The heart of London's West End
LAST OF THE PORTWINE
Portwine Butchers, a fixture of Covent Garden at 24 Earlham Street, is to close on 1st August 2003.
Graham Portwine speaks here about the happy years in Covent Garden, centuries of tradition, and the illness that has brought about his retirement.
I've worked here full time 30 years - as a spotty youth I used to come up holidays, weekends, when I wasn't at school, and I eased my way into it like that. There was never any pressure put on me by my dad to come into the business, despite its longevity and the tradition - that was him exactly, a lovely bloke. He was the sort that never felt he could retire, but he became unwell and health basically retired him.
The location of the shop is something - I don't think I would've got the same job satisfaction if the shop had been in a different place. I don't think I would've enjoyed it as much elsewhere. We've got some fantastic customers, terribly interesting types, all sorts, and they've made it interesting for me. That is the buzz of any job, interacting with fascinating people.
The earliest butcher Portwine I've found was in 1760. This building was built in the mid 1700s. I don't think we were the first people in this building - our original shop was at the back of the Two Brewers pub down the alleyway, so I was told - so although our name's in the mortar at the top, that could've been added later, but we've been here probably 200 years plus, on this site alone.
I'd love to get a time capsule and go back to see how it used to be. I had a look in St Giles in the Fields at the births, marriages and deaths. We got back fairly easily to the early 1800s and then it gets a little more spread. Apparently around here was Huguenot - we're a Huguenot derived name - and, according to a builder we had doing some renovations, who'd done work at Spitalfields, the wooden nails and pins of the roof suggest it's a Huguenot building. It was quite a centre for butchers and the like, the Seven Dials area - along with the vagabonds and the cut-throats.
There are a few things I want to pursue, courses, bits and pieces for my own amusement, but food is what I know best. I've got some very good contacts, customers who are very much food-based people, and I like to think - it sounds a bit grandiose - I could offer my knowledge as a consultant. There's a lot more to it than just going and buying something and slapping it on a tray and selling it. There's sourcing a product, maturing it, building knowledge, the preparation, all factors playing into the final product that probably people don't quite appreciate - or maybe they do, and that's why they seek us out. We don't have a lot of passing trade, like a High Street butcher, our customers seek us. We've had people travel up with knapsacks and fill it up and go yomping off. It makes me feel quite good, that we're definitely on the right track - that they care about what they're putting in themselves and make the effort to come up to Covent Garden. We're fairly specialised. We got into natural, high-welfare animals well before BSE was a factor - following the organic trail, before it was a trend, you could say.
It's good for people to know about the illness and why we're going - that we haven't gone bankrupt or been run out of town by a supermarket, or outside pressures. It's sad, because we are a dying race. Butchers in general, top end, well-respected, doing a good job types, are probably under-estimated, but I think people are beginning to appreciate them more.
With the rise of Farmers Markets and things, we're definitely more conscious of what we're eating, and although people are eating less meat, what they are eating is a higher quality provenance, well-sourced - and they've got confidence in what they're eating.
You can't look too far in the past. You have to be positive. It's quite exciting. This is a big step coming up for me.