Tag Archives: meat

Guy’s Newsletter: ruminating on protein

“Dad, how can you call yourself an environmentalist, and still sell meat?”. First one daughter, then the other, then even my previously carnivorous sons joined in. Their epiphany was brought on by the documentary Cowspiracy; it is smug, irritating and outrageously one-sided in its selection of evidence and ends with an unjustified and ill-considered swipe at Greenpeace. However, despite my irritation, I would agree (uncomfortably for someone selling meat) that no thinking person can reasonably claim to be an environmentalist, or even a humanist, while continuing to eat more than very small amounts of animal protein; most forms of animal agriculture are simply wrecking our planet.

Climate change-wise the arguments are complex, involving ruminant methane emissions, deforestation for grazing and soya production, methane and nitrous oxide emitting manure heaps and soil, intensive versus extensive farming methods and more. As our planet is so diverse in soils, topography, ecology, diet and agricultural methods, it’s unwise to be dogmatic anyway. However, after weeks scouring scientific papers, we have reached the following initial conclusions:

  • Livestock agriculture contributes 10-12% of manmade climate change; arguably as much as every car, plane, truck and ship on the planet.
  • Livestock agriculture is grossly inefficient and requires 5-10 times more land to feed ourselves than a vegan diet; there just isn’t enough land to go round. OK it’s not that simple; there may well be a credible argument for animals grazing permanent pastures on land unsuited for growing crops for humans, to produce high quality, high welfare meat and dairy, as with most organic farming, but we will have to eat much less of it.

Alongside this are all the health, animal welfare, pollution and antibiotic resistance arguments against eating meat; hard to quantify, but very real. There will be exceptions, but the general conclusion is inescapable; for the good of us and our planet, we must collectively eat much less animal protein. Over the coming weeks we’ll be exploring the issue and suggesting ways to nudge any committed carnivores away from some of their meat. I hope you’ll feel compelled to join us.

Guy Watson

Visit www.riverford.co.uk/how-much-meat to join the debate, take our ‘drop a day’ pledge, browse meat-minimising recipes and do our survey.

River Cottage day out: From field to fork

We pulled our wellies on and headed down to Park Farm near Axminster, home to River Cottage HQ in Devon, to spend the day getting a taste of how the folks at River Cottage are inspiring people to explore the journey of our food from field to fork.

We joined guests on the River Cottage Experience course, created to connect people to home-grown, home-cooked food and inspire people to get the best out of seasonal and ethical produce by cooking from scratch.

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How to bake your daily bread: just use the basic ingredients
The day started with an introduction to bread, setting the scene with a reminder that a true loaf should only contain 5 basic ingredients: yeast, water, salt, flour and sugar. We couldn’t agree more.

Head Chef, Gelf, got the class mixing and kneading dough for a simple white loaf which we left to prove whilst heading out around the farm to see the livestock and crops based on the farm.

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From field to fork: fruit, veg and livestock
Set in 65 acres of rolling Devon hills, the pebbly soil and steep gradient of the land surrounding Park Farm lends itself best to livestock and grazing. The flatter parts of the terrain is put to good use: unheated polytunnels and allotment areas dedicated to cultivating fruit and veg, and carefully managed traditional hay meadows designed to provide feed for livestock and act as a biodiversity haven for bugs, bees and butterflies.

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Fruit & veg
Hugh’s famous kitchen garden was brimming with autumnal seasonal veg – cavolo nero, curly kale, runner beans, broccoli and more. Destined for the River Cottage kitchen, roots, brassicas, legumes and salad crops grow up set against the backdrop of the famous River Cottage farmhouse. The crop types are rotated around four quadrants of the garden each year to minimise crop-specific pests and diseases and nutrients.

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Livestock
The team at River Cottage rear their own livestock – cattle, sheep, poultry and pigs. All are cared for to the highest possible organic welfare standards and kept within a stone’s throw of the kitchen – the food chain doesn’t get much shorter than this.

Sheepy facts
Busy grazing on clover-rich organic pasture, Farmer Dan introduced the group to River Cottage’s flock of Poll Dorset sheep. A thrifty breed, the Poll Dorset has a long breeding season and can live on tougher pastures. Here Dan explained the definition behind the different types of lamb meat you can buy:

new season lamb – lamb born in the current breeding season
old season lamb – lamb born in the previous breeding season, but still under a year old
hogget (or two tooth) – over a year old
mutton – a sheep who has lambed and is over 2 years old

RC kitchen

Back to the kitchen ….
Staying true to the season, we started prep on an autumnal game casserole pie that we would be tucking into together later on that day. An earthy mix of meat including hare (net caught), wood pigeon, duck, grouse and beef reared on the farm and hung for 6 weeks, the flavours rising in the River Cottage kitchen had everyone sneaking an extra mouthful to ‘check the flavour’ just one more time (!). We left the casserole to reduce while we headed outside to make our own pizza for lunch in River Cottage’s outdoor wood-fired oven and soak up the breath-taking Devon views.

Bake off! Rough puff pastry
In a scene similar to a Bake Off, it was back to the kitchen to make up a block of rough puff pastry, carefully creating layers of butter and flour which we used to top off our casseroles.

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Profiteroles & thought-provoking pigs
Simpler than some might think, we cracked straight on to whipping up a batch of profiteroles which were popped into the oven, then it was time to learn about butchery and home-curing bacon techniques using a pig reared by the River Cottage team at Park Farm.

How often do you see pigs in a field?
Did you know that we rear as many pigs in the UK as sheep? How many pigs have you seen in a field in the countryside? Next time you pick up a cheap packet of sausages in a supermarket, spare a thought for the pigs. You see plenty of sheep grazing in the fresh air, but the majority of our pigs spend their lives reared indoors in enormous barns, fed only feed and pumped with antibiotics to meet low prices demanded by consumers. You can choose to support high-welfare farms and happier pigs who have had the chance to snuffle around for tasty morsels in the outdoors.

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From field to fork: time to enjoy the fruits of our labour
After a great day on the River Cottage Experience course seeing how food gets from the farm to our plate, the end of the day marked a time to sit down with a glass of wine, discuss what was learnt and enjoy the fruits of our labour … with a dash of River Cottage sparkle added to the food by their team of chefs.

All in all, everyone enjoyed what was a fulfilling, fact-laden day – taking home a feeling of being better connected with where our food comes from and a bag full of bread, profiteroles and casserole!

If you’d like to join the River Cottage team for a day on the farm cooking, eating and drinking (or think it’d make a great Christmas present), you can see the full range of courses here.

Ben’s meat blog: Food fraud, regulations & halal

For once, organic British shepherds must be rubbing their hands in glee. Their reputation is definitely 100% untainted. There aren’t any organic licensed halal slaughterhouses and I shouldn’t think there ever will be. In fact it’s all a bit of a storm in a teacup. It’s hard to get a complete picture of what goes on in New Zealand abattoirs but, in all probability, the method used for halal and non-halal slaughter is identical, except for the prayer. But as usual, a little bit of digging exposes a murky world of parcels of meat without addresses or senders. In the UK some halal slaughterhouses, endorsed by purists, don’t pre-stun at all. Nor do kosher Jewish operations, and demand for certain cuts means that surplus meat is sold on to the conventional market.

Food fraud has become the buzz phrase of the year and this week’s news shows yet again how the existing system of self regulation, combined with external Food and Trading Standards, just doesn’t work. Organic standards aren’t perfect but make a difference because everybody concerned wants and needs them to.

For the vast majority of our lamb and beef, we use a local operation a couple of miles away that Riverford has been dealing with for over thirty years. They’re a family run business with three generations actively involved. It’s a s*** job but someone has to do it, and they do it with a degree of feeling that makes me happy to shout about it rather than hide it – and that’s saying something.

I was going to go on to talk about news from a couple of weeks ago that many processed lamb ready meals were anything but. I think I’ve said enough. That particular fraud won’t happen with a short, straight supply chain. Who knows what happens on a slow boat from New Zealand?

Ben Watson

venison season: Ben’s blog – going back to my roast – whoops, roots

Occasionally, for whatever reason and in whatever way, we all feel the need to get back to our roots. Genealogists can spend hours on the internet. For organic food lovers, venison is the way to go. It’s about as natural and unadulterated as meat gets. Truly wild animals can’t, by definition, be organic, but farmed venison, whose breeding and life cycle has hardly changed in the last thousand years, can. In fact, without the likes of Bad King John and James I and their bloodthirsty chums chasing them, a deer’s life is on the up. These days they’re born in the spring, live a stress free ‘park life’ and are dispatched in the field, eighteen months later, by expert marksmen, before the stress of autumn rutting.

losing the stigma

Across the pond, venison is all the rage with followers of the Weston A Price Foundation, but you don’t have to be an earth mother to enjoy it. The season for farmed venison actually starts in August, but despite it shining on the barbecue, it’s much more suited to autumn eating. Why we don’t eat more of it is a mystery, because on health, welfare and sustainability grounds it can’t be beat. It’s taken a generation for venison to divest itself of its toff nosh/cute bambi/’no I deer’ jokes image. It’s been a tough nut to crack, but finally the health benefits (high in protein, iron and Omega-3, low in fat and cholesterol), availability and our endless quest for something new has won it its rightful place on our plate.

‘v’ is for versatile

When I think of venison, I see comforting casseroles and chunky red wines, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Firstly, it’s just like any meat: some cuts grill, some roast, others stew. Secondly, venison is worldwide and totally adaptable – it takes rogan josh and stir fries in its stride. It also lends itself beautifully to my current favourite ‘dish of the day’, Bo Kho/Vietnamese Beef Stew. My top tip is, in a casserole, once you’ve browned your meat and added the liquid, don’t even think about letting it boil. Slow cookers/crock pots are best but, failing that, the oven on minimum setting is your best bet. Lean meat always needs TLC.

To keep the venison company, we’ve got some exciting new wines coming your way in October. Nativa Cabernet Sauvignon will work with roasts and steaks and Nativa Carmenere is perfect with casseroles and stews. There will also be a rustic Rosso Piceno for ragus and an award winning Corbières, so watch this space for our new Autumn wines.

Ben Watson

Ben’s meat blog: why beef prices are going up

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The cow jumped over the moon, and organic beef prices are going in the same direction.
Horse-gate has been good news for food businesses whose core values centre on known and proven provenance. Organic certification is by far the clearest way of demonstrating this, but the problem now is that everyone is trying to muscle in on the act. Supermarkets, who for years have paid little more than lip service to organics, treating it more like a loss-making inconvenience they could do without, are all reportedly desperate to re-list as much organic produce as possible – particularly beef. However there just isn’t enough to go around.

Last year’s poor harvest and growing conditions has meant that even low input, extensive organic farmers haven’t had enough fodder (grass, silage and hay) so they’ve turned them out to wait for the sun to shine and the organic spring grass to grow and give them a rich enough diet. Poor supply is compounded by the fact that until recently, premiums for organic beef have been minuscule (as low as 5%) and many farmers have decided that the challenge of producing their herds as fully organic has been too great, so have surrendered their organic certification as a result. If the supermarkets had supported organic farmers over the last five years, rather than giving them the cold shoulder, supply wouldn’t be so tight now. Now the premium has risen to a stonking 30% with no signs of levelling off. Rearing organic beef, even on grass, does cost more money, but not that much. Most farmers would be happy with 12-15%, which I would hope you would be happy to pay. It seems like a small price to pay for the peace of mind guaranteed provenance brings and the good work organic farmers do looking after our green and pleasant land.

At Riverford we have a good relationship with our suppliers. We pay a fixed price based on an average of the last quarter and this has worked well. Obviously they want to make an honest buck, but our farmers would much rather deal with us than buyers for the multiples. Most of them have been around for long enough to have experienced first hand the fickle whims of ‘those who must be obeyed.’ They didn’t start farming, and convert to organic, to see the fruits of their labour disappear into an anonymous black hole to be blended with 25% horse meat.

However, no farmer will go on selling beef for significantly less than market price for long, so we’ve shortened the last quarter by a month to hurry up the process of bringing our prices into line, so we can still pay a competitive price for our suppliers’ organic beef.

I’m afraid the inevitable outcome will be a small rise in our prices for all things beefy, but rest assured, we will keep increases to a minimum. We want to work with, and support our farmers as much as we want to deliver the best priced, best quality food via the shortest supply chain. That’s the Riverford way.

Ben’s meat blog: ‘Horsegate’ a few months on

It’s been a tough start to the year for the conventional meat industry – ‘horsegate’, closely followed by more research showing that a diet heavy on processed meat products isn’t a good option.

Two seemingly separate issues, in practice closely connected. Now that we have had a month or two to reflect, and the emotional outrage has dissipated, we are left with a murky picture of duplicity and dodgy dealings. The food ingredients industry is partly made of unaccountable, offshore, often privately-owned trading companies with tentacles extending all over the world. Containers of frozen and chilled product crisscross Europe, and the world, controlled from an anonymous computer in a hidden away office – these people don’t want a high profile. Given that this is the world we live in, and governing international traders in offshore locations is nigh on impossible, you could argue that we all got off lightly – this time.

It’s made the multiple retailers shout about provenance and buying British, but in practice that won’t extend beyond meat cuts on the shelves. They can set up supply chain audits to their hearts’ content but when the main driving force is price and the quest for cheap food, what are they worth? They might get the right species but that still leaves plenty of scope for abuse. Drugs and antibiotics, concealed fat, mechanically recovered and tenderised meat, animal welfare etc aren’t going to show up in a DNA test. And don’t get all NIMBY and say it’s only our continental cousins who are to blame.

Question: Where does all this dodgy meat end up?

Answer: In processed meat products. Hence,including both in this blog.

Question: Is food processing and technology for the benefit of the industry or the customer?

Answer:We might convince ourselves that it’s making our lives easier and bringing us food that we can’t make at home, but the main driver is adding value, extending shelf life and making money – so the answer for ten is industry. The contents of a factory made sausage or pâté bear no resemblance to what you might make at home. Obviously we don’t make turkey twizzlers and the like, but I wouldn’t want to. I can’t believe that I would be writing this if all processed meat products were made with a view from the customer perspective rather than that of the food industry.

At Riverford, and in much of the organic world, things are different. Food technology does have its place in organic food but, thanks to the Soil Association, it is mainly for the benefit of the consumer. The list of ingredients in our sausages, burgers and bacon is short. You can fit them and product costings on the back of an envelope, which was about as close to a business plan as I got.

As one of our butchers said – ‘with our burgers the mincer is only saving work for our teeth’. Now that is the ultimate example of food processing for the customer’s benefit – very much the Riverford way.

Lamb is to Easter what turkey is to Christmas but why?

Despite being a relatively recent import from the Americas, at least Christmas turkey marks the culmination of a natural ‘season fitting’ yearly cycle. Paschal, Passover, ‘lamb of god’ significance is something of an anachronism and doesn’t really fit in with farming reality. However there’s nothing wrong with a bit of pagan ritual to remind us of our past – especially when it tastes so good.

Most flocks of ewes naturally lamb in late winter/spring and take four months plus to grow, meaning that eating new season lamb at Easter definitely doesn’t fit into any rationally conceived farming calendar – even less so this year with Easter in March. However, like sheep, farmers are an adaptable breed and if you want to eat lamb at the time they would normally be born, then lamb you shall have – albeit outside of the natural lambing cycle.

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Officially, a lamb becomes a sheep when it grows four teeth (after about a year). With culinary trends happily favouring slightly older, more flavoursome lamb (approx. 9 months – 1 year old), many of our farmers are able to lamb later, in mid-summer, for the Easter market. This means a lamb which is a little older, but season fitting. Carefully managed, separating slow-growing triplets from faster-growing singleton and twin lambs, means many of these older lambs are at their prime now.

Our Easter lambs are all Devonian, born and bred from Peter Howlett at Moorhuish Farm, Brixham, David Camp near Totnes and Nigel Eggins on the River Tamar. All are three of our top farmers that we have worked with ever since we started offering meatboxes at Riverford. The Camps are an old Devon farming family with fathers, uncles and cousins all over the place – their lambs grow just over the hill from Riverford in Totnes, and on a big strip of National Trust land overlooking Hope Cove on the coast.

Born in late spring/summer last year and raised traditionally, our lamb may be a little older than the 4-month old slightly forced, mainly indoor reared, ‘sucked lamb’ available. This makes for a happier, healthier lamb that is older but much, much tastier.  Chefs love their milky, sucked lambs as a vehicle for their sauces but, for a roast, older is definitely better.

Here are a few ideas for your Easter lamb:

The classic roast lamb with rosemary and garlic: Takes a lot of beating but for flavour and easy cooking, slow roasted shoulder is equally good – particularly when the lamb can share the oven with a dish of potato dauphinoise or gratin while you relax or build up an appetite.  If there is just the two of you, or you really want to push the boat, out try a rack or two. For guaranteed foodie brownie points rack of lamb can’t be beaten – half an hour in the oven, sliced into cutlets and artfully arranged and we’re all queuing up for Masterchef.

Given the seasonal scarcity of fresh greens, a flageolet bean cassoulet with a few carrots mixed in is the ideal Easter accompaniment for roast lamb. Again it can be done in advance so Easter lunch can be as easy as you want to make it.  Just leave room for a chocolate egg or two.

Thanks for reading.

Ben Watson

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meat + ten veg: a balance

After two years of living with an intermittently vegan, intermittently vegetarian, occasionally carnivorous and invariably combative teenage daughter, I feel well versed in the social, ethical and environmental arguments around eating animals, eggs and dairy. My boys remain committed, unquestioning, steak-loving carnivores but I find that, though it may take a little more thought, I am happy to eat much less meat than I used to. In fact, if I am away from home for a few days I positively crave vegetables.

For most of us, eating less meat, less often would be better for our health, better for the planet and, if we use some of the money saved to buy thoughtfully, better for the animals involved. You might think this is just a self interested vegetable grower speaking, in 2010 I bought the Riverford meatbox company from my brother Ben, so it is in my interests to promote a balanced diet, with at least some meat. Grazed grass and clover plus manure (the welcome by-product) are also vital to maintaining soil fertility and allowing us to grow vegetables successfully. Our message, which you will hear us preach occasionally through the year, will be to eat good meat less often, to eat all the animal and to be sure that you are happy with how it is produced. We know all the farmers who supply our meat (many of them also supply vegetables); the animals are slaughtered carefully in a local, small family run abattoir and hung and butchered by hand by our team of skilled butchers. Even my daughter is happy to eat it, sometimes.

How does meat fit into your diet, if at all?

Guy Watson from Riverford in Devon

more than you needed to know about muck

The winters of my childhood were dominated by muck. 200 cows produce a lot of it and the dung pit always seemed to be spilling out into the yard, making shifting it a constant challenge. It might not sound idyllic but I enjoyed it, apart from the pig muck (that was just too stinky).

If you have ventured into the countryside recently, you might have noticed the smell (the muck is flying, the slurry gushing). With the soil dryer than it has been for 11 months, it is the ideal time for spreading manure. Some fling it, some dribble it, some inject it straight into the soil. The prevailing problem is that the stuff is produced from housed cattle in the winter, when the ground is normally too wet to spread it, and the dormant soil and crops cannot absorb it.

My innovative father would send it gushing down a trench, which followed the contour around the hill, to where his welly-clad children would create dams and breaches to allow it to trickle down the slope to feed the pasture. Later, with the arrival of better pumps, came the exploding bladder which slowly inflated with slurry, until every few minutes, unannounced, it would purge itself across the field. The smell was horrendous. The latest development in muck technology is the umbilical pipe: slurry is pumped from the yards down up to a mile of snaking pipe to a tractor fitted with low ground pressure tyres and a dribble bar. This zig-zags around the farm, spreading it evenly without the damage caused to the soil by huge tankers and spreaders – a massive improvement.

Cheap synthetic fertiliser can lead conventional farmers to view muck as something to get rid of, as cheaply as possible. Too much of it ended up polluting rivers, though farmers have cleaned up their act and this is now very rare. Organic farmers have always prized their muck. Recycling nutrients back into the soil, matching availability to crop root absorption with a minimum of loss to leaching or the atmosphere, is vital to our success. It’s a bit stinky sometimes, but we would be lost without it.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter – ”everymeat” bolognese

Have no doubt, there is a cost of producing food to the standards most of us want. There is an even greater cost to taking the trouble of doing it yourself or only buying in from people you completely trust. We live in a world of brands where everything, bar designing the tick, is outsourced to the lowest bid on the world market. Sometimes there is a good reason why something can be done more cheaply by someone unknown on the other side of the world. But sometimes it is because they are doing things that are convenient for you not to know about. 

Personally, I don’t have a problem with eating horse. It might make perfect sense to eat a fallen racehorse or a Dartmoor pony at the end of its life. Even a Romanian cart horse might be OK in a stew, but I would rather make that choice myself, with some idea of how it had got to my plate and some credible assurance of how the animal had lived and died. It would also be nice to think that the person selling it had enough respect for me and the animal involved to take the trouble to find out what was in the well-travelled red goo contributing to their ‘everyday value’. 

There may be no risk to our health from this meat (as one public health official pointed out, not so reassuringly, the salt and fat in these processed foods will get you first anyway). The horse may well have had a better life than your average, quick- grown, grain-stuffed, beef animal that has never left the yard or tasted grass; but horsegate makes a mockery of supermarket reassurances about sourcing and traceability. If you relentlessly buy on price someone will find a cheap way of doing things, however many bits of paper you make them fill in. 

Ninety-five percent of the veg, meat, fruit, eggs, dairy, bread, preserves and pies we sell either comes from our farm, a member of my family or our co-op or other farmers we know well and have worked with for years, whether in the UK or abroad (the other five percent, if a crop fails, we may have to source from a supplier we use less often). Spending time together (preferably in the field, but in a bar also works) is the best way of ensuring quality and integrity in the food chain. 

Guy Watson