Monday, 24 December 2007
Alcock's Family Butchers
The line to Alcock's Family Butchers, on the Banbury Road in Summertown, was out the door yesterday morning. They'd opened at 6 a.m. on Christmas Eve Eve to deal with the holiday crush. Baskets of root vegetables and other fresh produce were arranged on the sidewalk in front of the shop window. A woman holding a fidgety 4-year-old in her arms started scooping chestnuts onto a scale, trying to entertain the boy as his father waited in line.
"Tell me when we have enough," she said in a chirpy, let's-make-this-a-game voice. The kid had already recognized her idea for what it was: a trick. Well two could play at that....
"Enough!" he said after a single scoop.
His mother frowned. "Do you really think that's enough," she asked, weighing her options: Dump in another scoop or two and risk the kid exploding or not have enough chestnuts for her stuffing needs. I turned my attention to the scene inside the butcher's, beyond the plate glass window.
Three butchers--in identical blue smocks--were going about their tasks in an unhurried way: consulting order sheets, disappearing to the back then reappearing holding turkeys, pulling fistfuls of sausage from the refrigerated case, bagging little plastic cartons of what looked like mashed potatoes. (Mashed potatoes?)
There was room for only about 10 customers at a time inside; the line didn't look like it was getting any shorter. Finally a man emerged clutching his meat and we all shuffled forward one place. In a voice that was more matter-of-fact than annoyed, the woman behind me said, "That's the first one I've seen come out since I've been here."
"It always worries me when people go into a butcher's and don't come out," I said. "I've seen that movie before."
"Sweeney Todd," agreed the woman.
Though the air was cold--shot through with the freezing fog we'd had the week before--none of us were in much of a hurry. We didn't mind waiting, for as we stood there we thought about our Christmas meals: ones from our pasts and ones in our future. We thought of the meal we'd enjoy two days hence. Somewhere in Alcock's Family Butchers was a turkey with our name on it, an unsullied bird with, if not its whole life ahead of it, at least the promise of a mouth-watering dinner.
Finally I was inside. I grabbed some cheeses--a Jarlsberg, some brie, a wedge of Stilton and a hunk of Oxford blue--and waited my turn. Some people were getting a goose; one man was getting a capon. When customers gave their names, the butchers fetched the bird then read the address back: "Squitchey Lane?" "Hawkswell Gardens?" "Cavendish Court?" It was as if the butchers wanted to make sure the birds were going to good homes.
Most of the customers, I noticed, asked for some goose fat. After I'd gotten to the head of the line and seen my personal turkey set down on the counter--its breast bristling with a few unplucked feathers, as if it had shaved too quickly that morning and missed a few spots--I asked why so many people were getting goose fat.
"Roast potatoes," explained the butcher. "It's really good for them."
Except for perhaps a morphine drip and a hot oil rub-down from a Swedish masseuse, there is nothing more pleasurable than a mouthful of English roasted potatoes. I asked for a helping of goose fat, not knowing what he would pull from the case. It was the stuff I'd earlier thought was mashed potatoes: a tub of fluffy white lard.
The butcher patted my bird through its clear plastic wrapper, then assured me it would rise to the occasion this holiday. He put the turkey and the giblets in one carrier bag, placed the cheese in another, and after the handover of a not inconsiderable amount of cash (no credit cards accepted at Alcock's Family Butchers) I was on my way, taking care not to slip on the ice and thinking of Christmas.