A few years ago I came up with an idea for a new law: the meat licence. To get a meat licence – a legal document allowing you to buy meat in shops and restaurants – you’d have to, at some point in your adult life, go to an abattoir and kill something. And not just a chicken, either – something substantial, like a cow, or at least a goat.
Once you’ve done it; looked the beast in its beady eyes and zapped it with an electric stick, you get your licence. In the supermarket you’d be asked for ID when buying meat like you are when you buy booze. No licence, no meat. If you didn’t have one, you’d have to skulk outside Waitrose like a teenager, asking strangers to buy it for you. Either that or start eating Quorn.
It’s not an anti-meat thing: I’m a dedicated, enthusiastic carnivore. The idea was to get rid of some of the disconnect between the trays of pink stuff you find in the supermarket and the things that trot around on farms eating grass and farting.
It turns out I wasn’t the first to think of it: an organisation called the Meat Licence Proposal has been around since at least 2008 and handed out its maiden, albeit entirely functionless, licence last year. It goes into a bit more detail than I did: to eat lamb, you have to have killed a lamb (etcetera), and it has guidelines about offing them humanely – you’re not just sent into a field with a trowel and intent.
If the process puts a few people off meat then great, that’ll have a positive effect in terms of sustainability and reducing intensive farming. On the downside it would be a logistical nightmare and would probably create an unhealthy black-market for unregulated meat. And where do you draw the line: should you have to visit a sweatshop before you’re allowed to buy a football shirt? The answer is, I don’t know, whatever, just shoot that pig in the face.
Wright Brothers’ new restaurant would probably go down pretty well with the Meat Licence Proposal; at least you get to look the animal you’re about to eat in the eye, or its shell-secreting membrane, or its ganglia. Wright Brothers Spitalfields is the company’s fourth opening, located on the north side of Old Spitalfields Market. This means if you’re visiting on a week night you have to walk through what looks like a ghost-town as imagined by Walt Disney – pristine, empty streets lined with faux-old shop frontages selling things made of lace and leather. It took a few minutes to work out if I was in the right place.
Inside there’s a big, round bar where you can perch, or you can sit by the tanks filled with oysters and Canadian lobsters, which pace angrily back and forth, waiting for the inevitable. These tanks are common across swathes of Asia and North America but still something of a novelty on these shores, largely down to health and safety legislation. Wright Brothers circumvents this thanks to a gigantic complex of underground tanks and filtration systems, which provide the ideal habitat for its fruits de mer before they end up on your plate. The rest of the restaurant’s landscape is made up of exposed brick, polished wood and low-watt lightbulbs, which will be familiar to anyone who has eaten out in the last 10 years.
Oysters are Wright Brothers’ bread and butter and there were at least 10 varieties on the menu when I visited (this changes depending on availability, season and whim). Connoisseurs can amuse themselves by ordering a selection and trying to guess where each one is from. The Canadian Beausoleil is the pick of them – smaller than the rest with a delicate, nutty flavour. It’s a contrast to the French Gillardeau Speciales, from La Rochelle, which taste like being in the sea as a child and getting hit in the face by a wave. The Cornish Duchy – from the Wright Brothers’ own stretch of coastline – has a distinctive, metallic aftertaste, like sucking the end of a battery.
The crab croquettes, of which you get three, are pricey at £7 but are filled with meat so sweet and moreish they just about justify it. Likewise, olives stuffed with anchovies were excellent – a nice change of pace from all the ever-so-healthy raw stuff.
For the main, we picked out the most furious of the lobsters, the one most dedicated to its escape attempts, clambering over a pile of brown crabs to test the strength of its glass prison. Into a bucket of ice he went, returning half an hour later having been broiled, and looking rather more rosy around the cheeks. It wasn’t the meatiest specimen but was decent enough.
The bream was as perfect as bream can be, cooked in salt and filleted at the table; no messing around. By this stage, and taking into account two perfectly fine sides of fried potato galette and squash, I was stuffed. This didn’t stop me from panic ordering some caerphilly cheese, which I barely touched, and a nice port, which I did.
You can’t fault the quality or provenance of the food here, nor the fact that the staff seem to be genuinely into it, rather than reading from a crib-sheet. How could they improve? By letting you hit the lobster off the side of a pot yourself and giving you a licence.
First published in City A.M.