The folks behind the latest high street newcomer, The Blackfoot Butchers, know a thing or two about selling food. Now they are looking to transfer that know-how to selling quality meats, finds Carina Perkins
Blackfoot Butchers takes its name from the ancient ‘pata negra’ – literally translated as ‘blackfoot’ - pigs which once roamed wild in Iberia and are now the pride of Spanish gastronomy. Black in colour, with a long snout and distinctive black hooves, these hogs are fatter than most, with veins of fat running through their muscle – a characteristic that gives their meat a unique and unparalleled flavour.
Iberico pigs are used to produce what is widely regarded as the finest ham in the world - Jamón Iberico de Bellota. Pigs destined for ‘bellota’ status finish their lives roaming the mountainous oak pastures of the Dehesa, foraging for acorns. The story of these animals – and the ham they produce – is steeped in mystery, romance and ancient skill. That’s not a bad starting place for a shop that looks set to become London’s latest gastronomic phenomenon.
Sanja Morris and her partner Simon Mullins opened Blackfoot Butchers just seven weeks ago but the shop is already busy. Located on trendy Charlotte Place, right in the bustling heart of London, it is small but perfectly formed. On the exterior, an eye-catching window display – featuring a whole hare and pheasant – attracts plenty of attention from passers-by. Inside, shelves are stacked with oils, pastas, cheese and wine. Whole legs of Iberico ham hang behind a cabinet full of exquisite charcuterie.
Although this is their first foray into butchery, Sanja and Simon are no newcomers in the world of food. The pair are the owners of two very successful London tapas restaurants, which specialise in artisan charcuterie from Italy and Spain. “We opened our first restaurant, The Salt Yard, three-and-a-half years ago,” explains Sanja. “We were inspired by a bar in New York, which sold only jamón and cava – it was packed and we thought it would be amazing to do something similar in London.”
The Salt Yard opened to rave reviews and was an immediate success with the business and media crowd of Goodge Street. Buoyed by their success, Sanja and Simon opened a second restaurant, Dehesa, on Carnaby Street, in January this year. This second venture, named after the woodland area that nourishes Spain’s Iberico pigs, has proven equally popular, with big queues on busy nights.
Once Dehesa was up and running the seemingly tireless couple were keen to try something new. “Since I started cooking I have always thought that there was a gap in the market for a butcher’s shop in a non-residential area of central London that stays open late for office workers,” says Sanja. “Recently, customers at our restaurants had started asking where they could buy the meat we serve, so our own butcher’s shop seemed like the perfect answer.”
When a retail premises became available, just over the road from the The Salt Yard, the couple seized their opportunity.
Aware that they had a lot to learn about the meat trade, Sanja and Simon enrolled on evening butchery classes – one at the Ginger Pig and one with Meat Ipswich – and started to research the trade. Their fast task was to employ a suitable head butcher. “We found Phil through an advertisement on the Gumtree website,” says Sanja. “We have been really pleased with him so far; he has a lovely way with the customers and is very passionate about the trade.”
Phil has a long history in butchery, having started as a Saturday boy in his local shop. “I worked for four years in retail and then moved into catering and manufacturing, where I worked for a further eight years,” he says. “I was looking to move back to retail when this job came up. I am really enjoying working in a shop again and it has been great to learn more about the charcuterie meats.”
Once Phil was on board, the threesome began to think about where they would source their meat. Although they could buy the charcuterie from the same Spanish and Italian importers that supply their restaurants, they were not able to use the same suppliers for the fresh meat. “One of our restaurant suppliers can only supply foodservice, which was a real disappointment,” remembers Sanja.
Determined to stick to free-range meat and rare breeds, they visited a variety of small farms and butchers in surrounding areas. “Originally we wanted to stock meat sourced entirely from the Home Counties, but we soon realised that wouldn’t be possible,” says Sanja. “Some of the farms were very small and would not always be able to deliver into London.”
Eventually, they settled on three key suppliers, although they are on the look-out for more. The free-range chicken comes from Devon and the pork from Plantation Pigs in Surrey, a free-range producer which uses traditional slow-growing breeds fed on natural cereal diets. The lamb and beef comes from the Rare Breeds Meat Company, which is based in Essex and sources top-grade meat from local farms.
“We looked into organic, but decided against it, because lots of the smaller farms are essentially organic but don’t have the certification,” says Sanja. “We decided to focus on high-welfare free-range meat instead.”
After a good deal of research and careful thought, the Blackfoot Butchers was opened mid-October, and attracted immediate interest. “Even on the first day we had lots of people coming in asking what we are all about, which was very encouraging,” says Sanja. So far, the shop has attracted a lot of repeat custom and Phil says he has had several comments from people thrilled about the new addition to the area.
The shop opens at 12pm – in time to do a roaring trade in lunchtime sandwiches – and closes at 8pm. So far, despite a difficult economic climate, this strategy seems to have paid off, drawing in lucrative trade from local workers. “Business has been good. I think that what we might find is that people will be eating out less and looking to pick up quality ingredients to cook at home,” reflects Sanja.
Although a separate enterprise, The Blackfoot Butchers has close links with The Salt Yard and Dehesa. Executive chef Ben Tish oversees the prepared meats for the shop and works closely with Phil to create meat dishes and monthly recipe leaflets. Phil says this combination of culinary and butchery expertise benefits both the shop and the restaurant. “The chefs come up with really good ideas and we can help them with our technical knowledge,” he says. “It’s great for carcase balance – if we buy in a whole carcase, the chef will come up with ways to use all the cuts, or add them to his menu in the restaurant.”
Although the Blackfoot Butchers is a modern shop in some senses – with deli produce and opening hours to suit the needs of today’s consumer – it is firmly rooted in traditional butchery. All the meat is properly hung – Phil buys in whole carcases wherever possible – and traditional slow-cooking cuts are sold alongside modern steaks and chops.
Phil is confident that this approach will ensure success. “There has been a bit of a turnaround recently. People are sick of the supermarkets and are coming back to butchers,” he says. “Celebrity chefs are a big drive behind that change; customers are suddenly asking for traditionally prepared meat, which has been hung for 28 days, and older breeds. We even had one chap come in who bought a whole hare and took it home to skin it himself – things are returning to how they were in the 1900s.”
By marrying a creative, forward-thinking approach with traditional practice, Sanja and Simon seem to have hit the nail quite squarely on the head. The Blackfoot Butchers has opened at exactly the right time, with exactly the right product. Busy Londoners, inspired by the recent cooking revival, can buy their weekly meat alongside speciality charcuterie. Although not cheap, the shop has a wide enough variety of meat to serve everyone’s needs and the accompanying deli produce makes it the ideal one-stop shop for workers on their way home. Just like its porcine namesake, The Blackfoot Butchers promises tradition, quality and some of the best meat in the world. But now you don’t have to go to the Dehesa to find it.
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