Small. Neighbourhood. Independent. Old school. In South Africa, there was a day when this defined all butcher shops…and there were many of them. Today, supermarkets are butchers, bakers and pool toy merchants. Only a few indie butchers remain. The grandpa of them all in Cape Town is probably Stuart Bass, co-owner of Super Meat Market in Kenilworth.
Super Meat is an institution in the Southern Suburbs. It’s the quality of the meat – almost entirely free range — and the personal touch that keeps people coming back. This is South Africa, so meat matters. Big time. But at Super Meat, so do customers, and the staff who serve them. There’s a feeling that we all matter. And that warm human element of commerce feels like a tonic these days.
Every Super Meat purchase comes with a friendly greeting and advice — how to cook brisket, how to cook lamb shoulder, what temperature and for how long, covered or uncovered – and often a piece of droëwors (dry sausage) if you’ve got a kid with you. “Kids never forget that; it’s why the ones who’ve grown up bring their kids in now,” says Stuart. In an age when so many people don’t know how to cook, the staff at Super Meat take the fear factor out of roasting a leg of lamb.
Stuart is a Master Butcher (a certification that takes 15 years to earn) and is 74. He tells me that back in the day, his shop used to send out employees on bicycles with order sheets to homes in the neighbourhood. Customers would tick off what they wanted and a 3-wheel van would return later with their chosen cuts. Stuart’s been a butcher for 52 years, and in this location since 1970. I guess with a career that long, it’s all about perspective: he still considers his partner, Peter Logue, to be new on the beat. They’ve worked together for 30 years. Stuart is technically retired – “this is my hobby” – but it’s a serious hobby, and the hours are still long. But, it’s hard to separate the social side of things from the business. “Over the years, thousands of our clients have become friends,” he says.
It’s a tough business, this butchery, says Stuart. Costs are not what they used to be and the business side is far more complicated today. Rents are high, you need accounting help and you’re competing with supermarket meat, which is cheaper. “You need to sell a hell of a lot of meat when you’ve got a R100 000 overhead.”
Stuart takes the meat very seriously. “In the old days, we had an abattoir in Cape Town. There were no feeding stalls and most meat was free-range. We’re lucky in South Africa ….we have the Karoo, and vast farms, with not as many feeding systems as you’d find in Europe or America.”
But Cape Town’s abattoir closed a few years ago; and the industry has changed, becoming far more processing oriented. Stuart is very particular about his sources. Lamb comes from small Karoo farms. Beef from Namibia: this is because there is no local beef farming and when it comes to beef, he believes there are too many meat feeding systems in place in South Africa. “We are lucky to get Namibian beef: it is almost unobtainable, as most of it goes to Europe. We have some farmers who put meat aside for us.”
Chickens (free-range) come from small private farms and pork from around George, Grabouw or Hermanus. Stuart buys porkers (40-45kg pigs), which are far healthier than the baconers or sausage pigs used by supermarkets (which weigh 60kg and up).
Recent droughts have been an issue, and some farmers have had to give some feed to their free-range animals to keep them going. “We try to buy from areas that have had some rain.”
“I am very particular and stay with quality, healthy meat. It is a little more expensive but it has flavour.” Stuart has also lost a wife and good friends to cancer, and believes there is a connection between the ingredients and methods used is processing meat and ill health.
Which means that Super Meat makes its own sausages, which are 100% meat – no filler. “The pork sausages are pink, as they’re supposed to be…not white, like commercial ones.” And their own bacon.
The butchers prepare their own pickle which they use for curing and there is a smoker in the back, as well as a chiller set at 0˚ Celsius for aging of meat: lamb is matured for 10 days, beef for 14 days and pork for 3-4 days. Aging sets meat apart in the flavour department: “meat can look beautiful through the display window but can be tasteless and tough as Old Harry,” says Stuart. There is also a biltong cabinet where biltong and droewors are hung and dried.
It’s great that there are a few younger people getting into the butchery business – Franky Fenner Meat and Ryan Boon Meats are two whose focus is on ethical meat, but there is something beautiful about the Old School breed of butchers.
For it’s not every day that a butcher kisses your hand when he meets you for a cup of coffee and to share his story.