There are four days until Christmas. It has just gone six in the morning, I’m in the heart of the City of London, and I’m wondering: How do you tell a good quality pig’s head from a bad one?
There are three left in the display cabinet, their dead eyes judging me judging them. I look to the butcher, a balled fist of a man clutching a vicious blade. I want to ask him which head he would recommend, but worry that would mark me as even weirder than I already feel. Likely one pig’s head’s as good as another.
“So, who will it be then?” he asks.
His voice is full of impatience, which doubtless builds in the couple of seconds it takes me to realize that when he said ‘who’ he meant the heads. I point to the least misshapen, least hairy of the three, i.e. the one that looks most like a pig.
“That one, please.”
“So you want the pretty boy, then?” the butcher grins and reaches into the cabinet to withdraw said ‘pretty boy.’ He drops the pink-grey head into a plastic bag: “Anything else?”
This is Smithfield Market, the biggest wholesale meat market in the UK, a supermarket of animal parts impossibly located amid some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Every night it is a factory of cutting and blood. It is too grotesque for modern London to put up with in the daylight; for the general public to shop here, they must arrive before dawn.
Up close and personal with the “pretty boy”. Photo: Katie Newens.
Needless to say I did not drag myself out of bed for a pig’s head alone, even a pretty one. I am hunting Cockentrice. The idea to attempt this medieval dish (delicacy is too fine a word) was born out of a desire to reinvigorate our Christmas roast. My friends and I had been discussing how easily the festive season can beget turkey fatigue and decided that this year our traditional pre-Christmas Christmas dinner needed a more inspiring, not to say, unusual main event.
With the head of a pig, the body of a capon (a castrated rooster) and a tail of goodness-knows-what, a Cockentrice was certainly that. This unlikely combination of fine dining and rogue taxidermy originated in the English cookbooks of the 14th Century, and was roasted as the centerpiece of kingly banquets, delivered to the dining hall like some slain mythical creature amid fire and song. There was, though, only one place in London where I was sure that all of the beast’s constituent parts could be found.
Smithfield Market has a pedigree even older than the Cockentrice. While its current butchers’ incarnation dates back only as far as the mid-19th Century, livestock has been traded here for almost 1,000 years. Originally named for being a ‘smooth field’ outside London’s walls, the area played host to city entertainments – jousts, dances, hangings (William Wallace, latterly of Braveheart fame, was put to death here in 1305) – then began to double as a livestock market some time in the 1100s.
While over time the city expanded, the market remained. In fact, Smithfield was a livestock market right up until the mid-1800s. At its peak in the Victorian era over 220,000 head of cattle and 1.5 million sheep changed hands here every year. In the heyday of the industrial revolution, the heart of London resembled a manic farmyard.
“Meat Market Smithfield at 2.00am.” Robert Cutts/Engraving from the Illustrated London News of 15 January 1870.
Even today, the absurdity of the market’s squeezed location is immediately apparent. A coronary of white vans clog the roads surrounding its elegant 19th Century colonnades (designed by the architect who built Tower Bridge, Sir Horace Jones) and closer still, there tussles a claustrophobic frenzy of forklifts, people, and meat.
The soundscape is of idling engines, bleeping industry, and coarse shouts. The smell is of cold blood. As I walk closer I am put in mind of a motorway pileup, or the aftermath of a battle. This is not meant for tourists.
It is though, a place where the spirit of London runs strong. For despite the excess of modern development that surrounds it – the chain shops, the glass and the chrome – there is something that feels very old about this part of the city. While many other European towns, particularly in the continent’s south, may have their heritage better preserved than London, they can often feel like museums.
In London, in the central square mile that forms the City of London in particular, history has been bludgeoned so hard it has become a ghost, and thus so much more affecting. It haunts the street signs, the banks of the river Thames and the very early dawn. It is the ideal location to search for a medieval meal.
Long plastic flaps curtain across the entrance to the market’s main arcade. Shouldering through them I walk into the biggest butcher’s shop I have ever seen. In fact, it is many different butchers’ shops, all selling slightly different produce, the variety of meats is remarkable. The uniforms of the butchers, though, are the same: white, with many spattered in blood.
Primarily a wholesale market, there are few concessions to more squeamish shoppers, and none of the hashtags or slogans of modern commerce. Most counters back directly onto their storage facilities, and are separated from them only by glass. It is a rarely offered backstage reveal of the butchery theatre, with whole hanging carcasses displayed like pink coats in an over-stuffed wardrobe. The blood smell is stronger too. It is a raw steak raised up close to your face: a clean smell but one that has the potential for decay. You feel it at the top of your nose.