As this tradition-steeped city began hunkering down for the holidays, one place stood out Monday for its thrum of activity: the annual Christmas Eve meat auction at the venerable London Central Markets.
Looking for last-minute bargains on Costco-sized legs of pork, beef rumps or turkeys, roughly 1,000 Londoners packed the street outside what is commonly known as the Smithfield Market, waving 20-pound notes in the air to catch the attention of a cadre of white-smocked butchers. The purveyors, perched several feet above the crowd on an intertwined series of pallets, tossed plastic-wrapped turkeys, pork loins and ribs to eager supplicants, much like the peanut vendors of Dodger Stadium.
The auction is one of the few forms of public entertainment in London on the day before the holiday, as museums, plays, public transportation and even many restaurants and pubs shutter for up to three days, including Boxing Day, Britain’s day-after-Christmas holiday.
This year’s auction marked the 150th anniversary of the current home of what is called the largest wholesale meat market in the United Kingdom.
“We’re working 17 hours a day [before Christmas] but don’t get me wrong, we’re taking your money,” said the lead auctioneer over the PA system as he opened the sale. “Who wants a turkey?”
Although the yearly event is called an auction, each cut was sold at a single price of 15 to 20 British pounds for what amounted to 15 to 20 pounds of flesh. With many more shoppers than supplies, some in the crowd pondered the possibility of a meat stampede if the sellers, from Harts of Smithfield, pulled out the Chateaubriand.
“It’s brilliant,” said technology recruiter Rowan Sallows, 37, of south London, who had just bagged an 18-pound turkey for the equivalent of about $25. “It’s good fun.”
Sallows said he had told his wife not to buy a turkey at the grocery store this year because he had decided to “roll the dice” and see if he could catch the attention of the auctioneers. His wife agreed, he said, only because it is his family rather than hers that is coming to dinner on Christmas.
Keith Hurford, 38, and his 6-year-old daughter, Maci Belle, were also among the luckier consumers, snagging both a turkey and a rump.
“It’s fantastic and the kids really like it,” said the London resident, who had not hurt his cause by hoisting his daughter on his shoulders, armed with a 20-pound note, to grab the eye of one of the roving butchers.
James, a 37-year-old Brixton chef (who declined to give his last name) snared a massive pork loin.
“You buy what you need and you’re done for the year — I wish I had an aging room,” he said. “It’s absolutely a brilliant way to spend Christmas Eve.”