The omens aren’t good when I roll up at The Firs, a shiny new housing estate on the border between Bexley and Dartford in Kent. I can see plenty of signs pointing the way to luxury five-bedroom homes. But there is no sign of what I have come to find.
I am tempted to turn back but I decide to persevere and make my way through The Firs’ maze of streets. The reward for my tenacity is to stumble across Dennis of Bexley, one of the country’s premier independent butchers and deli stores.
The store is packed with food that screams “buy me”. However, I am not here to shop. Dennis of Bexley is my place of employment for the day. I am about to go back to the floor and find out what life is really like for those on the front line.
I’m greeted by Wendy Mulford, one of two sisters whose parents run Dennis of Bexley. Wendy introduces me to her sister Sarah and her father Keith, who’s the butcher in the family. It’s worth pointing out at this stage that there is no longer a ‘Dennis’. “He was an old man from ages ago,” Wendy explains. The shop has a history dating back 100 years, and the name has just stuck.
Steeped in history it may be, but the Mulfords’ current shop has only been open since October last year. They were forced to leave their previous premises, in the heart of Bexley town centre, when their landlord doubled the rent.
But while the new shop might seem to be a little out on a limb - it’s about a mile from Bexley - Wendy tells me that all their old customers still shop with them. Even better, they have lots of new ones, thanks to the free parking outside and, of course, all those people who live on The Firs estate. Sales since the move, she says, have doubled.
I make some admiring noises about the shop - in the shadow of a pile of trophies the family has won over the years.
Wendy explains that before the shop opened, she and her sister went to Belgium to get ideas on a trip organised through the Guild of Q Butchers. The Belgians, apparently, are streets ahead of anyone else in the world of deli stores, and not just chocolate.
I am given my uniform, but I am not yet needed on the shop floor. Things are quiet for now so Wendy sets me to the task of making pies.
The pressure is on: not only have I never made a pie in my life, but pies are probably the most important thing that Dennis of Bexley does. They sell 1,000 a week, and regulars affectionately call it “The Pie Shop”. The regulars, incidentally, include a number of celebrities: Daniella Westbrook (Sam in EastEnders), Craig Fairbrass (Evil Dan in EastEnders) and Olympic javelin thrower Steve Backley (never appeared in EastEnders to my knowledge). Oh, and the shop was officially opened by “Fat Lady” Clarissa Dickson Wright.
But back to pie-making, which at first appears straightforward. Even I can scoop spoonfuls of homemade chicken and leek filling into a pie base.
But there’s more to it than that: if customer grumbles are to be avoided, I must check that there is a minimum amount of chicken chunks in the pie. Right now, the good reputation of Dennis of Bexley rests on my shoulders, a thought that makes me shudder a little.
With bases filled, the pie tops go on. And now comes the tricky bit - making it look like a pie. There’s a machine for this - and it looks like it dates back to the days when someone called Dennis ran the shop.
The mechanism is simple - you pull down a lever, which turns the pastry sheet over the pie into a neatly crimped pie lid.
Simple it may be, but you have to balance the delicacy required not to burst the pie with the necessary force to cut a clean lid. On this evidence alone, balance is not something I am naturally blessed with.
Still, surely even I can pipe mashed potato on to a shepherd’s pie, which is my next job. Actually, while Wendy and Sarah make it look easy, I just make it look rubbish. But if they find my inadequacies irritating, at no point does it show. Wendy shows me how a big handful of grated cheese can cover a multitude of mashed potato sins.
Lunchtime is approaching and it’s getting busy out on the shop floor, where I am summoned to help Jennifer and Lynda make sandwiches.
Being a journalist, with deadlines to meet, I face pressure every day. But there is no pressure like a hungry builder eyeing your every move as you make him a beef and tomato sandwich.
Initially I’m worried that I might not be generous enough with the filling (after all, it is usually by this measure that most people judge sandwich shops).
Jennifer helpfully advises me to put in as much filling as I would want if I were the customer. Given my inclination towards gluttony, I advise her that, if I did so, Dennis of Bexley might just go bust. “Then put in half as much as you would want,” she says wryly.
And so the day goes on, making more pies (steak and Guinness this time), a short spell behind the butcher’s counter, where Keith seems less than inclined to leave me alone with so many sharp knives about, and a spell slicing cooked meats.
Despite being some distance from the town centre, Dennis of Bexley retains a sense of being at the heart of the community. It’s also a testament to the Mulfords’ skills that their shop can flourish despite being hemmed in on all sides by large supermarkets (for the anoraks that’s Tesco in Foots Cray, Asda in Swanley, Sainsbury in Dartford and Morrisons in Sidcup).
By the end of the day, I am exhausted, but pleased to have contributed to the lives and stomachs of the people of Bexley.
The next time I go back there, and I will return, it will not be to work, but most definitely to shop.