London meat market boosts Christmas cheer

Nestled in London’s business district, Smithfield, one of Britain’s oldest markets, is gearing up for Christmas and New Year with turkeys, geese and organic chickens selling rapidly. Once the historic wholesale meat market opens at 3am, Smithfield comes alive with the hustle and bustle of traders, as it has done for centuries.

Shopkeepers and restaurateurs browse the stands amid the commotion, negotiating prices in the three giant halls that are on the national list of protected buildings for their vaguely Italianate Victorian architecture.

Because there are no fixed prices, everything is down to negotiations between the wholesaler and the customer. According to the salesmen, prices are between 20% and 50% lower than in the shops.

Founded about 800 years ago as London’s meat market, Smithfield has determined the prices of meat and poultry in Britain throughout the centuries.
It is among the largest markets of its kind in Europe and certainly Britain’s biggest meat market.

The daily action winds down at about 7am. Some stragglers and specialists remain pacing up and down the market’s alleyways, open until midday.

Since the start of this week, the 50-odd meat merchants have been well and truly caught up in the Christmas rush. However, these days the frenzy starts in mid-November. To meet demand, the market opens its doors for the last weekend before Christmas, sometimes the last two weekends depending on which day of the week it falls.

A turkey auction is slated for 3am on Saturday December 23, with more than just late sleepers, early risers and dazed clubbers drifting out of the nearby warehouses-turned-nightclubs predicted to attend.

The week before Christmas is “a real panic”, said Allen Gorrang, a salesperson at Tom Hixson, one of the Smithfield meat merchants. “People have changed their buying habits: now they wait for the last moment to get their turkey.”

Greg, from nearby H and C Meats, said there will be plenty of “last-minute good bargains” around.

While turkey remains the biggest seller, goose may well be served up on many a dinner plate this Christmas.

“If a celebrity chef make a recipe, instantly the sales in this product are soaring,” said one trader wearing the seemingly obligatory shirt and tie beneath the overalls.

It is impossible to predict just how much poultry will be sold in the run-up to Christmas, or the amount of money the wholesalers will make. But the smiling faces and bustling activity suggest business is booming.

Each year, Smithfield sells about 120 000 tonnes of meat, 8% of the meat sold in Britain, coning from as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, South America and Africa.

“Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana produce very nice beef, of very good quality,” said George Abrahams, who owns several of the outlets on the market.

However, European Union regulations have constrained several butchers to concentrate on European and British producers. To bring itself in line with EU rules, Smithfield underwent a £70-million refit, notably installing refrigerated rooms.

Smithfield veterans say the market lost some of its character along the way, with all meat on display the customer now wrapped in plastic, with carcasses hanging on hooks in the cold rooms at the back.

Customers have also changed their buying habits since the introduction of the £8 congestion charge on vehicles entering central London on weekdays between 7am and 6.30pm.

So, Smithfield has also changed its ways. The market now opens at 3am rather than 4am and some traders are also proposing a new delivery service.—Sapa-AFP

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