Profile: Findlay's the butcher, Portobello

'AH DON'T think people understand what a skilled job it is," says John Anderson. "As skilled as a surgeon. The only difference is oor patients are deid."

• The missing link: Jimmy Dixon prepares sausages at Findlay's of Portobello Photograph: Ian Rutherford

Anderson is a butcher. He is 63 years old, looks a lot like Len Goodman, and is as nimble with his hands as that gentleman is with his feet. It is, for him, the work of just five minutes to separate a substantial carcass into its constituent parts. "That's it," he says at the end of the process. "One pig cut up."

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It is Thursday afternoon in Findlay's of Portobello. There are few places on God's green Earth as busy as a butcher's at Christmas. The shop on Portobello High Street is heaving, hoaching, hot. Hundreds of people want to order turkey and, for Hogmanay, steak pie.

Joe Findlay and his staff start at seven in the morning and the work sometimes goes on until the small hours. Butchers tend to spend Christmas Day in a state of near exhaustion.

"We hate every minute of it," Findlay, the boss, says of this time of year. "Oh aye, we hate it with a vengeance." I don't know. To me, he seems to love it.

As the low winter sun shines blindingly through the big window, silhouetting the strings of onions and garlic, customers crocodile in. It's intense, unrelenting. Listen for a while and their orders seem to take on a kind of rhythm and lyricism; haiku extemporised by hungry poets.

"Two o' they chops, please,

And gie us a wee haggis.

Much are yer ingins?"

"Five pork an' eight beef

Sausages. Three o' they pies.

Kin ah get goose fat?"

"Ony smoked boneless?

Could ye cut them soze they fit

Ma pan? Thanks neebor."

Behind the counter, a heaped dish of mince gleams like a casket of rubies. Findlay and his workers fetch the customers what they want with humour and efficiency. Female shoppers, the vast majority, are addressed invariably as "my dear".

Jimmy Dixon, a solid-looking 65-year-old with sticky-up white hair, twists a long, plump Cumberland sausage into five neat links with the unfussy aplomb of a street magician making balloon animals. "Give your receipt to the girl," John Anderson tells a man buying steak pie, "and she'll take yer money off ye like aw the women dae."

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There's a strong sense of vaudeville. This theatrical experience - the stage-dressing and props within the glass counter, the ad libs and flourishes of the butchers - is what old-fashioned high street shopping offers which Tesco and that ilk cannot. "You need to be a character," says Findlay. "You've got to be able to put yourself in front of people. If you've no' got personality, forget it. The public are an audience."

Joe Findlay is 66 but looks younger. He has blue eyes and dark grey hair. Like the other butchers, he wears a blue apron with white stripes. On his left hand, a white glove covers a bandaged wound. "I did it yesterday, stuck a knife in my hand," he says. "That's an occupational hazard." He has lots of scars but prides himself on having all his fingers. "I've seen some horrific accidents over the years, oh aye. Knives going into groins. A chap getting a finger cut off in the mincer."

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He has been in the trade since his mid-teens, as have John Anderson and Jimmy Dixon. The three butchers remember the days, before hygiene rules were so strict, when all butchers kept cats to deter mice. They remember how pleasant sawdust smelled when you spread it over the floor in the morning, and how it was black with blood and grease by the time you swept it up at night. No fridges then. Meat would hang from the ceiling. The customers walked under and among it when they entered the shop.

"When ah started, the old boys used to smoke while cutting the meat," says Anderson. "One old boy used to put whisky in his tea."

Dixon laughs. "It kept you warm."

Dixon actually started out in Portobello as a message boy, and remembers cycling over the cobbles on Christmas morning, delivering fresh turkeys to the fairground folk on the promenade.

Animals were first domesticated for their meat around 8500BC and so it's likely that butchers can trace their roots to then. By 1490, it had become such an important profession in Edinburgh that the fleshers, as they were known, formed an early trade incorporation. "The butcher shops were in the Grassmarket and they were killing in the closes," says Joe Findlay. "Blood would be running down Fleshmarket Close. Still is on a Saturday night."

Jimmy Dixon estimates that by the 1960s there were more than 500 butcher shops in Edinburgh. Findlay reckons there are now just 30. Across Britain, over the same period, the numbers have fallen from an estimated 33,000 to around 7,500. The rise of the supermarkets, plus the BSE and E coli crises, have taken their toll on traditional independent butchers. Young people, unfamiliar with the terminology of cuts and joints, have over the past decade or so tended to stay away from butcher shops, finding the supermarket meat counter a less intimidating environment. However, there is anecdotal evidence that a new generation - intensely interested in the quality and providence of what they eat, and hostile to the whole idea of mass-produced food - are returning to butchers.

Findlay's has been on Portobello High Street since 1986, but there has been a butcher's shop on the site for more than a century. Joe Findlay's recipe for haggis, which has been named on television as one of the 50 things you should eat before you die, goes back further. He was given the recipe by a butcher called Willie Kersal, now dead, in whose family it had passed from father to son, all butchers, for generations. Kersal had been given the recipe early in the 20th century. It is thought to be at least 200 years old. Findlay keeps it in a safe and in his head. It has become famous internationally. Every January he travels to Bergen and prepares 400 pounds of haggis for the Robert Burns societies of Norway. "It's a sort of pilgrimage," he says.

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There is something comfortingly nostalgic about a butcher's shop. It is certainly a sensual place to visit. The first thing you notice is the noise; the bang of the cleaver, the swoosh of knives being sharpened, the rasp of the hacksaw as it grinds through a spine, leaving a fine white dust on the wooden block. There's a unique language spoken, too. The conversation of the butchers is peppered with names for the different parts of meat and bone; heuk and hough, spale and nap.

Then there's what you see. Just walk into the fridge. It's an extraordinary vision. You can understand why Rembrandt painted The Carcass Of An Ox, and why the chapter describing the work in a slaughterhouse is the best part of Archie Hind's novel The Dear Green Place. Meat, if we take time to consider it, looks incredible. Sides of beef and pork are hung from steel hooks pushed through between sinew and bone. Fat hangs in creamy gobbets like melted candle tallow. The flesh is the deep shiny red of pomegranate seeds. There are ribs and two orphaned trotters. Within two pails lie livers, maroon-black and gleaming. A pig, hanging head down, has been split open from snout to tail; it's less an incision, more a geological fault, a great red ravine.

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Anderson takes the animal down from its hook and lugs it over to the table. For men in their sixties, these butchers are strong; a hindquarter of beef can weigh 180 kilos, a forequarter will be around 120 kilos. It's a job that requires a mix of brute strength and manual dexterity. Grunting with effort, Anderson pulls the pig open and removes the kidneys, which are embedded in a layer of fat. These have been scored down the middle as part of the vet's inspection; laid to one side they resemble giant coffee beans.

It's fascinating to watch the butchers work. So fast and controlled. The quick and the dead. To me, a hindquarter of beef looks like an abstract lump of meat. But they go at it with their knives, "boning out" then cutting it into different joints, finding the tiny seams between the muscle groups. It's a lot like sculpture. You start with a block of marble and end up with a goddess. Butchers start with a lump of beef and produce neat parcels of silverside, sirloin, topside and so on, some tied with elegant slipknots. It is an imposition of order. If you have ever seen a cow slaughtered and cut open, you'll know that it's chaos in there, a mess of glistening gore. Extraordinary to go from that to this.

Joe Findlay is very concerned with aesthetics. He wants his meat to look beautiful. The butchers' art is essentially presentational; they are spin doctors for the whole business of eating living creatures. It's also what I'd call a proper job and, in some ways, I envy the men who do it. So I understand when, shaking my hand and saying goodbye, Findlay explains why he has chosen not to retire. "This is my life," he says. "Simple as that."