-front to be the location of “the one and only” Christmas Eve auction, starting at 10:30am. The crowd was spilling out onto the road, which was closed off by the City of London Police shortly before the fun started. Punters, be they people who come here every year or first-timers, were excited at what lay ahead.
As the appointed hour approached, the crowd had swelled to several hundred and three catwalks extending out into the crowd were constructed of wooden pallets; it was from these that the meat would be sold. Not long after 10:30, the main butcher – the man who conducts this sale every year – made his way onto the central catwalk and announced how the auction would work. This was all about making sure that “everyone gets something” and unlike at a regular auction there wouldn’t be any bidding – here, there was a fixed price for each cut of meat and anyone wishing to have one of these would have to hold up the appropriate amount of cash (change, we were told, would not be given).
First up were some legs of pork – English legs of pork, complete with trotters on the end – going for £20 each. A forest of £20 notes appeared above the crowd as punters vied to get the attention of the butchers who were holding up the legs along all three catwalks. A brisk trade was done, with a few dozen legs being sold. “What are we going to do with this?”, I heard a woman ask a man, presumably her husband, who’d just bought one. “You’ll need to buy a bigger oven,” quipped another man standing next to them. More hands holding banknotes went up for the next bargain, topsides of beef; “fifty quid anywhere else, twenty here,” proclaimed the master of ceremonies. English loins of pork were next, each one at least three feet long (how many chops could you get from that?) and costing £10 each. “We could probably make room in the freezer for that,” said someone who did not sound at all convinced that they could. Be that as it may, for bargain pieces of meat, Smithfield on Christmas Eve is clearly the place to go. Many seemed very happy with what they got!
A few professional-looking photographers were in attendance, looking for money-shots such as a little girl sitting on her father’s shoulders, holding up a £10 note (the nearest butcher spotted her too, and made sure she got something). It was even claimed that a TV crew (from Brazil, of all places) was in attendance. Large pieces of belly pork (£10 each) were followed by the turkeys, which went for £20 – or at least they did once one of the assistant butchers, an evidently put-upon chap called Charlie, was able to get them out of the boxes (although not before his colleagues had got the audience to chant the man’s name several times). Shoulders of pork, sold in bags of two for £20 followed, then big sides of green gammon for £20 (‘green’ in a butchering context meaning a piece of bacon or gammon that’s been neither cooked nor smoked) and boxes of ducks, four for £20. The punters were still very keen to buy, and much money changed hands in a sort-of feeding frenzy. “This is fabulous,” said the chief butcher. “Great to see so many people spending money. It’s ’cos of Brexit, of course.”
Ribs of beef were brought out to cheers from the crowd, for this was probably what many had been waiting for (all that was needed was for someone to strike up a chorus of ‘The Roast Beef of Old England’); they were quickly snapped up by eager buyers, along with more shoulders of pork and whole suckling-pigs which buyers carried away on their shoulders which must have made for some curious glances on the Tube ride home. As reinforcements arrived – dozens of boxes containing more beef ribs, brought along on a fork-lift and then hurriedly unpacked by the assistant butchers – the coin-toss ritual began. This is a simple game which is very much a part of the ritual at the meat auction – call the coin-toss wrong, and the punter has to pay the asking-price. Call it right, and the meat is his (or hers) for free. Given that the asking-price is in any case a bargain, it’s a win-win situation.
By this point, the auction was coming to an end. People – some of whom had come with backpacks or shopping-carts (or had parked nearby, for it was a Saturday and parking is free in the vicinity at weekends) were started to leave, fully-laden with enough meat to feed their families for some time.
As the sale died down and the clearing-up operation began, some punters remained – those who’d picked up on an aside earlier, to the point that if anyone wanted their meat cut up on the spot it could be done at the end (having been to Smithfield of an early morning before, we were well aware that a Smithfield butcher will only cut up a piece of meat for you after he’s sold it to you – this is, after all, a wholesale market). We came away with a beef rib, a pork shoulder and a topside of beef – all of which had, of course, to be carried home on the train.
A London Christmas tradition experienced, and great fun it was too!