London’s oldest butchers, Allens, is to be found on one of the capital’s smartest streets – Mount Street in Mayfair. Dating back to the nineteenth century, with its beautiful pink-orange brick façade and elegant tiled interior, Allens looks every bit the historic institution it is. The huge wooden hexagonal cutting block in the middle of the shop, however, signals loud and clear that this is a proper butchers. Carcases of meat, such as the matured beef for which Allens is especially famous, are strikingly displayed. The stock reflects the changing seasons, so during the game season, the shop is a carnivore’s delight, filled with assorted furred and feathered game, while Thanksgiving and Christmas see it filled with turkeys. Its Mayfair location means that historically Allens’s customers over the decades have included famous restaurants and hotels and chefs. This tradition continues to this day, with Allens proudly claiming to supply most the Michelin-starred restaurants in London. Legendary chef Marco Pierre White has called it his “favourite shop in London”, while acclaimed chef-patron Michel Roux Junior, of Le Gavroche, says it is “a great traditional butcher”. Other eminent chefs supplied by Allens include Chris Galvin of Galvin Bistro, Rowley Leigh chef-proprietor of Le Café Anglais and David McCarthy, Head Chef at Scotts restaurant, another famous Mayfair culinary institution. London’s top hotels, including The Connaught, The Dorchester, The Berkeley and The Savoy, are among those Allens supplies.
Interestingly, this vintage food shop is enjoying a new lease of life under its current owners Justin Preston and his business partner David House. In 2006, came the shocking and surprising news that Allens’s previous owners, CST Wholesale, were in administration. Preston and House, who had set up Rare Meats, a successful wholesale meat business, stepped in to take over Allens. “It was a huge opportunity,” says Preston. “We were already supplying top-end hotels and restaurants in London anyway , so it was a good fit.” Preston is very aware of the shop’s extraordinary history. “Recently the last remaining member of the Allen family, who founded the business, came to see us with a letter from Florence Nightingale placing an order – amazing! We’ve got receipts from the Savoy while Escoffier was in residence there and it was Queen Victoria’s favourite place to eat.”
Keeping the focus on meat is important to Preston. “At Allens we stick to meat – we don’t make our own pies here, we don’t do the ready-meal style of meat. We sell the accompanying products that go with meat – but we are fundamentally a butchers, a meat shop, and that’s what we maintain. We’re not in a suburban local area so it’s very different what people want.” Experiencing a vintage butcher is very much part of Allens’s special appeal; “We joke if we had a pound for every photo that people took when they come in we’d be really profitable!” Allens’s 21-day aged beef, succulent and flavour, is one of the business’s signature meats, with the shop’s expert staff skilfully butchering carcases into cuts from beef flat rib and Chateaubriand to T bone steaks and spectacular 5 bone ribs of beef.
“Being in Mayfair we’re very near the American Embassy so American Thanksgiving is very big for us – we have English white turkeys for hotels, in the shop we use a lot of stuff from Kent – we both live in Kent – we bring up a lot from Kent – salt marsh lamb, turkeys from Kent – depends on where the best produce is from.”
Game, as befits Allens’s traditionally aristocratic customers, is a speciality here, with the shop known for the range of game it sells. “It’s not the easiest of markets,” points out Preston. “It’s unpredictable in terms of supply. You don’t know what you’re getting; you could sell 1000 grouse and only be able to get 400. Pheasants and partridges are far easier to predict. Birds such as ptarmigan, teal or widgeon, you can’t pre-sell them, you have to wait until they come in. If we put snipe in the window they’ll go easily – people come in for them. It’s very labour-intensive as well because of getting the game cleaned and off the moors. That’s what makes game expensive - it’s the cost of getting them off the moor, cleaned, prepped and hanging too.” How long the game should be hung for varies hugely from customer to customer, so good customer service is called for. “It’s very subjective. Some people if I send grouse in fresh, they would send them back, other customers if the grouse are anything more than a few days old they’ll send them back claiming they’re rotten. Richard Corrigan, the chef, likes his game really well-hung, really gamey, but anyone else would send it back.”
Allens’s owners are, however, also aware of the need to adapt to the times. Part of the move to modernise the business has seen the creation of a new website by Preston and House. “It does phenomenally well at Christmas and Easter; at a busy period we might sell 20 palettes through the website.” Allens, too, as suits a modern-minded businesses, can be found on chatting on Twitter and offers a range of butchery classes. “The classes are very good – we do corporate experiences as well, which are very popular.” Running a wholesale business as well as a retail one, while demanding, is also useful, helping with ever-changing logistics of supply and demand. Allens is a very special butchers, and Preston and House are determined to keep it that way, while embracing change. “It’s a juggling act between the heritage that weighs heavy on our shoulders and keeping up with what is new and moving forward.”
Allens of Mayfair are at 117 Mount Street, London.