Standard bearers: Rhug Farm

Categories: Behind the stalls

The story and philosophy behind Slow Food approved trader Rhug Farm

“We tend to be about six or eight weeks behind everyone else,” says Graham, selecting a lamb heart for a customer and artfully paring it into gleaming slices. Free roaming, pasture fed and tenderly cared for by seasoned farmers, sheep, chickens and cattle reared at Rhug Farm and sold at Borough have more on their commercial equivalents than just time.

They have the freedom of thousands of acres of ancient Welsh farmland upon which to graze and roam, and they have a diet of organic grasses, rich in cocksfoot, timothy, clover and the various other herbs, or in the case of salt marsh lamb, tufty, minerally sea salt marshes.

It shines through the meat says Graham, who has worked with meat of greatly varying quality during his many years as a butcher and the values that underpin it run through the people who work there: passionate, compassionate, and as committed to the animals as even the most ethically exacting customer could hope for. “I’ve been in this game since I was a boy,” says Graham, “and I am at my happiest selling this.”

“We don’t use phosphates. We don’t use fertilisers. Everything that goes into the ground is organic material,” he continues. Organic—that is, free from chemicals—is what comes out. The farm is ‘full circle’, in that through growing their own crops, managing their own hedgerows and practicing livestock and crop rotation, the farm is almost entirely self-sufficient.

Justifiable pride
“We even make our own natural fertiliser through processing waste from our own animals,” Graham informs us, with justifiable pride.

This is no walk in the park—or rather, no walk in the 12,500-acre estate on which the Newborough family, who own Rhug Farm and estate, has lived for centuries. “Those pastures his father owned, and his grandfather before that, and his great grandfather before that and so on.”

Provenance comes with the territory: practicing the sort of animal husbandry that ensures each animal lives as long, happy and nutritious a life as possible, however, does not. “Kid gloves wrapped in cotton wool” is how Graham describes the welfare standards, without irony.

The stock is frequently monitored. Out in the rugged terrain of northern Wales, animals can fall ill very quickly at “even a sniff of something. Chickens, you only need to look at them. That’s just how they are.”

Practicality and philosophy
Disease, even with these standards of welfare and hygiene, is inevitable, but the blanket use of antibiotics doesn’t have to be and it is this long-termism, practicality and philosophy, that marks Lord Newborough out from his contemporaries on more commercial farms.

It’s a vision born partly of his ancient lineage, but mainly out of his personal passion for good food and animal welfare. As Graham points out, “he doesn’t have to do this.” Lord Newborough farms because he cares about farming and the end result.

He channels Slow Food principles not out of a desire to make a quick buck, but because it’s just better: the land is more sustainable, the water supply is unsullied and the meat of such standard that it has been the darling of Michelin star restaurants like Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons for decades.

“It doesn’t sound like much,” Graham says of the extra six to eight weeks these animals mature for, “but if you think of the number of days that is spent grazing, building up muscle as they roam, growing slowly, slowly every day, it makes a difference”, even though both the Rhug lamb and a commercially grown lamb are slaughtered at the same weight. 

A diet of herbs and grasses
The difference is qualitative: each ounce of meat and offal being materially better in terms of nutrition, flavour and texture. It’s the difference between exercise and confinement; between a diet of herbs and grasses, and one of artificial feed and growth hormones.

It’s the difference between transporting an animal tens, maybe even hundreds, of miles to the abattoir and having a family run slaughter house on the edge of the estate.

“I’ve seen meat from an animal that’s been stressed before slaughter,” Graham shakes his head, “and it looks awful. You can see it. It doesn’t settle. It’s tough. It has a bad odour.” Regardless of whether or not you subscribe to the view that animals know where they’re headed, a long, bumpy journey in close confinement and often overnight will inevitably leave them stressed.

Having an abattoir nearby is not just good ethical practice: it has a noticeable effect in texture and taste. And that’s just the beginning of it: the creation of the raw material which in the right hands can only continue to grow in quality. “On the estate we have dry ageing and maturing rooms in which the meat is hung for up to 45 days.”

Dry ageing
During this process of “controlled, partial decomposition” Graham goes on to explain, “the meat starts to break down: becoming more tender and more succulent as heavy sinews loosen up.” The flavour intensifies—“dry ageing reduces moisture content”—which is why unaged supermarket steak will shrink so much upon cooking, while Rhug steak keeps its size.

It’s a simple, ancient craft, as indeed is butchery, which you’ll see Graham carry out at the Market—a rare skill these days, accrued over years of apprenticeship and training. But as the customer buying lamb heart knows, it’s Graham’s skill, and the hanging, and the rearing and feeding of the animals, that will shine through in his exceptional meal tonight.