Standard bearers: Wild Beef

Categories: Behind the stalls

The story and philosophy behind Slow Food approved trader Wild Beef

“In all its winter muted colours, the moor has been shrouded in low clouds now for weeks. The lanes are living streams from the incessant deluges and our wildlife has been subdued. Dark comes early and intense. The silvery frosted pastures are shimmering with visiting redwings finding seeds and insects among our uncultivated grasses and footprints of the cattle. They are joined by starlings who in the evening can be heard in their twittering roost across the valley. The snowdrops are out, reassuring us that spring is on its way,” Richard Vines says of the wild West Country moorland on which he and his wife Lizzie live and farm.

Now he’s at Borough Market, his van bursting with the fruit—or rather, the meat—of their hard manual labour, as well as honeys, eggs, chickens and preserves from their neighbours and friends.

Fillet steaks and short ribs, onlget and offal, skirt, silverside and shin, all of which hail from native Devon and Welsh black cattle that’s been reared and finished upon uncultivated Dartmoor pasture which come spring, will be teeming with wildflowers and grasses. “There is no fertiliser. There are no pesticides. It is permanent pasture, with soil that has not been ploughed and seeded. The roots go down very deeply.”

In contrast, the flora of ploughed or ‘improved’ pasture tends to be monochrome and, like salad, grows only in the top layer of soil. “It’s not very established,” Richard continues. “Whereas unploughed pasture goes down two or three feet, to layers rich in minerals and trace elements.” The result is healthy cattle, meat that is dark and deeply flavoured, and, ultimately, a nutritious and flavoursome meal. “It is sustaining” says Richard simply—sustaining for us, and sustaining for his farm and the environment. Yes, his cattle grow much slower than those reared on lesser pasture and finished “in barns, on an intensive diet of corn and soya”, but it’s a turtle-hare argument as far as he’s concerned.

Brothers and sisters
“What we have are healthy animals reared for a life spent outdoors and slaughtered when the animal is ready—when it’s come into itself,” he continues. It could be 30 months (that’s at least double the standard age), it could be 40: the art of good husbandry is knowing when, not reducing an animal to a commodity you can quite literally cut to size. “Finishing in barns means they are the same weight and shape, and all the joints can be graded.” Wild Beef’s animals, meanwhile, are “like you’d expect brothers and sisters to be: some short, some fat, some tall.”

His pastures are bound by hedgerows. Not for Richard the wire fencing favoured by farmers looking to cut maintenance costs: “They’re full of wildlife. I keep mine tall, too, because they provide shelter for the cattle from prevailing wind.” The Vines’ approach to farming supports the botanical diversity of the area, as the grazing cattle enable pruning, reseeding and fertilisation by grazing and breaking up the ground with their hooves.

The chickens whose eggs they source from nearby Rushford Mill farm to sell at Borough follow these principles too, being free not just to range, but to “run around in a meadow scratching soil and eating worms. Free range is often not what you imagine it to be when it comes to poultry,” he continues—a reality that has only recently come to light in the media, with reports of the ‘free range’ label being somewhat abused by farmers. “Sometimes I struggle to explain what it is we do here very simply, but I think the easiest way to put it is: we try to let animals express their natures, as they are, outdoors.”

Strong shell, rich yolk
When it comes to eggs, this results in “a strong shell and a nice big rich yolk which is full of goodies”; when it comes to beef, it means nutrient-rich meat from cattle which are healthy and at ease, even at the slaughter house. “We use a small, local abattoir, and it is manual; there aren’t huge hydraulic motors and they only kill about six or eight bullocks a week.” The atmosphere is quiet and calm, so the bullocks have very little anticipation. Being well looked after right up until the end of their short, happy lives avoids adrenaline flooding through their body. “This system is as kind as it can be.”

The beef hangs for four weeks, relaxing and maturing before heading to market—another rarity in the meat world, but one which any good butcher or chef will tell you matters hugely. Richard doesn’t butcher himself: “I’ve neither the skill, nor the inclination,” he says simply. What’s nice about Wild Beef is that it’s predicated on a community of trust. That’s why Richard draws on the skills of his local butcher and abattoir; that’s why he brings the wares of his neighbours to Borough Market to sell. “They are all kindred spirits. They all mind about the source of their animals and livelihoods.”

It’s what Slow Food is all about, he continues—and as such, he’s passionate not just about how food is produced, but how it’s shared and eaten. “People are willing to pay a bit more for Slow Food because they believe it is beneficial, but at a time when everyone eats on the hoof, I believe this should be taken on further, to the length of time you spend eating and to eating in company. Collective eating is something I really champion—even if it’s just once a week for a good Sunday roast.”