Sussex Chef’s trip to Butterbox Farm
I did not know John well only meeting him a few times, only three in fact, however in that short time I did undoubtedly recognised that he was a kind man, with a passion for what he did and a definite respect for the animals he reared.
I greatly regret not acting sooner to write this entry, as I am sure John would have been happy to read on as I publish my observations of his fine work. It did occur to me not to write this article after learning of his recent passing, but I also thought that it would be unkind not to write the article as I had promised him I would after he so kindly gave up his time to show me around the farm.
I hope you enjoy this short insight into what he did for Butterbox Farm.
When we arrived John and his lovely wife, Pat, greeted us into their home and over a cup of tea spoke about Butterbox Farm, showing us a map of 380acres and how much there used to be.
We discussed that John sends his animals to slaughter to order and as this was the case he needed almost 6 weeks’ notice for an order and that customers need to take the whole animal. I told him that using the different cuts of meat was a challenge we would gratefully accept, and it wasn’t a problem to me as we aim to be the best barbecue caterer in Sussex. Plus we are always looking to develop our other menus so they are far from run of the mill.
He kindly lent me some wellies and we were soon in his barn clearing out the back of his John Deere Gator so I could sit in the back, being a gentleman I let my beautiful wife, Clare, ride shot gun on our tour of Butterbox Farm.
Not quite the ride I expected
Through a couple of sets of gates and an electric fence – this nippy little John Deere Gator began to pick up speed. It was great fun and I was in awe of the farms beauty on this lovely warm Autumn day.
It was also hysterical, I was looking around at the hills and feeling the warm breeze, then as we picked up speed an unprecedented amount of cow pat began to be flung high up in the air by the back wheels and landed in hundreds of tiny specks all over me! I’ve always been a great advocate of the phase “Take your work seriously but never yourself” so it was not out of character for me that I had a massive grin on my face at the situation I found myself in (with my lips firmly closed of course)!
During the ride John started to explain that the farm follows the principles of organic meat farming. Although they have chosen not to apply for organic status, the land and livestock is managed for sustainable productivity and conservation of wildlife and the environment. They use farmyard manure instead of artificial fertiliser wherever possible, and weeds are controlled by cutting, topping and spot spraying.
As we slowed down (so did the poo storm). We stopped a little closer to these great beasts than I thought we might!
John explained the difference between the two breeds of cow:
“The Dexter, which we started to breed 30 years ago is Britain’s smallest bread of cattle and nowadays is primarily a beef breed. Our calves are normally born between February and April. They suckle their mothers for nine months and are ready for beef when they are 27 – 30 months old. Their popularity underlines the quality of the excellent flavoured and award-winning beef. It is marbled with just the right amount of fat to improve the cooking quality without giving cause for concern about unhealthy eating.”
“The Sussex, our traditional local breed. Sussex cattle were bred on the farm by previous generations of our family in the 1940s. We have reintroduced them by buying in weaned calves. Like the Dexters, they mature slowly on their diet of grass and silage, and are not fed on concentrates. Our customers tell us that the meat is consistently of excellent quality. We now have 22 Sussex breeding cows, including 5 with calves by our Dexter bull, and we look forward to tasting this combination of breeds.
These cattle were quite young and were free to roam the field only eating fresh grass, the way there’re meant to be. John then jumped back in the Gator and took us up to the brow of a hill to take a look some older, larger cattle.
The cows looked at ease, and they didn’t look like they had ever known discomfort or stress, a life their intensively reared cousins could only dream of, that’s if they could even conceive of such a life?
“Look what those God forsaken badgers have done to our field” said John pointing at all the holes. “Our poor cows have to walk over this and easily break their legs, they spring up overnight and there is nothing we can do about it apart from fill in any holes that are clearly abandoned”.
There was a fine young bull with the offspring of one of his cows. John explained that this bull was a fine animal and would probably make a fine stud, but he had no use for another bull himself and being relatively unknown in the Sussex breeding community unfortunately he would probably be unable to sell this animal for rearing purposes and the young bull would inevitably have to “go”.
I was ready to run!
Back in the Gator we went down a hill and though a ditch of water that yes, also covered me! (I was starting to wish that I hadn’t come dressed as if I was going for a walk around town). We went into a field that had the largest (yet shortest) bull I have ever laid eyes on, the pictures of this beast just do not convey the size of him, it really was huge! So much in fact that I could feel the adrenaline kicking in, it must have been my body saying “right if this monster even twitches we’re ready to out run the rest of the cow’s, this new fella and the wife can handle it themselves”. I would of course done no such thing (I think!).
We stood close to the Dexter bull that was having a peaceful rest in his field with his cows. John asked his prize bull “are you going to get up?” in his kind and gentle voice and he did! At this point I bravely said “wow I’ve never stood this close to a bull, you could reach out and touch him” (I managed to resist my adrenaline’s kind offer) John said with caution on his face “well you never trust a bull”.
John told us that the farm now has 5 Sussex cows with calves by this Dexter bull, and was looking forward to tasting this combination of breeds. He also told me all about the herd and how he loved the fact that they are able to give them such a happy life right up until they “go”, as he put it. He again pointed out that the differences between the “Dexter” and the “Sussex” and how the Dexter seems to be favoured over the Sussex by chefs “but I think that’s mainly down to its name” he said.
We also talked about the unusual fact that the supply chain in our industry very rarely understands each other’s situation, from farmer to butcher to chef, as to the way each other want the meat cut.
The butcher orders the animal and the farmer sends it to the abattoir, they then do their job and deliver it. The butcher then has to (or at least should) mature the meat for 28 days (or longer if they’re a good butcher) minimum to allow the meat to darken and the marbling of fat to come through, (I will do a post about this topic on its own soon, it’s a big one) the butcher then gets in the habit of cutting it the way his customers like it. Then along comes that annoying Chef who wants it trimmed differently and orders it at 10pm, expecting it to arrive by 10am the next day.
So you can see there is a lot of room for error so as you can gather getting good and consistent quality can be quite a challenge.
Then it was time to see the Portland and Romney sheep. They were the main reason I wanted to come in the first place – mutton.
It was a web site called “Love Food Sussex” that John had written about his passion for mutton and how it has a fuller flavour than lamb and how he feels it’s a shame that it isn’t on people’s plate.
Whilst we were admiring the sheep you could see the look of content on John’s face, he was truly happy with his lot, and so he should!
We spoke about mutton for a bit, we and were both in agreement that the only reason mutton disappeared from menus and peoples dining tables was that it was a more profitable to rear lamb over mutton and the demand fell. The extra taste you get with mutton was perhaps forgotten or perceived as not worth the extra cost. (I’d love to know your thoughts on this in the comments section below!)
John pointed out the Portland being the smaller of the two breeds that produced a carcass weight of about 20 – 25 kg (50lb), and is now one of Britain’s rarest breeds. The quality of the meat however is renowned, even before King George III insisted on eating Portland mutton, these sheep had a reputation for producing sweet and succulent meat of very high quality, and Portland meat is always hard to beat in tasting exercises. The Portlands would be ready for the butcher at about 18 months old, and are available between July and September. “At this age we call them hoggets”, said John “this meat is not easy to find, but discerning customers regard it as being worth waiting for”.
The Romney sheep originated on Kent’s Romney Marshes. “Our ‘easy care’ flock lambs outside in late spring. We are not competing for the ‘early lamb’ market, preferring to feed our ewes almost entirely on grass so that the lambs are reared on milk and grass, allowing the meat to develop full flavour.”
I ordered a whole mutton from John and I am happy to say that it was everything I’d hoped it would be! So tasty, full of flavour and tender too. It has a little more fat on it than a lamb but a good cook can deal with this without any hesitation!
All the best John, like I said I wish I had written this sooner and I hope your legacy continues with the good work at Butterbox Farm!