I don’t know about you but when I’m on holiday I always like to sample local food and specialities of the region in which I’m staying. I’m also always on the lookout for producers who uphold the best in welfare and environmental standards too. A few weeks ago I found out about an award-winning* farm in the Blackdowns that rears English Longhorn Cattle and are looking to provide meat boxes to self-catering holiday businesses in the local area. Russ and Becky graze their rare breed stock on Forestry Commission** land during the summer months which helps to manage the land extensively while growing great-tasting beef (Longhorn steak was voted best tasty steak in Britain by Country Life Magazine). They also have pigs and chickens which (when bird flu isn’t around) roam around in lovely grassy, tree-filled ranges. The children and I went on a little outing during the February half term to meet Becky and the cattle and collect a meat-box to see what we thought of the produce.
The farm is in Churchstanton which is just under half an hour from Halsbeer Farm and Blackdown Yurts via a fairly winding route through Culmstock and Hemyock or a straighter route that passes the Smeatharpe banger racing track. On arrival we met Becky and her two young children next to her farm shop. Becky spoke with enthusiasm about their longhorns as she showed us around the barns where they are housed for winter. We were lucky enough to see a sub-one-day-old calf, still wet and wobbly on it legs. We saw other calves of varying ages all of whom seem to have lucked out in the eyelash stakes. There were a lot of mums (do we call them heffers?) plus a huge bull who has a fancy pedigree name I can’t recall but who most of the time goes by the name of Pete. The cattle really are impressive, both males and females have huge horns that either curve forwards or extend out to the sides of their head, reminiscent of a prize rodeo bull in the American mid-west. Their coats are patterned with brown or grey and white and have varying degrees of curl. We saw a stunningly beautiful chestnut brown and white hide that had been all the way to Italy and back for a professional tan. Becky retails them for between £400 and £600 and I can see why, it would look amazing on the floor of a designer flat or maybe as a rug in a yurt (wishful thinking).
Before we left Becky delved deep in the farm shop freezers and put together a bumper selection box for us to take home and try. Bacon that Becky cures herself, chipolata sausages, two rump steaks, some beef mince and minute steak. Plus a half dozen eggs for good measure. So sausages it was for tea that night – the kids and I really enjoyed them, they were good and meaty, testament to their being 85% meat and minced shoulder pork at that. They were fairly peppery and I think I could also taste mace, but no doubt Becky won’t reveal her secret spice blend to me.
Next up we made a cauliflower macaroni cheese with a topping of crispy bacon and breadcrumbs. Becky confided in me that the small white pigs that had provided this bacon were a fattier breed than they sometimes have. The bacon was more marbled than I’ve ever seen before and they did have a wide strip of far beneath the rind. On the face of it, this seemed like a lot of waste if, like me, you don’t like to eat that much fat, but on the plus-side the garden birds enjoyed a real treat. The marbling in the bacon meant that it crisped beautifully in the Aga. It was quite salty (as bacon often is of course) and topped our supper off perfectly. (Top tip – we added a teaspoonful or two of pesto to our cheese sauce which really enhanced our cauli-mac-cheese!).
To accompany the rump steak I made a cheats version of a potato dauphinoise – sliced potatoes, thinly sliced onions, a couple of crushed garlic cloves mixed in with creme fraiche, a bit of chicken stock, a teaspoon of dijon mustard, some thyme leaves, salt and pepper, all turned into an oven proof dish, topped with grated parmesan, whacked in the microwave for a few minutes to give it a head start then into the Aga until it was golden and bubbling to perfection. We wanted to try the steaks “au naturel” to get a real sense of the flavour and texture so I got a pan really hot and added some oil (I used a blend of olive and vegetable only to be informed by him indoors who had been researching frying steaks online that groundnut oil is best as it has a higher smoking point, but hey ho, too late they were in by then). The steaks were fairly chunky so I gave them a few minutes each side to get a good sear then a good five minutes resting. They cut beautifully and were really tasty with the dauphinoise, peas, beans and a good Rioja. (In my book it is sacrilege to attempt to eat a steak without red wine!) Felix absolutely loved the entire meal, Mia who is not normally a big meat eater really enjoyed the meat and I thought it was utterly delicious – a good full-bodied steak. Becky had said it would be gamier than normal beef and perhaps it was but not off-puttingly so. I would definitely have their steaks again. Two fed four of us (two adults, two children) adequately.
Possibly the best bolognese in the world! We have some gorgeous friends Tom*** and Jennie who have come and helped out on the farm during the last two half terms and always bring a meal with them. This time Tom had made Jamie Oliver’s classic spaghetti bolognese. It was so delicious I decided to try the same recipe with the Forest Beef mince. OMG. The gamey flavoursome mince of the longhorns lends itself really well to a rich ragu such as Jamie’s which is bursting with the flavour of streaky bacon, sun-dried tomatoes and rosemary as well as a slosh of red wine. This is my new go-to bolognese recipe and I think the longhorn mince is absolutely ideal for it.
That just left the minute steak – what is that all about then? Minute steak? Cooks in a minute? Apparently so. Often they are beaten with a meat tenderiser to get the even thin appearance and make the meat go further. I’d heard they made a good steak sandwich so I gave it a go. Flash fried the steak, added red onions that had been slow roasting in the AGA all morning, some sliced roasted red pepper from a jar, some salad leaves and a smear of wholegrain mustard on one side of a sliced white cobb loaf and a splodge of mayo on the other. Scrumptiousness.
If I’ve whetted your appetite and you want to try Forest Beef for yourself, then you can visit the farm shop or you can order a box to be delivered direct to Halsbeer Farm and Blackdown Yurts via their website
Their holiday meat box costs £39 plus £6 delivery. You can view the contents here
Forest Beef will be at Cullompton’s Spring Fest with their wares on 8th April 2017 and they are having a farm open day on 11th June 2017.
*Becky and Russ won “Beef Farm of the Year” in the NSF Agriculture Farm Assurance awards in 2015-2016.
**The collaboration with the Forestry Commission came about through the Neroche Scheme: a “partnership for forest, land and people in the Blackdown Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”. I was curious about the word “neroche” and discovered by looking at the Scheme’s website that there is a Castle Neroche on the wooded escarpment at the north of the Blackdowns. Neroche in Old English means something along the lines of “the camp where hunting dogs were kept”. The website has loads of suggestions of things to do in the northern Blackdowns including “herepath walking trails.
***Big thanks to Tom (www.tomwellerphotography.com) for some of the (best) images of the cattle on this blog!
This is the first in what I hope will be a fairly regular blog on the Blackdown Yurts webpage exploring our beautiful hidden valley, experiences of glamping in the authentic Mongolian yurts we have here, things you can do while staying, places you can go nearby, campfire cooking, educational and environmental topics including wildlife, eco-tips, organic gardening and so on. Please do get in touch if there is anything in particular you’d like to ask me about the yurts, the Blackdown Hills, Devon or our life here in general!