First, the whole foods store shrank to half its previous size, then, in the premises it had vacated, the renovation work began. At first, I thought we were about to get a physiotherapist or a chiropractor: the space seemed somewhat medical, and in the window hung two neons that looked, unlit, like they might be a couple of human spines. But when they were finally switched on a few weeks later, all became clear. In fact, the neons are stylised meat carcasses. It seems there’s now a groovy new butcher at the end of our street.
Naturally, I was triumphant about this at first, a feeling that only grew when I Googled to find out more. Stella’s is, apparently, the younger sister of Hill & Szrok in Broadway Market in Hackney, a shop I’ve never visited – I left that part of London in 2004, before its swankification was complete – but which is, according to one source, London’s best butcher by day and a restaurant by night. Stella’s, too, may one day expand to include a “tartare bar”, but for now it is a purveyor of meat from small herds (tick) and a supporter of sustainable farming (tick, tick).
Inevitably, its young staff are also very cool, though this was something I discovered without recourse to the internet: passing by on my way to the post office soon after it opened, I surreptitiously gawped at them swinging their cleavers, and thought how they looked more like bartenders than the butchers of my childhood, who were exclusively bald, ruddy-faced, middle-aged men, and who used to keep jars of free lollies on the counter for well-behaved children. (One of my earliest memories is of standing behind my mother as she bought lamb chops, and making patterns in the sawdust on the floor with my sandals, the better to pass the time until Swizzles’ finest came my way.)
But reader, I have a problem. So far (it’s been weeks!) I haven’t bought anything from Stella’s, thrilled though I am by its presence in our hood. I want to, desperately, but hipster butchers are high on the increasingly long list of aspects of our food culture I find painfully intimidating. Not quite so high, perhaps, as cooking for a vegan, which I did the other day – having bought Oatly creme fraiche to dollop on some sautéed mushrooms, I spent the hours before supper in a state of total anxiety that real vegans consider such products, as I think I might do myself, to be the evil work of the biotech industrial complex – but pretty high all the same. The last time I went into a hipster butcher, it did not end well. His face, which was covered with a luxuriant beard, said: oh God, an old woman in search of rabbit. My face, which was suddenly crimson, said: oh God, I’m about to be intensively patronised for assuming that bunnies don’t need to be “pre-ordered”.
Because I’ve no wish to look like a walking, talking tomahawk steak the first time the nice people (I’m absolutely sure they are!) at Stella’s clap eyes on me, I’ve spent the past month rehearsing. Round and round the house I go, trying out my lines. “Have you any shin beef?” I mutter first, under my breath. But this won’t do! I should be more assertive. “I would like some shin beef, please, and I don’t want it all to be fat,” I then say in a voice that would certainly be audible above the sound of metal hitting wood. But again, no. Not warm enough. Don’t I want this butcher to be my new best friend?
So I try again: “I would like some shin beef for a ragu I plan on making, the one they serve at the restaurant up the road, which is my favourite, when I can get a table there, which I never can, of course, but perhaps you are luckier than me?” But … aargh! These guys don’t want to know the story of my life, and I’m not Miss Bates in Emma (or not yet). On and on it goes. Such agony, and all for a bit of sodding stewing steak. And so, again, I retreat to the freezer in search of supermarket sausages – or anything at all that doesn’t involve the judgment of a hot young man in selvedge jeans.