Early morning meat: a trip through Smithfield Market’s historic halls
Smithfield Market is the UK’s oldest wholesale meat market, dating back to the 12th century. Yannic Rack set his alarm and paid an early morning visit
Large men in white coats stand behind glass doors, chopping meat and sawing bones, while giant carcasses of lambs and pigs move around them, hanging on hooks from the ceiling. Ribcages, shoulders and loins pile in different containers and it smells like blood and raw meat.
What could easily be mistaken for the set of a classic Hollywood horror movie is in fact a look behind the scenes of one of London’s most secluded attractions. In the case of Smithfield Market, this is not due to its location – it is far from remote at the southern end of St. John Street, between Farringdon, Barbican and St. Paul’s – but because of its unusual nightly opening hours.
- Listen to an interview with Greg Lawrence, chairman of the Smithfield Market Tenants’ Association here
A short history
Smithfield Market, officially called London Central Markets, is the largest wholesale meat market in the UK and one of the largest of its kind in Europe. Meat has been traded here for over 800 years, although the market you can see today is quite different from what Londoners have experienced over the centuries.
As early as 1174, the area of Smithfield was described by William Fitzstephen, a cleric, as “a smooth field where every Friday there is a celebrated rendezvous of fine horses to be sold, and in another quarter are placed vendibles of the peasant, swine with their deep flanks, and cows and oxen of immense bulk”.
Live animals were traded at the site until 1852, when a petition by Londoners succeeded in relocating the livestock cattle market to Islington. Over the course of the 19th century, new buildings were constructed on the original site and the market took its current shape.
Today, the main market buildings house 42 different stalls or shops, as the traders call them, which have been tailored to the needs of their individual tenants. Although the stalls were originally built so that visitors could access them from almost every side, the market’s customers now walk along the central avenues of the market that run through its entire length and connect the main buildings. From here, most customers compare quality at the counter, haggle over prices and load their shopping in trolleys or large carrier bags.
A trip to the market
While the market is known for supplying caterers and butchers with their meat for the day, a large number of private customers also browse the stalls. On a very busy Friday morning, one of them is Chi Ladeinde, 28, who comes to the market all the way from Surrey. She has brought a friend, and together they usually visit Smithfield about once every three months, to stock up on meat for a large extended family.
“It’s cheaper for us to come over here, plus we get variety and it’s fresh,” she says. “I believe that by the time meat gets to the supermarket, it’s extra cured and it has lost its flavour.” Ladeinde generally sticks with her favourite sellers, but sometimes, if she sees a better price, she will switch shops for a couple of pence. The market is very competitive, and meat prices are compared around the clock. “I typically go around and check who’s the cheapest one. I’m a bargain buyer,” she says, laughing.
Although you won’t find any more live cows at Smithfield today, the market offers everything from bacon and veal over lamb and duck to goat and goose, whether that is organic, halal or kosher. And apart from meat and the occasional fish, you will also find cheese, eggs, pies and other delicatessen.
Of the more than 100,000 tons of meat and other products that go over the counter at Smithfield every year, most never see the front counters lining the central avenue. The regular customers often pick up their orders in the back. Behind the stalls and the temperature controlled areas where the meat is cut, lorries and vans arrive from 10pm on the previous evening, unloading their goods at designated loading bays. From there, the raw meat is put on hooks and transported to the different shops.
A hard night’s work
This backstage area of the market is Bela Gereben’s world. Employed by the City of London, which owns and operates the market, he is responsible for overseeing the unloading process and making sure all the machines work properly, so that all the meat can be moved to the right places.
Gereben explains that the restaurant buyers “just come here, they have private accounts, so they basically know everyone. They have a long list of what they need, it’s collected and then taken out. Some of them actually have the privilege that they can pick the best parts.”
Not only the customers are in competition with each other. Although there generally is a friendly atmosphere between the traders, they constantly work to beat their rivals. “For example, every shop orders a certain amount every day, of lambs, of pigs, of beef. But how much they order is a big secret, they would never tell each other. And also the prices at which they buy their meat, that’s a trade secret,” says Gereben.
The side of the market which he oversees only deals with raw meat, but the traders also sell a lot of boxed meat. “As you can see, the boxed meat comes from all over the world, not just from England, not just from Europe,” he tells me, picking up a box of what appears to be lamb, to prove his point. “This is Arabian, we also have lamb coming from New Zealand, beef coming from Venezuela. I know an owner of a Brazilian restaurant, he comes here very often and he only gets meat from his country.”
“The meat comes from all over the world, not just from England, not just from Europe. This is Arabian, we also have lamb coming from New Zealand, beef coming from Venezuela.”
Although he admits that working nights at the market can be somewhat limiting, especially when it comes to having a social life, Gereben nevertheless likes his job. He is 32 years old and has been doing it for nine years, previously having worked in a daytime maintenance job. When his former boss asked him if he would be interested in earning a little more money at an admittedly more tiring job, he didn’t hesitate.
“I came, I tried, and I kind of liked it, so I stayed,” he says. “When I started the job, it was really exciting, so many people from so many different parts of England and from all over the world. And this was just a crazy place and I loved it. It was so unique and so different, you would never believe that in the middle of the night, right in Central London, there’s such a big parade like this one.”
Smithfield is only one of London’s many wholesale markets. Here’s a look at the largest ones:
- Borough Market is located just south of London Bridge and sells a large variety of wholesale food in the morning, before turning into a retail food market in the afternoon.
- Billingsgate Market is the UK’s largest inland fish market, it has been anchored at its current location at Canary Wharf since 1982.
- Leadenhall Market sells fresh foods and is one of London’s oldest markets, dating back to the 14th century.
- New Covent Garden Market is actually located at Nine Elms, it is the UK’s largest fruit, vegetable and flower market.
- New Spitalfields Market also moved out of the city, in Leyton it now provides the greatest choice of exotic fruit and vegetables in all of Europe.
For anyone interested in getting to know Smithfield Market, organised early morning tours run about once a month from 7am and need to be booked in advance. For those who don’t mind an early morning start, the market can be visited from 3am on weekdays.