Dive deep behind the gleaming counters and trussed parcels of pink lamb shanks. Continue past refrigeration units so state-of-the-art bacteria back away in fear, past whitewashed rough stone walls and scrubbed steel worktops, where lines of young lads strip and flense, carve and cleave, and you see Edge and Son for what it really is. This is a butcher’s shop as complete, perfectly evolved living organism. Every anteroom has its function, every bolted-on extension a role to play in its meticulous, surgical and forensic theatre of operations. From out-back abattoir to bagged-up sausages is no more than a few metres. Food metres.
This is what happens when a family decides, as the South Sea Bubble rumbles on and Jonathan Swift sits down to write Gulliver’s Travels, to make butchery its business.
Callum Edge talks – as well he might – of the intense, full flavoured hit of his five week-dry aged beef (thanks to that Italian, bacteria-busting refrigeration). We’d say, just to make sure, it’s a good idea to add three hundred years. The deep time of centuries spent living and working alongside Herefords and Long Horns. The knife wielding muscle memory passed, father to son, for seven generations. The Edge advantage that runs, like marbling in rib-eye, through everything in this shop. A shop that’s as much history lesson as Butchery’s future blueprint.
“It’s not the shop, it’s the cattle I remember first,” Edge says, packed tightly into a corner of a his tiny office, while the nose-to-tail business of the day goes on around us. “I’d go to Beeston cattle market every monday. I must have been about five. My dad would pick me up from school and I’d be mesmerised by the atmosphere, the buzz of it all.”
Those footsore early seventies afternoons might have been Callum’s first steps – but, save for the odd incursion of dual carriageway and overflow estate – they etched out exactly the journey taken by his family for centuries, over fertile Cheshire plain, and on to the burgeoning trading towns strung out along the banks of Dee and Mersey.
“We’ve chased our family tree back at least seven generations, and we know we started trading in the village of Edge (a diminutive Cheshire parish) in 1720,” Callum says, reaching for a laminated print out, tracing a line back to a John Edge, smallholder, 1720, and on to his father, James Edge.
We wonder, but we very much doubt, if the fella serving shrinkwrapped chops on Morrison’s ‘Market Street’ can present such a powerful provenance.
“We’ve unearthed county documents showing how he’d walk his stock from Edge through to New Ferry, and how he saw this was a place where he could build a home,” Callum says.
Another laminate is produced, of a humble timber framed farmhouse – wrapped in mature orchards – a property squarely on Callum’s wishlist when its current owner moves on. This is John Edge’s house – like the business he set in motion, still standing after three hundred years.
Time and tide have not been kind to New Ferry. Once, this straggling village sat at the edge of a royal hunting forest – a disembarkation point for kings, pilgrims and seafarers (even, legend has it, Sir Gawain en route to the Green Knight). Now the town’s crossroads is a nexus of carpet remnant shops, tanning salons and 50p stores.
Long gone are the travel agents and photographic studios, the Woolworths and the market – now, the council itself turns the other cheek, brazenly building a bypass that arcs around the edge of town, funnelling traffic away to the Croft mall, with its free parking, Tesco Homeplus store and big bloated ASDA barn.
But Edge and Son – trading from the same spot since 1844 – has seen it all. And, while the town has ebbed and flowed around it, it’s hunkered down, as indomitable as an Aberdeen Angus in a Highland gale, and let all things pass.
“We still have a cattle lairage here, still slaughter on site. Still believe in the same things we’ve always believed in,” Callum says, as if that was the easiest thing in the world to do. As if Tony Blair didn’t close down 50% of butchers overnight when New Labour legislation suddenly, viciously, took a stun gun to small operators. When Tesco and co sliced and diced the high street, and when we all took a bypass direct to their doors.
When all of this happened – while it is still happening – Callum continued. Continued on insisting his cattle travelled no more than 25 miles from farm to slaughter. Continued caring about husbandry and dignity and compassion before Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall got a book deal. Continued believing in the link between happy animals and healthy food.
“You know what commuter trains are like in the morning,” he says. “Bloody hell, it’s horrible! So why would we expect cattle and sheep, loaded into vehicles, travelling for miles on motorways at peak time, to benefit, in any way, from that kind of experience.”
It’s a very Edge way of looking at the world. A re-engineering of the food chain to allow space for the animal’s point of view. No-one’s pretending this story’s gonna end well for them. But, as Callum says, compassion should be as essential a part of a Butcher’s tool kit as a boning knife.
Edge does the morning run a little differently. It’s one of the reasons it’s twice won the RSPCA Good Business Award. One of the reasons why its meat tastes just so good.
“Most of our lambs are on the road for ten minutes, and we transport them early in the morning, when it’s nice and cool, the roads are empty, and they’re relaxed and unspooked.”
It’s something, no doubt, Callum’s forefathers just got – that stress and discomfort during lairage and movement of animals has a direct effect on meat quality. Now there’s actual hard science to back it up. The Journal of Animal Science, the Livestock Conservation Institute, and Abstracts from Veterinary Colleges from Minnesota to Liverpool all publishing variations on a theme: stressful pre-slaughter handling results in meat that’s darker and drier than normal, with a tough, closed texture, and a less pronounced taste. We all know this. We’ve tasted it.
“The best quality meat definitely comes from animals that are not stressed. The whole muscle is tense. That’s why it was common practice to give animals an electric shock before slaughter, which would tense and release the muscle. But is that the most humane way?”
Callum shifts uneasily in his chair, as if butchery’s bloody past sits on his shoulders alone. “I like to think we’ve come a bit further in life, that we’re beyond all that,” he says, but you get the feeling he’s letting hope win out over the benefit of experience.
“How do you get fantastic meat? You have to breed it, feed it, and slaughter it right. And then you’ve got to look after the meat well. Do it that way, and you embrace a lot of traditional ways and values.”
Traditional values Callum owes to that lifelong apprenticeship – set in train on those Beeston market mornings – with his father, who died two years ago.
“I had an amazingly close relationship with my father,” he says. “I miss him hugely. He was a very strong character, and we had some of the biggest arguments. We locked horns. But he gave me the space I needed to develop, and to bring the business forward.”
You wouldn’t, if you’d had any choice, have invested in a traditional butchers on a tinned-up Merseyside high street, at the arse end of the 80’s. In the annals of Butchery, 1988 was the year of the long knives – 85% of independent stores went out of business. Supermarkets and out of town retail parks reshaped the retail landscape for good. Meat was just murder.
“This was the low point,” Callum recalls. “But we went for it. When we refurbished the shop my father never came in for weeks. He couldn’t really cope with the change. But he knew it was what we had to do.”
It was a brave move – Edge reasserting their commitment to their traditional roots on an arcade of video stores and charity shops – and long, slow climb. New Ferry continued to crumble. Supermarkets refined their offer. Grew smarter. Negotiated harder.
“In our situation it would have been easy to say we’re all doomed. But if I decide that Aldi is my competitor, I ain’t going to do it. If I decide that Waitrose is my competitor, I won’t beat that either. So you look for your advantage. We say that supermarkets can’t compete due to their commercial demands and the margins they really need.
“We say they’re limited in their flexibility from the animals they buy, the skill they possess and the hanging time of their carcasses. They’re driven by cash flow, we’re driven by true quality in breeding, and butchery.”
It’s why Callum’s just scooped Radio 4’s You and Yours Best Food Retailer of the Year in the Food and Farming awards. Praised for the way that they ‘concerned themselves with every stage of the process,” judge Fiona Beckett singled out Callum’s all-bases-covered attention to detail, and for their commitment to world class kit: “For a small butchers they’re astonishingly hi-tech – the ageing room has a state of the art air filtration system to ensure there’s no cross-contamination between carcasses which are all dry-aged. We saw a superb side of beef which had been killed back in January, the flesh rich, ruby red, a treat for one of the many restaurants the business supplies. Callum stresses they’re not all about expensive cuts though, so that good meat doesn’t become elitist.”
“It was a great night,” Callum smiles, a hint of a blush scuttling across his cheeks.
“There’s no bigger change than now. We’re much much more educated with food. I remember saying to my father – what do I do when all our customers die? That was the way it was ten, twenty years ago.”
Now we’re all hot-footing it back from France, demanding onglet steaks, diving into Jamie’s latest collection and scouting for a bit of skirt. Staring, slack jawed at the unchartered territories the ‘fifth quarter’ has to offer.
“This revolution is happening, and it’s fantastic,” Callum says. “A young lad built a mud oven in his garden to smoke his meat. Two girls came in for a pigs head to make brawn. That was their weekend fun! You wouldn’t get that ten years ago.”
What turn our turbulent, faddy relationship with meat takes next it’s hard to imagine. But we’re fairly sure Edge and Son will have their knives out, ready.
Edge and Son
61 New Chester Rd, Wirral,
Photos by Chris Leah. The full version of this piece features in in Bitten magazine issue 1, out now across the Northwest.