Farmers’ collaboration puts slow-reared dairy beef back on the menu
- Credit: Archant
The Thickitts and the Crickmores – two East Anglian farming families with a history of working with cattle – have teamed up to reach an untapped market for fattened dairy beef. GLYN WILLIAMS reports.
Heritage cattle have shaped the lie of the land for centuries and continue to play a key part in sustaining the ecological balance of fauna and flora in the traditionally-maintained grassland and grazing marshes on coastal strips and river meadow.
These key habitats are home to many fragile native species. The old mixed farming model of combined arable and pastoral acreage saw small farmsteads self-sufficiently rearing dual purpose cattle such as Suffolk Red Polls, not just for milk, butter and cheese, but also a regular supply of tasty meat while their manure enriched the land for cropping winter feed and bedding.
Grazier-butcher Jeremy Thickitt, who fattens a mixed rare breed herd for beef at Yoxford, south of Halesworth, knows the role his small herd plays on the local landscape including the protected wildlife site his farm borders.
He works with the Suffolk Wildlife Trust to graze the valuable adjacent Darsham Marshes nature reserve, in its words creating 'truly a snapshot of unspoilt Suffolk and one of the county's best kept conservation secrets – consisting of a lush mosaic of marsh and fen that provide a rich habitat for a wealth of wildlife'.
Another cattle farming family who use low-yield grazing and husbandry techniques to benefit their own little piece of Suffolk are the Crickmores of Flixton near Bungay, home of the famed traditional farmhouse Baron Bigod brie, made from their raw, unpasteurised milk.
Key to the success of their cheese has been their carefully-selected choice of traditional breed to give them the naturally high level of lactic protein and butter fat they require to make the best curds.
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Like the Suffolk Red Poll, the Montbeliarde is a dual-purpose cattle breed, chosen for its strong milking and good eating characteristics. This very hardy Alpine cow is used to flourishing in a testing climate of hot, dry summers and cold, wet winters.
While not exactly mountainous or even hilly, the durable 'Monty' is ideal for the East Anglian lowland, especially on heavy water meadows and marshland of the Waveney Valley surrounding the Crickmores' appropriately-named Fen Farm.
Along with their low intensity grazing and milking philosophy, the Crickmores' focus on high standards of welfare have led them to slowly rear on their male calves into fattened steers (castrated bulls), which make for great-tasting mature meat.
Having sold these fine beasts to Jeremy Thickitt over the years for his Clarke's of Bramfield farm shop and butchery, which supplies many East Suffolk restaurants, recent conversations in passing touched on what happened to the retired cows from the dairy herd once their milking days were over.
Knowing how revered fattened dairy beef is on the continent around northern Spain's Galicia region and the Basque Country on its borders with France and the growing demand for it to be imported for London's fine dining scene, it soon became apparent that Fen Farm's well-marbled, rich Montbeliarde beef was an untapped opportunity.
In October, a clarion cry rallied an impassioned group of local artisan chefs to The Boarding House dining rooms in Halesworth for an experimental field-to-fork lunch to see what might be achieved with this meaty delicacy, in the deft hands of renowned chef-owner Tyler Torrance.
A launchpad for their fattened Montbeliarde beef enterprise in the New Year, this was a distinct eye-opener for the foodie invitees, showcasing the gourmet virtues of this slow-reared fine Suffolk beef, aged for 50 days from a nine-year-old Monty milking cow.
Fattened dairy beef from Fen Farm Montbeliardes will be available from early March at the Thickitt family's shops, namely Clarke's of Bramfield, Creasey's on The Street, Peasenhall and Emmerdale Farm Shop, Darsham near Yoxford.
It will also be available in restaurants across East Suffolk and beyond, including The Boarding House, Halesworth.