I've just been chatting to a cow. Not any old cow, and not any old chat either; the pasture-fed Red Ruby Devon at South Yeo Farm West, Debbie Kingsley and Andrew Hubbard's 108 acre farm just outside Okehampton, are part of the conversation about how good old fashioned farming and its relationship with new food culture could (just about) save the planet.
The cow (I didn't catch her name) is one of the native breed cattle which farmers hope to become central to Britain's high welfare meat after Brexit. With new trade relationships, including cheaper meats from America where, shall we say, they're not quite on the same page, the promotion of higher welfare British meat will be an interesting argument; it's more expensive but totally traceable to farmers who understand why feeding cows nothing but good old grass is best for the planet. The future of meat eating has to be about quality not quantity according to experts like Tim Lang who has just put the full stop on the Lancet report on the future of food, but the supermarkets are still mightier than Tim's pen. In the meantime, it's down to chefs to lure us to the debate over a plate of beef short ribs.
I was at the Dartmoor Inn, a gorgeous16th-century coaching inn on the north-western edge of Dartmoor National Park for lunch with Catherine Broomfield, breed secretary of the Devon Cattle Breeders Society who had taken me to meet Debbie's and Andrew's Red Rubies that morning for the delicious. podcast. We were joined by chef Philip Burgess who talked us through the short ribs in front of us. Served with caramelized walnuts on a red wine sauce and clotted cream mash, they had been cut from a Red Ruby rib eye and slow roasted for four hours that morning. The Red Ruby Devon beef had come from Meeth Farm, but most importantly for the chef, it was his butcher, Philip Warren, who had sourced it. `I work closely with Philip who I’ve known for 35 years,' he told me, 'and I trust him completely. It’s all native breed raised in the south west and hung very well. We use every bit - the sirloins, the rib eye, fillet, rump steak.. and brisket which we slow roast on Sundays. That's really beautiful'. At £14.95 the short ribs are an affordable treat. 'I don’t make as much money as some,' Philip told me, 'but I can sleep at night.'
Pasture-fed for its whole 26 to 29-month life, the Red Ruby Devon is about as far removed from the factory-farmed beasts grown on animal feed that is pushing so much wildlife to the verge of extinction, as Philip Lymbery warns in his book DeadZone; Where the Wild Things Were. 'The consumer is often very educated now,' said Catherine Broomfield, 'but the issue is about getting the message through to those who don't understand that low impact farming is also often the cheapest and most nutritious way of feeding the family.' You won't get short ribs in the supermarket though, and while chefs like Philip are the way in for foodies to find out just how to get the best meat on the table, Catherine says that a trip to the butcher can be a game changer - not just for the family finances, but for the planet. 'Some of the cheapest cuts on an animal are those that do the hardest work - such as the leg,' she reminded me. 'That will be the tastiest cut - just like these short ribs. But you need to know how to cook them and we need to get those kitchen skills back. If you get some vegetables in a big pot with a cheaper cut of quality beef such as skirt, you can produce enough for two family meals. It's less expensive than buying packaged meals.'
She thinks that we can be 'really good citizens of our planet' if we make the smallest effort and go to the butcher or the greengrocer instead of the supermarket. 'Often the most expensive way to feed the family is to buy packaged food from supermarkets and then waste most of the weekly shop. The butcher is often not only cheaper, but will advise on how to cook the meat to get the best out of it. Butchers are a massive link in the chain, and they're under threat. When they're gone, we'll miss them.'
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