There are some wonderful characteristics across the various beef breeds, though it is possible to get a bad steak from a pure, native breed animal and excellent beef from a careful cross. By ensuring that beef comes from a slow growing animal that has led as stress-free a life as possible, eaten a natural diet of grass and hay, and that the carcass has been dry aged after slaughter, you’re almost certain to get really good beef regardless. Whether a piece of beef is from our own herd of Longhorn, or selected from the collaborative partner farms with whom we work, each mouthful will be of the exceptional quality our customers have come to expect.
The reason we have such strong national heritage when it comes to producing beef is the same thing we’re internationally renowned for complaining about; the weather. With plenty of rain we grow very good grass, which is the primary natural diet for cattle and sheep.
While a great deal of the beef sold commercially is from dairy cattle or an associated cross, there are still plenty of farmers proudly committed to producing beef that bears testament to our heritage. Of the breeds we have farmed at the Ginger Pig, the majestic Longhorns were the first over ten years ago and we still have a herd today. Over the years we have farmed Shorthorns, Herefords, Belted Galloways and Riggits, but the Longhorn continues to be our main breed.
Fed a completely natural diet consisting of little other than grass, our cattle grow slowly to reach maturity between 24-30 months, some 10-16 months older than intensively reared grain-fed cattle. As with our other livestock, the most promising specimens remain in the herd to reproduce, while animals lacking the right confirmation are culled out – at full maturity – for beef. When a beef animal reaches its prime, we finish it on a rich combination of grains before it goes for slaughter.
We hang our beef to dry age, and the amount of time for which the meat hangs depends on each animal. Cattle with a good covering of fat will hang for much longer, and so our cold room manager is charged with ensuring that every piece of beef gets the time and attention warranted. While there are parts of the forequarter – used for stewing and slow cooking – which only really need hanging for a couple of weeks, a forerib or sirloin with a decent fat covering will age for upwards of 45 days while still improving, and the right rump can be taken to 80 with good effect.
Go about slaughter in the wrong way and you can ruin a perfectly good body of beef, as adrenalin and other stress hormones cause muscles to tense up making for tough meat. If you ever see a sheen on beef which is almost like an oil spill, along with patches of dark purple, you can guarantee that the animal was stressed at the time of slaughter (and possibly beforehand) and will make for tough eating.
Cattle travel as short a distance as possible, which is important for keeping stress levels at a minimum. They are always allowed to rest for a few hours after the journey, to make sure that they are calm. The animals are led into a single-file curved race so that they have no awareness of what is in front, and each animal is brought from the outdoor holding shed into the stunning pen individually. Once in the pen, the head is swiftly secured and a captive bolt inserted into the brain, which renders the animal senseless and ready for bleeding. Once bled, the hide and digestive system are removed, and the body is ready to be quartered and hung.
The Tamworth pig is the first animal we ever farmed, and it is from its distinctive copper coat that we get our name. England has a rich heritage of regional speciality when it comes to pigs, not only in how the different breeds developed but in the wealth of ham curing recipes which spring from this. These regional ham specialities have sadly all but died out, as the proliferation of the Wiltshire cure took precedence over more traditional methods.
Heritage breeds have declined a great deal in the 20th century, as post-war industrialisation paved the way for heavily hybridised animals, and modern techniques were introduced to produce large quantities of cheap meat. However we have some of the few remaining pure bloodlines, and as well as the Tamworth, we farm Gloucester Old Spot and Berkshire pigs – and each breed has its own characteristics.
Because, as an industry, we have arrived at a situation where very few bloodlines of breeds exist, it is essential that we cross some of our pigs for meat production. Where our breeding stock is comprised entirely of pure rare and native breeds, a lot of the meat we sell is an FI hybrid, meaning it is the progeny of two purebred but different parents. This allows us to maintain the quality and characteristics of our traditional breeds, without narrowing the gene pool – and we never use the resulting piglet crosses as breeding stock. Among the more popular of these crosses is a Tamworth (ginger) boar over a Berkshire (black) sow, producing lovely little piglets with a ginger coat and black spots – a traditional Victorian cross known as the Plum Pudding pig. We also utilise the British Landrace in order to ensure good-sized litters where native breeds alone may not do so well.
Our piglets are weaned at four to eight weeks, and are kept in their family groups until slaughter – a pig that is kept with the piglets it recognises is much less likely to fight. The pigs live outdoors (with each family having its own shelter), and have constant access to food to avoid the stress and competition associated with set meal times. They live on a natural diet of homegrown cereal, with a protein content of around 12% to ensure they grow slowly and steadily. They reach slaughter at around 24 weeks, while a more intensively reared animal can be killed at around 17.
Traditionally lambs are born in spring time, when the weather is warming up and there’s a summer of rich pastureland ahead; when nature provides the best conditions for survival. Although sheep are hardy creatures, a newborn lamb is susceptible to the cold, and so most breeds only come into season when the days start to get short – in time to give birth in the spring.
In order to provide lamb throughout the year, many large retailers rely on lamb from New Zealand to see them through the winter, or else resort to animals born through controlled reproduction, where ewes are artificially brought into season through a type of hormonal intervention called sponging.
There is, however, one breed of sheep in Britain which can breed naturally all year round, and that is the Dorset. Dorset ewes will take the tup (ram) in early summer to lamb in late November, ready to provide spring lamb in time for Easter. The Dorsets are lambed in sheds to shelter newborns from the weather and from predators, and once they’re strong enough they’re back out in the fields, with drystone walls and their mothers for shelter.
We work with three different types of sheep, so that we have a supply of fresh, excellent quality and naturally reared lamb throughout the year. By that last point, we mean we stay within the confines of the seasons and of natural breeding patterns, in order to put as little stress and unnatural pressure on the animals as possible. As ruminants their diet consists almost entirely of grass and herbage, supplemented with stubble turnips, which they enjoy in winter, and fodderbeet for the ewes when they’re in lactation.
The type of lamb we have in the shops depends on what time of year it is. From January to Easter we have fantastic hogget from our Blackface sheep, which is absolutely packed with flavour. It should be cooked fairly low and slow and stands up well to robust ingredients like rosemary, garlic and anchovies. Easter signals the start of spring lamb, and ours is from Dorset sheep. Early spring lamb has a uniquely delicate flavour, as it is largely fed on mothers’ milk and will only nibble at a little hay. It pairs beautifully with the lighter vegetables of spring; delicate fresh peas, English asparagus, watercress, ramsons and purple sprouting broccoli. From late summer we’re onto the Mules, which have good flavour thanks to a summer of grazing on rich heather moorland.
While mutton went out of favour and has started to come back in again, it’s not a particularly common thing for us to have in the shops – we probably only kill two or three bodies a week. Although meat is technically considered mutton at two years old, it is at its best – absolutely packed with flavour, though needs very slow cooking – when it comes from cull ewes which are between 4-7 years old; the male is far too tough by this age.
We sell a wide variety of poultry in our shops, some British and some French. The reason we stock the French poultry is down to flavour and taste; there are many birds you simply can’t get over here. Bringing back a selection of the superb poultry of France also makes good sense for us; we deliver a van of beef to a steakhouse and butcher in Paris each week, and so it’s good to come back with something new from Rungis Market.
Below is the range of poultry we most commonly stock, though there’s often a little more variety in the counters.
BOTTERILLS’ GINGER PIG 100 DAY CHICKEN
A cross between a Cornish Game cockerel and a Sussex or Dorking hen, reared by Richard and Gerald Botterill on Lings View Farm on the Belvoir Estate. The Cornish Game is an old fighting breed, and so these chickens move around a lot making them quite slow growing – they’re killed at around 100 days, where most commercial birds go at 60. As free range birds, they feed on a completely natural diet of homegrown cereals plus the grass and herbage of their surroundings. Because they move around a lot, they develop big strong legs – but still have a good ratio of breast meat.
Much bigger than the average bird, they should be roasted or pot-roasted at a relatively low temperature, at around 160C for two to three hours with a little liquid. If roasted at a high temperature they can become tough. Cooked properly they are exceptionally succulent and they’re very tasty – they’re hung for a week guts in which gives them a slight hint of gaminess. You’ll get a truly brilliant stock from the carcass.
The Botterill family also produce our seasonal 100 day ducks, as well as our free range geese and turkeys for Christmas.
POULET DE BRESSE, FRENCH
A small but incredibly rich chicken protected by and produced under very strict rules. The birds are as free range as they come, with 10 square metres per chicken. For the final two weeks of their lives, Bresse chickens are fed a mix of grain mash and milk which is part of what makes them so rich and succulent – they have almost as much fat as some ducks. They’re hung guts in for a week after slaughter, and this is how we buy them – complete with head and feet. They should be roasted at a fairly low temperature. The liver of these birds is exceptional – tastes like it’s the foie gras of the chicken world.
POULET FERMIERE DE LANDES, FRENCH
A Label Rouge certified chicken from specially accredited farmers in the Landes region of France. Free range and corn fed. Excellent flavour, quite leggy and an attractive colour too thanks to the diet of corn. Succulent, great for pot roasting and roasting at a lower temperature.
POULET NOIR, FERMIERE DU GERS, FRENCH
The name comes from the distinctive black legs – another free range, slow-growing, Label Rouge French chicken. They are a little leaner than the other types of French chicken so add a little butter to keep it moist. They have lots of flavour – again, slightly gamey – and are the chicken of choice for most Parisian brasseries.
CANETTE DE BARBARIE / BARBARIE DUCKLING, FRENCH
Neat little Barbarie ducklings which will serve 2-3 people. Full flavoured and gamey, comparatively lean but incredibly tender if given the right care and attention in the kitchen. Although they roast well, they’re absolutely superb pot-roasted.
A small free range chicken, ideal for 1-2 people.
CHALLANS GUINEA FOWL, FRENCH
These are a slow-growing breed. They graze and peck at on grain, grass and herbage, which you can really taste in the end result. Lots of flavour, but definitely recommend pot-roasting these as they’re quite lean.