Are you disappointed with the blandness of the way your meat taste these days? Or perhaps you’re worried about drugs and chemicals in your food? Or the way the animals are kept on the farm? Or the number of food miles associated with imported meat?
As large-scale agriculture becomes increasingly intensive and industrialised, more and more of us are opting to grow our own food – if we’re lucky enough to have some land – or to buy from farmers markets, farm shops and other outlets where we can be sure of the provenance of the produce: one answer is to source your meat from the burgeoning number of micro-producers now springing up around the country.
Of course, there is no absolute guarantee that a hobby farm or smallholding is going to be any more welfare friendly or better run than a larger-scale producer: you have to rely on the reputation of the producer… and, of course, the quality of the end product. My advice is to do a bit of research (that’s what we’re here for), ask around, and test and taste as much as you can before you actually buy – you’ll have a lot of fun doing it!
To my mind, quality of meat is all about five things: the breed, husbandry, slaughter, butchery and the hanging or cure (depending on whether we’re talking about fresh meat like a joint of beef, pork or lamb) or preserved meat like bacon or ham. Each of these five aspects is an important part of the chain and the whole process can be ruined if there is a weak link at any stage.
There is absolutely no doubt that traditional breeds provide better flavour and quality of meat, provided that people understand how to rear them. Generally, because traditional beef, pork or lamb is slower to mature than fast-finishing modern commercial breeds, you get a better-quality end-product in terms of both taste and texture.
With pigs, this of course means rearing them to the right weight for either pork or bacon to avoid them getting too fat. I have been supplied rare breed pork from small producers where the pig has been allowed to go past the ideal weight (traditional breed pigs tend simply to put on fat once they get to a certain age): the result was almost inedible sausages and over-priced meat where much of the weight I had paid for was a two-inch fat layer around my pork chops!
I like to know what the animals have been feeding on: I remember one old-skool farming neighbour of ours – who we now call ‘Farmergeddon’ – spraying a large field with herbicide and then grazing his flock of sheep on the dying, bright orange grass prior to ploughing the land – a bizarre sight if ever I saw one. This may well be ‘acceptable farming practice’ but I certainly didn’t fancy any of that meat!
Welfare is an absolute priority so far as I’m concerned: the way animals are kept and despatched is important. You want to be certain that when the livestock goes for slaughter, the process will be as stress-free as possible for the animals. Thus, a lot of micro-producers favour smaller abattoirs where there aren’t thousands of animals waiting around yet, just as importantly, standards are still rigorously monitored.
One outlet I always trust to supply top-quality meat is Haye Farm at Musbury. Unfortunately, this family-run farm no longer raises sheep or turkeys but it does mean they can now concentrate on their magnificent herd of Ruby Red Devon cattle and various traditional breed pigs.
The Ruby Red Devon is a relatively rare breed of beef cow but a justifiably popular one here in its Devon heartland. It is prized for its placid temperament, ability to finish off grass (this is as natural as it gets), and the quality of the beef it produces. Grass-fed Red Ruby Devon beef really is hard to beat for texture, flavour and tenderness. This is because, unlike modern breeds, the Red Ruby Devon naturally lays down intra-muscular fat in the meat which produces wonderfully marbled beef: it is this balance of fat and muscle that is such a vital factor in the flavour of the meat.
At Haye Farm, Chris Rumsby is justifiably proud of the quality of the beef he produces. The cattle take two to three years to grow until they are in a finished state. Then the meat hangs for three or four weeks before it is ready to be butchered. I can testify to the excellent quality and flavour of the meat Chris produces – check out the fantastic rib roast in the pictures – but being a small producer he only has it available on an occasional basis. Therefore, it really is a treat.
Much of the beef is snapped up by the farm’s bed & breakfast and holiday cottage guests but the rest of us can buy it by mail order. The beef is available in 20kg mixed boxes at a price considerably below others I have seen being charged on the web, and the best way of getting hold of it is to telephone the farm direct and ask to go on their mailing list.
I have been buying pork from Haye Farm since Chris first started rearing high-welfare, traditional breed pigs almost ten years ago. Like anybody learning as they go along, there was an early stutter with some Tamworths that had been allowed to put on too much weight (producing sausages that were almost entirely fat) but it’s through these experiences that we learn. Today, you can’t buy better – the pork is succulent and tasty, and this is across the range of breeds that I have been offered: Berkshires (the East End gangsters of the pig world), the placid Oxford Sandy & Blacks, or the magnificent Gloucester Old Spots.
The farm offers a bespoke service, with meat available as half or whole pigs for the freezer but butchered and jointed to your requirements. For instance, you can order mince instead of sausages (if you want to make scotch eggs or sausage rolls) or you could elect to have some of the meat cured as bacon or hams, rather than cuts of pork. If you don’t have the freezer space or it all sounds like too much to cope with at once, you can buy individual joints and packs of meat with ham, bacon and sausages being amongst the best-sellers. Sausages are available as traditional English breakfast sausages and a variety of more exotic flavours, including chilli, pork & apple, and pork & cranberry.
As with the beef, the sausages and bacon are justifiably popular with the farm’s B&B guests who are able to sample them at breakfast (along with the freshest free-range eggs); they almost invariably ask to take a pack or two home. These sausages are so superior to the average shop-bought product that there’s almost no comparison: they have a far higher meat content, using much better quality meat – so much so that we are often asked where we buy our sausages from when we have friends and neighbours around for BBQs. So, once again, it pays to go on the Haye Farm email list to find out when a new batch is due to become available.
So, what’s the verdict? In Chris’s own words the ‘meat speaks for itself’. I’ll second that. We’re lucky enough to have a plethora of good butchers in the immediate area, including one in our local town of Colyton who regularly wins awards for the quality of his sausages and pies, so there’s a lot of competition. And yet, because it comes from traditional breeds and takes time to rear, Haye Farm meat stands up very well in comparison with anything you can buy from even the best traditional butchers. It is, of course, infinitely superior to pretty much everything you can find in a supermarket.
Admittedly, the raw ingredients are not the only consideration, but they do go a very long way. Add to this the length of time the meat is hung, the standard of the various sausage mixes, the ham cure used and the cutting skills displayed by C Snell of Chard (who slaughter and butcher the meat) and you can be confident that you’re buying a top-quality product. Haye Farm is one of two or three farm suppliers we have bought from on a regular basis down the years and continue to do so. Accordingly, I’m awarding them a very well-deserved ♥ ♥ ♥.
Haye Farm – Chris & Sue Rumsby Haye Farm, Musbury, Devon EX13 8ST
Tel: 01297 551504 www.hayefarm.net
My grading system
♥ Something about them I like.
♥ ♥ Well above average.
♥ ♥ ♥ A personal favourite.
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ I’m in love with this producer (platonically of course).
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ Food of the gods.