David Mayers, butcher

5 Oct

Everyone in Islington has a story, so meet butcher David Mayers – a butcher all his working life, but one who has “never had to butcher animals”. Interview by Nicola Baird.

David and Sally Mayers at Highbury Butchers: “We give out a lot of recipes in the shop.”

“I went to school with Rod Stewart*,” says David Mayers as we start the interview in his spotless shop, Highbury Butchers on Blackstock Road. It’s a Monday, the one day of the week the business is closed, so he’s doing a bit of redecorating and has time to be interviewed. Turns out that the pop star famous for his spiky hair-do and songs like Maggie May was in the top form when David started at the boy’s school William Grimshaw in Muswell Hill (now known as Fortismere)*. “I also used to go up with Rod to Highgate Woods and make up a team for football. He was really good at football – he played for the Highgate Red Wing. We used to get jealous when he got famous and popped over to his dad’s paper shop in his fast cars.”

David left school when he was 16 or 17 and started work in a butchers shop as a trainee. But since 1979 – in his early 20s – he’s run the excellent Highbury Butchers by the bus stop on the corner by Mountgrove Road with his wife Sally who is now in charge of the accounts and the rigorous cleaning duties – although she’s often behind the counter too.

Eight butchers to choose from
“When I came to Blackstock Road there were about eight butchers,” he remembers. “There was Stewarts, William Brothers, Dewhursts, at the Hi Fi shop over the road was Prime Meats, where I used to work – in those days you moved on to improve yourself – and was partners with the German butchers, Sez’s and Sons, that’s now the big charity shop, Second Chance. There was one down Gillespie Road, Wallers, and there was Middletons and Sons which I bought. Then on the hill there was an Irish butcher by the zebra crossing at Riversdale Road, and up at Highbury Barn they had Frank Godfrey, http://www.godfreys.co/ and there was a butcher opposite Frank Godfrey too. I remember that when one butcher shut the butcher blocks, wall tiles of dairy and beef cattle and old fashioned gold leaf signs and big gold leaf swans they used in the window display all went to America.”

With London’s main meat market Smithfield a few miles away  and centuries of livestock being brought for slaughter to the abattoirs at Caledonian Road, it is perhaps no surprise that the area had so many butchers. Perhaps what is surprising is that David remembers when he started as a Saturday boy – delivering meat on a bike up at East Finchley and then as a trainee at one of the three branches of Pulham and Sons up at Muswell Hill – the competition was no problem. “We were all busy selling to customers and local restaurants. It was quite hectic, with long hours. People didn’t have fridges so they bought for the day.”

Back then butchers were known as hard drinkers. “If you look at the old pictures you can see there was a pub on every corner at Smithfield. Even when I went there the porters* would be in the bar drinking. You’d have to give them a list of where the meat was that you’d ordered and they’d pick it up for you,” says David laughing at the memory.

Old business
“This butcher had been here since 1905.” David points out the rail where the meat was hanged, the site of the trap door it was dropped through to be stored in a wooden fridge and kept cold by bocks of ice. “There was just a marble slab in the shop window, it wasn’t refrigerated so I put in chiller cabinets,” he explains, then smiles remembering the former shopkeeper’s eccentric shop hours. “He was shut on Mondays and Thursdays and at lunch time for an hour and a half. His wife used to cook his dinner and then he’d lay on the camp bed for a sleep. He was about 70 years and wanted to retire. And when you bought anything from the shop you paid a cashier in the office over there.”

“Mothers used to bring their daughters in and teach them the different cuts of meat. It’s different now.”

The new look Highbury Butchers has survived well, probably because David, now 57, has been adept at providing what shoppers want. There’s all sorts of meat – all British sourced from Quality Standard Mark* suppliers plus ready-to-use sauces and eggs. Behind the counter is an authentic butcher’s block on which are laid eight sharp-looking knives. “It’s all to do with animal welfare,” explains David pointing at one supplier’s poster. “This producer has some free range hens and the others are inside on hay. They’ve got Radio 2 playing! They are dry plucked and they do not add water to the meat. It means the chicken lasts a week in your fridge. Meat plumped up with water does not.”

New ways of shopping
“I think since the recession we’ve got busier,” he notes. “People have maybe cut back on restaurants. You can buy a couple of sirloins (steaks) for £10, a fiver each – but if you go out for a meal could cost you £50. Years ago mothers used to bring their daughters in and teach them the cuts of meat. They’d say what beef was good for braising or frying or what to use for lamb stew – lamb breast is cheaper than chops. But it’s different now. Young people read cook books, usually Jamie Oliver, and come in asking for certain cuts. We always advise what’s best. My wife uses his books too – and we give out a lot of recipes in the shop.

For the first few years Sally and David lived upstairs. “We moved to Kent 20 years ago, when my son was one year old. We’re in Orpington but we start early – there’s not much traffic at the time we leave. The couple now have two sons, one at college doing business and the other about to go to university to study electrical engineering. “They help out at weekends and Christmas. My youngest has a part-time job at Sainsbury’s – working here has done him in good stead because he’s good with people.”

However David is not so impressed by the meat supermarkets sell. Seems there is a secret to meat storage – hanging it so it matures and ultimately tastes better. “People buy with their eyes,” explains David, “so if it looks nice and fresh at the supermarket they get it. But it’s not really matured, so not so tasty (and it may be plumped up with water). As butchers have gone the supermarkets have a monopoly and they put the prices up. I’ve looked around and we’re no dearer. What’s more people can come in here for one or two chops or sausages – in a supermarket you tend to have to buy a pack. People tell us supermarkets make them buy things they don’t want, because it’s on offer or a two for one, and then you don’t get around to eating it and chuck it away.”

David’s words make sense. I’ve been unable to pass on to my meat-eating daughter the meat-buying and cooking skills of a thrifty mum because I’m a vegetarian. If you have a similar family dilemma, or if you love meat and want help buying a bigger range of cuts, be sure to visit a butcher like David Mayers, so you can ask the questions Jamie Oliver cook books (and careful budgeting) makes us want to ask…

Highbury Butchers, 183 Blackstock Road, London N5 – is open Tuesday to Saturday.Tel: 020 7226 2339. Map here 

Words

Smithfielda livestock market for 800 years, now the largest wholesale meat market in Europe and the oldest in the UK. 

Smithfield market porters – self-employed men who’d charge a carriage fee based on the amount of weight (the poundage) of meat that they carried from seller to buyer.

Rod Stewart – see his biography.

William Grimshaw – this school has had a number of reincarnations, including time as Creighton and is now the successful Fortismere.

Quality Standard Mark – more info at www.simplybeefandlamb.co.uk plus recipes. Here are some tips on what lamb cuts to choose, here

Over to you
What do you think of this wonderful butcher shop? By the way, if you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via nicolabaird.green@gmail.com. Thank you. And yes, this blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

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4 Responses to “David Mayers, butcher”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Diane Burridge: local activist | Islington Faces Blog - March 7, 2013

    […] in superstores – and only use small local shops. Her favourites are Whites Fruit and Veg, butcher David Mayers and La Princesse all on Blackstock Road, and the Arsenal Food Store on Gillespie Road.  “David […]

  2. Cass Farrell: Small Restorations boss | Islington Faces Blog - October 8, 2014

    […] And I shop round here – I use Dave at Highbury Butchers (see interview with islingtonfacesblog here) and Wallers for fruit and veg. Mustafa opposite cuts my […]

  3. Chloe Holmes: Elizabeth House centre director | Islington Faces Blog - April 8, 2015

    […] Highbury Butchers has given me a new-found love of local business. I’ve started going in nearly every Friday to get bacon for weekend brunches, and always end up picking up extras as everything is so delicious. (See the Islington Faces interview with Highbury Butchers’ David Mayers here). […]

  4. Simon Moore: architect turned Highbury Arts Club boss | Islington Faces Blog - July 8, 2015

    […] and for meat Smithfield Market and David at Highbury Butchers (see the interview published on Islington Faces with David Mayers here). I get vegetables from Seasons & Blossoms, 92 Highbury Park, and Mrs Lovells’ Greengrocers, […]

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