by Marcus Leach
There was a time when the supermarket didn't reign supreme, when people relied on independent retails for their weekly food shopping. Sadly that trend faded as the rise of the supermarket swept the nation and people turned their back on the small traders in favour of convenience and supposedly cheaper prices.
However, over recent years there has been something of a renaissance for independent food retailers as consumers seek out a greater degree of transparency. The horse meat scandal of 2013 saw the spotlight turned onto the world of meat, and as more shocking truths emerged more and more people turned back to their local butchers to ensure they knew exactly what they were buying.
One butcher who puts transparency at the heart of all he does is Nathan Mills, the affable Australian behind The Butchery Ltd in London. Having worked in the meat industry for several years Mills took the step of going it alone in a competitive market in order to follow his own philosophy. Working with a handful of select rare and native breed farmers Mills provides his customers with only the best quality of meat going.
Now, three years on, he has established himself as one of the best butchers around (if you don't believe us try his meat for yourself, you will not be disappointed) thanks to his commitment and philosophy of quality and transparency. The Essential Cyclist caught up with him to talk all things meat, the rise of faceless consumerism and his love of downhill mountain biking.
Marcus Leach: What first got you into butchery?
Nathan Mills: My dad taught me as it's a family tradition and he learnt from his dad before that. My parents owned a butchers shop back in Australia and I went into there after school and learnt everything from dad. I started working in the shop after school at the age of sixteen, doing some more basic stuff like making mince and sausages. After school I took a gap year and went surfing everyday, but it got to the stage where I was thinking it's a nice lifestyle but I need a job to buy a new surfboard, so it was back into the shop. The area we lived in was a low employment rate so there wasn't a huge choice. In all honesty at the time I didn't really enjoy it that much, although looking at it now it is definitely something I enjoy.
ML: Was it always a goal of yours to have your own butchery?
NM: Yeah and there was a certain turning point when I was working at the Ginger Pig where I thought 'yeah this is something I want to do for myself'. So I left the Ginger Pig and went somewhere else, but I knew at that stage I wanted to do something on my own terms and according to my philosophy.
ML: Is that because, having worked in the industry, you felt you could provide a better offering?
NM: In a nutshell, yes. I see them [Ginger Pig] now as competitors to a degree, but they are much bigger as they are a very strong brand and we are still establishing ourselves after three years. That said the feedback we get and the customer return we get is very rewarding and encouraging for us.
ML: It seems that there has been, over the past few years, an increase in independent retails, be it butchers, breweries, bakeries, cheese mongers. What do you put that down to?
NM: People are looking for exactly where their produce is coming from, and you can't get that from the supermarket. People want a certain amount of transparency, and my customer wants a certain level of service as well, which is what we offer. And that comes into the brewery, the cheese maker and everything like that, people are interested in it and want to know more about it, something they simply can't get at supermarkets.
ML: The notion of provenance is definitely an important one from a customers point of view. With that in mind how do you select your suppliers?
NM: I've always known what kind of person I wanted to work with. I've always wanted to work directly with farmers. It's a two-fold situation; it gives me 100 per cent transparency as all of my farmers are registered rare and native breed. So that means parental names have to come with the animal, a passport comes with the animal, so I know exactly where that animal has come from. To me that is hugely important and I have never been able to do that in any of the other butcher shops that I've worked in in London, so that is my point of difference in comparison with everyone else.
So that for me, and also I know how hard it is to be a farmer, it is a lot of hard work. I've got an agreement with my farmers that I will pay a certain amount above the market rate with them, so they get a very good deal. It adds more cost my end, I have to buy a whole animal, whereby most London butchers just buy steak sections, so I've got to juggle the balancing act of making sure I have a home for everything and not just the steaks.
ML: That then sees you use the whole animal, which means you offer so much more than other outlets, especially the supermarkets where you get three different steaks and that's about it. Are people missing out by not coming to butchers like yourself?
NM: Yes definitely. I can walk into a supermarket and say their sirloin is £20 per kilo, rump is £16.50 a kilo and ribeye £23 a kilo. I can sell a flat iron or a teres major on my counter for less than that, but I know it is going to better eating quality than anyone of those three steaks they put out there. As a price point the general public miss that. When we first opened our shop in Forest Hill we actually had a lot of complaints about our price point but people were very happy with the quality of the meat at the same time.
However, these people are better food educated, and they are not coming to us to buy their whole weeks worth of meat but for special occasions and a treat at the weekend. The influx of customers we get around Christmas is incredible. But I think people lose out not using a local butcher like ourselves on a regular basis. We can offer a certain price point on certain cuts that are cheaper than the supermarket, not to mention a damn sight tastier, but are not the big three cuts people have become used to and associate with.
ML: I think with independent retailers it's about the personal touch as well, it's about relationships and not the faceless consumerism that we see more and more of now.
NM: There is that element as well. I would say that with eighty percent of my customers I am on first name basis with, and it's not just a customer, it's someone I can connect with and have a chat with, get to know them and what is going on in their life.
ML: That's how you build loyalty as well, by having that connection.
NM: All you have to do is walk into any supermarket and see how many self-checkouts there are now. I can understand that it reduces the amount of staff and overheads they may have but it's a 'give me your money and see you later' scenario and that really winds me up. Society suffers in the long-term as suddenly people can't interact with each other.
ML: It's a sad state of affairs. Anyway, brining it back to meat, before we digress too much, what is the theory behind hanging meat?
NM: A quick breakdown is to tenderise and add more flavour, that's the basic bones of it. That is all you're doing by hanging meat for a certain amount of time, and it doesn't matter what type of animal it is, you will just have different shelf life expectancies.
So beef, because it has big bones and a good fat covering, we will hang for a minimum of thirty days for our steak sections. Depending on our trade, and what my burger guys are taking, some stuff shifts at ninety days of age. Lamb we try to hang for a week, pork we like to hang for a week or two as well and obviously poultry goes straight out of the door. But you are trying to break down enzymes, tenderise the meat and reduce the amount of moisture within the meat. It's like a stock or a sauce, the more you take the moisture out the more intense the flavour becomes.
ML: Is there an optimum amount of time to hang meat for then?
NM: I have done a tasting with some food bloggers in London and we had beef that was twenty-three, fifty-five, seventy-five and ninety-eight days of age. At twenty-three everyone was like 'this is good meat', at fifty-five it was really starting to taste amazing. When we got to seventy-five people thought it was a little livery and too intense, and at ninety-eight we all agreed that although it tasted good it was more like a pate. Some people like that, especially with a fillet, but for me if I am eating a steak I want to eat something with a bit of bite and texture to it.
ML: You talked earlier about your philosophy and desire to do things your own way. Where did that philosophy of supporting the farmers come from?
NM: In the family business back home Dad just used a big supply company or bought directly from slaughter houses. The difference here is I wasn't happy with that way of doing things. I can see, from where I had worked previously, what was meant to be happening but wasn't actually happening and I didn't think that was right. I think if I am honest the only reason I am still in the industry now is because of having my own business whereby I can adhere to my beliefs and philosophy. There are some very grey issues in the meat industry and that's where I said I don't want to be in that section, I want to be very clear and transparent with everything we do. I have a total open door policy and you can walk in here and I will show you everything we do, how we do it and where all of our meat comes from.
ML: All of your meat is either native or rare breed, what exactly does that mean?
NM: They are historical breeds that go back many years. The mass production of food happened after the war, before the war and during the war they wanted to preserve certain breeds. Churchill actually sent a load of native breed animals over to America so that they were not affected by the war in order to maintain a flock or herd over there that they could eventually bring back to the UK.
We as a nation used white park but in the time of war but after that it's numbers dwindled down to 60, and that was it, although they have slowly built back up again. Dexter is not something that is on that rare breed list anymore, it is a native breed as there is a substantial amount of it now. For us it depends on what breed we are using at the time, so everything is either rare or native breed.
ML: Do you have a favourite meat?
NM: I don't specify, it depends on the mood, depends on what I am drinking and where I am eating.
ML: What about favourite cut of beef then?
NM: Again it depends on mood but I must say I like long, slow-cooking pieces like shin, brisket and stuff like that. Those are the muscles that have been really worked and they benefit from the slow cooking process and have bags of flavour to them. The nice thing with shin there is so much flavour and you don't need to do too much to it, a little bit of stock and red wine, some root veg and into the slow cooker, it's fool proof.
ML: And cycling, I can see you have a decent bike, is that something you enjoy as well?
NM: Yeah, definitely. I first got into downhill mountain biking way back in 1995. It was my brother who introduced me to it and I was bitten by the bug straight away. It was about eighteen months ago that I really got back into it and now I try and get down to Surrey Hills as much as possible. I also head to BMX tracks in London if I get a bit of spare time away from work.
Nathan sells his meat at The Butchery Ltd in Forest Hill during the week, as well as at The Butchery Ltd HQ on Saturdays in Bermondsey. Alternatively you can order a selection of what he offers through Natoora for home delivery.