I’ll be honest with you, I cannot think of too many occasions where being led down a set of stone stairs into a freezing cold basement full of carcasses would fill me with anything other than abject terror. But here I am, entering the bowels of School Lane in Heaton Chapel, Stockport, being introduced to a hanging parade of ex-pigs and cows. Oh sound, there’s also loads of cleavers and butchers’ knives knocking about as well.
Fortunately, I wasn’t greeted by a frozen solid Frankie Carbone when I completed my descent into the subterranean storage area of Littlewoods Butchers. The body parts and internal organs that were carefully assembled on shelving units and on hooks hanging from the ceiling all once belonged to the farmyard. After the initial nerves had dissipated, I fancied commencing my own Rocky montage, taking jabs at the swinging, skinned, dismembered bodies, exhaling icy breath as I sprinted back up the stairs onto the shop floor and out through the door, all the way to the big Co-Op Pyramid in Stockport.
I didn’t, obviously. Anyone who’s ever met me will know that I simply don’t run. And I especially wouldn’t run away from a shop full of sausages, steaks and pork pies.
In fact, I would run. I would run to Littlewoods Butchers every single day if it didn’t result in me having an enormous asthma attack after about 20 yards. I would also urge every meat eating person reading this to do the same.
We live in an age where sustainability and eco-friendliness are at the forefront of a multitude of extremely important conversations. Yet as a society we still have disposable attitudes thrust upon us at every turn. Which is why I find myself being toured around Littlewoods by the shop’s owner and lifelong family butcher, Marcus Wilson.
In the business since he was 11, Marcus has over 30 years experience in the family trade. Established in 1964, Littlewoods has specialised in whole carcass butchery and for Marcus, it is a non-negotiable passion that he believes has been sidelined by major supermarkets and their ‘stack it high, sell it cheap’ mentality over the last few decades. And it is a mentality that has crippled the butchering industry along the way.
“Meat in a supermarket, the social cost of that and the environmental cost of that is enormous,” begins Marcus, now in the more welcoming, warming surroundings of the upper floor of Littlewoods’ late 19th century, three story bovine and porcine emporium.
“It’s just cheap. It’s not good value flavour wise or monetary wise or socially or environmentally. I’m not going to shy away from it. There is a cost. There’s this big increase in food prices, so you can’t have this ‘stack it high, sell it cheap’ sort of stuff. We’ve had masses of that in this industry.“
“You’ve gone from the fifties where you had cattle that were slightly bigger to them being enormous in the eighties and nineties, these great big continental crosses and now they’re saying it’s really efficient having really big cattle that we can grow really quick and sell to more customers but what is the social and environmental cost of that?
“The social cost is that you’re paying butchers a pittance because you’re making a pittance on this high volume. Health and safety dropped off. Lots of butchers were having injuries, working incredibly hard, these butchers in their fifties with damaged knees and backs and stuff.
“And then you have the environmental impact. You’re basically just throwing pesticides and fertilisers on fields so you grow really fast, really luscious grass so you can grow these great big animals. What is the cost of that? Well people are starting to become a lot more educated about what those costs are. So how do we move away from that and still eat meat?“
Given the precarious financial position of, well, almost fucking everybody in the United Kingdom right now, it’s an incredibly pertinent question. Supermarkets such as Tesco, ASDA and ALDI offer a product that is more affordable than Littlewoods. And affordability is the mantra that many families have to live by during a longstanding economic crisis.
As Marcus explains, however, the money being saved on your meat is being lost elsewhere due to the pricing structure these multinational chains employ.
“ALDI had a tomahawk on. Great, they’ve got a tomahawk on. It’s like a third the price of our Tomahawk. You’re not going to enjoy it anywhere near as much as our Tomahawk. They make their money back on that on bags of crisps and cereal and whatever else. They make costs by selling you the worst products you can buy. You’ve bought that cheap meat and you’ve enjoyed it with a salad but in essence you’ve paid however many times over and over again. And I think that’s a really important message to relay.“
Of course, as a business owner in an industry that, at the best of times, can be notoriously perilous, Marcus must always have his bottom line at the forefront of his priorities. Ignore it and everything he and his family have grafted relentlessly for over the last 59 years will disappear. But his own finances are just a slice of a pie that is filled to the brim with environmental issues as well as socio-economic impact.
Rather than merely being a craft that he began mastering in his early teens, whole carcass butchery, for Marcus, is a way of life. It is a discipline that is instilled in every one of his eight employees. But it is also one that is in woefully adequate supply across the British Isles. And it’s wreaking havoc on both the quality of meat we consume an the quality of the environment we live in.
“Where you buy your meat from is what you put back into society. I encourage people to eat 75% less meat than they do, but pay more for the meat they do buy. I tell people all the time to eat much less meat, but really enjoy it. I say to them “you don’t need that much” and they don’t. Instead of having a massive steak every Friday night, why not share it between three of you and appreciate it a lot more? Have it as a treat.
“We don’t throw anything away. Bones go to restaurants to use for stocks or we’ll give them to customers in the shop. If you want bones, you can have them. We encourage you to take them. You can buy a couple of lamb chops and take some bones and just make a soup. Make a noodle soup. Then the next night, don’t have any meat and have yourself a really good veggie noodle soup. You can get bones off us for free. It’s a free meal. And it means that we have no waste. That’s really important to us, that we waste absolutely nothing.”
Combined with their zero waste ethos is one of education at Littlewoods. Marcus and his team want their customers to know where their meat is coming from. They want to share the journey from farm-to-table with a few meal suggestions along the way. And they want to do so by offering a variety of cuts that wouldn’t be stacked into the fridges at Tesco or Sainbury’s. Aligned with a personable service and a genuine duty of care, it isn’t difficult to surmise why Littlewoods have forged such a strong sense of community for themselves over the years.
One glance at Littlewoods Instagram account can, at first, be a tad startling. After all, it’s not unusual for their stories to feature the skinning and expert dismantling of an entire cattle carcass. Blood splattered tools may make a regular appearance. It is not for the weak of heart, but nor is it an ostentatious display of macho bullshit. It’s a lesson. It’s a step-by-step guide of the painstaking expert skill that it takes to ensure no part of the animal goes to waste.
When supermarkets persist with loading up their fridges with prime cuts at prices that undercut your local butcher, they essentially kill the desire for anything other than the most basic of choices. They also place a much higher value on profit than they do the quality of the meat they’re selling while also effectively de-skilling an entire industry as less importance is put on whole carcass butchery.
“I think at last count, in the UK, there were just 800 butchers in the UK who were doing whole carcass butchery. You just don’t really get many people doing it any more. 800 out of 10,000 outlets. So it’s really hard to get butchers. It’s like being a baker who knows how to do all of the bread and all of the patisserie. You can’t just do one or the other, it’s everything.“
“We’ve got eight staff in total. Six butchers and two apprentices. We do all that in house. So the apprentices start by assisting the butchers. Serving, making burgers, simple butchery, simple trimming and then we just work from there.
“With the whole carcasses we make pies, sausages, we cure bacon and we’re doing charcuterie as well. So the great thing is you can take them through every single aspect from making a burger or a sausage to cutting a chicken up and slicing the bacon to helping a chef figure out how they’re gonna cook whole carcass. How are they going to use better quality provenance?
“That’s influenced me in every way in how I approach things here. In how I approach the animal from the farm to the carcass to everything we make from the charcuterie to the pies to the terrines, the paté, it gives you so much more that you can do, that added value element.“
In a telling changing of perceptions, Marcus assures me when I ponder about it that he receives little to no negative feedback regarding the more barbaric looking posts. A sign of a more enlightened generation, where the expertise and dedication is admired and appreciated. It also helps that these shots sit side-by-side with a procession of almost magical photos detailing the stock available on any given day. All of which is made in house. From the gorgeous Merguez sausages that may just be the most aesthetically pleasing meat in tube form you’ll ever lay your eyes on to saliva inducing pork pies and sausage rolls. The scents of which fill the air during the more than three hours I spend talking to Marcus on this early spring morning.
But the quality of Littlewoods’ produce runs far deeper than beautifully marbled aesthetics. Ask any of the countless establishments across Greater Manchester who regularly fill their menus with Marcus’ produce. Whether it be Erst or Edinburgh Castle or Another Hand. They were also the butcher of choice for the dearly departed Creameries/Campagna and District. The depth of flavour in every morsel of their chops, their flank steak, their oxtail. This is the produce a chef dreams of at night. Excess fat is trimmed from carcasses to make burgers that you would happily pen a love sonnet for. There’s shin on the bone, there’s feather blade oh, and they’ve even got their own charcuterie on the go as well.
A dedication to zero waste is a dedication to better physical, financial and environmental health. Marcus repeatedly states during our chat that he wishes people would eat less meat. In refusing to venture down the route of purchasing enormous cattle loaded up on fertiliser and pesticides, he maintains a higher quality of produce while giving back to Mother Nature.
“It’s not the cow, it’s the how. How do we change these habits, how do we make it better? There’s a Dexter hung up downstairs. There’s two cattle there. There’s a Limousin crossed with an Aberdeen Angus, so you’ve got the Angus and then the much better continental it’s been crossed with and then you’ve got this tiny little Dexter next to it, that’s probably about a third the size of these continental crosses.
“And these animals have evolved in such a way that they can just eat really rough pasture, so you can put them out all year round and you don’t need to use fertilisers, you don’t need to use pesticides, they’ll just eat really rough. They’ll plod along, all weathers. You don’t need to stick them in a barn over winter and feed them a load of cereal or concentrate or anything like that. They just eat grass and that’s it. And they’re really healthy animals. They’re really good for rearing their calves, they’re nice cattle to deal with, in every aspect it’s really good.
“Then also, on top of that you might have the regenerative aspect of what they’re doing within the farm itself. So Jane, who’s farm they’ve come from out near Tarporley, she’s regenerating the farm. It had fertilisers and pesticides for years. Now, she’s not doing any of that. She’s just putting the cattle on and turning it over. The cows are eating grasses and clovers and a really varied diet and what they’re putting back in is carbon. That’s the reality of what you’re building there. Building really good soil which you can then use to grow things at a later date without all these things that are so damaging to the environment.
“That is the way forward. The diversity that you’re going to bring back. Nothing’s being taken out of anything. It’s not going to be carbon negative meat. Sometimes it’s adding far more back than its taking away and that is the future. But that future is only sustainable if you’re using whole carcass butchery. Because the other system is producing great big animals and selling it really cheap, where you’re going to need all these phosphates, you’re going to need all the stuff from the petro-chemical industry. But you’ve got to use every part of these Dexters. You can’t throw the fat away. You’re gonna have to do a really good burger with it, you’re gonna have to produce some really good sausages with it. You’re gonna have to sell every aspect of it. You can’t just turf away the no-good cuts“
It is these ‘no-good cuts’ that are now becoming more in vogue thanks to the championing of professionals like Marcus, but also TV chefs and presenters who have extolled their virtues in recent years on various cookery and travel programmes and documentaries. This additional education through television and social media is convincing younger generations to be more adventurous in their approach to life, when it comes to holiday destinations and the cuisines they opt for when dining out. All of which is tailor made for whole carcass butchery.
“You go to Spain and you’re gonna have pig cheeks, aren’t you? So then you come back and say ‘I want that’. And you’re not going to get those specific cuts in the supermarket. You have to come to places like us,” explains Marcus as we peruse every inch of his eye catching front window display and then his shop counter.
“People are really into nose-to-tail and because we have all the cuts we have customers travelling quite a distance because they know they can get it. People are really into that. It’s been a massive change. I reckon about 20 years ago I was really pushing it, we were really educating people when they came in the shop, ‘ah look at the size of that cow’ ‘it’s a lamb’. They couldn’t connect from the cow they saw a few hundred metres away in a field to when its in the butcher’s shop. But now people are coming in and they recognise the carcasses and they recognise the cuts.
“Especially with something like oxtail, we sell so much of it now. We’ve had customers come in saying stuff like ‘my friend’s over from Jamaica and they have this oxtail stew. How do I make it, what is it? You get a lot of that.”
A more tolerant and diverse approach to dining is a combination that the staff at Littlewoods thrive on. Again, scrolling through their Instagram feed, there are meal recommendations, recipes and preparation guidelines. A variety of cuts being cooked in a variety of manners that leave you slack jawed and drooling like Homer Simpson discovering that gummy Venus de Milo on the back of the babysitter’s jeans.
These recommendations hark back to the education process mentioned earlier. Staff are educated themselves in which cuts of meat are suited to which types of dish. There is a creative license given to all Marcus’ butchers about the best ways in which to serve the seemingly countless cuts of their whole carcass offerings. If a customer requires a specific cut that isn’t available, there will always be an alternative forthcoming, complete with serving suggestion if necessary. An extra personal touch not available from your nearest Sainsbury’s.
While I depart from my morning at Littlewoods admittedly a bit gutted that I never got to have a go on the sausage making machine (not a euphemism, I assure you. Albeit a good one), I could not have been any more impressed by the knowledge, passion, dedication and skill that I’d encountered in my four hours there from Marcus and his butchers.
During a period in which we need to be more switched on than ever to how our economy and environment are crumbling around us, to have people as dedicated to their craft as the team at Littlewoods – providing a level of care and awareness to not only the food they prepare, but the sustainability and regenerative aspects surrounding it – is a wave of relief that allows you to believe that things can and will actually get better.
Granted, the work of one butcher shop in Stockport may not seem like much in the grand scheme of the chaos surrounding us all, but it’s a small part of what is becoming a much bigger movement. And it’s one we should all get behind. Shop local. Buy the oxtail, take the bag of bones, support your local butcher.