The day began with an irony. Here we were, outside Bruce Poole's house, preparing to go down to Shedbush Farm, near Bridport, the home of biodynamic pioneers Ian and Denise Bell and Heritage Prime meats, one of the most ecologically sound businesses in the country. How were we heading to Dorset? On four petrol-hungry, noise-polluting, granny-scaring motorbikes.
I have to admit, we weren't overly concerned by our carbon tyre track. Giorgio Locatelli (2006 Aprilia RSV Mille - just silly quick) had already cancelled his out by buying Heritage Prime meat before. Henry Harris (BMW R1100 - complete with very fruity snap, crackle and pop exhausts) and Bruce Poole (Honda CBR1100 - heavyweight bruiser ridden like a dancing featherweight) had dabbled with the produce and were thinking about it again. And me? (Suzuki SV650 - the smallest bike in the pack, but still capable of 130mph, thank you very much), I was there on behalf of Caterer to check out the meat quality, pricing and farming practices at Shedbush.
We were greeted on our arrival at the farm by Denise and Ian, Turpin the yapping Jack Russell, several bike-panicked chickens and Boris, the bolshiest of turkeys. Boris wasted no time in puffing up his feathers at Locatelli's Aprilia and, confronted by the four new rivals in his farmyard, remained on a permanent state of red alert for the rest of the day. Ian and Denise, however, were much more pleased to see us, and we were anxious to see for ourselves why Heritage Prime meat has built up something of a cult status among those who care about how food is produced.
In the case of livestock, biodynamic farming is about the closest you can get to giving animals their most natural life cycle while still actually rearing meat for the table. It's based on respect for the animals' lives as well as the environment in which they live. The biodynamic farmer operates free of synthesised fertilisers, man-made feeds, pharmaceutical treatments or anything else that interferes with the balance of the food chain. As a result, the vitality of the animals is passed on to the consumer via the quality and flavour of their meat - or so the theory goes.
There is logic to the theory. Biodynamic practice means animals are allowed to mature much more slowly than commercially reared livestock. Shedbush lambs, for instance are kept until they're one year old (officially, becoming hogget) rather than being slaughtered within a matter of months; the Bells' Tamworth pigs enjoy life for two years as opposed to the more usual five months they get under intensive farming conditions, and chickens live to the ripe old age of 18 months. "Animals should have an enjoyable, spiritual life for their short time on the planet," says Ian.
Unfortunately, that word "spiritual" and its inferences, has been seized upon by the cynics. Biodynamic farming has been labelled mumbo-jumbo, rife with esoteric, even, according to the critics, occult practices. Certainly there are almanacs, calendars worked out by a certifying body in Germany, which set out when a farm should introduce its bulls, rams or boars to females; when different feeds should be applied; and when is the best time for birthing. On top of this, all medicines are homeopathic, a movement that has had a hard enough time being accepted for use on humans, let alone farm animals.
But Ian is adamant the approach has tangible, concrete advantages. "Biodynamics is about building the resilience of the whole farm, including the wildlife," he says. "We had a lot of disease here in this region, but whereas other farmers in the vale have to spend lots of money on treatments we don't have any problems." That resilience, he argues, is then passed on to humans. "It's amazing to see the difference in land that's been biodynamically farmed for 10 years - you can actually look at the grass and see how much greener it is," agrees Locatelli.
Rare-breed variety If it all sounds too idyllic to be true, there is indeed a catch. Shedbush Prime meat comes at a price. Take the chickens we saw running around when we arrived: these are very special, not just because they're a rare-breed variety, but because each one can sell for as much as £87.
That's an incredible amount of money, particularly when you can get intensively reared birds for near the £2 mark. The reason low prices are achievable is well documented: most scientific research and development has been geared towards maturing chickens unnaturally fast so that they're ready for slaughter in a matter of weeks, which means production volume can increase dramatically and prices, therefore, can be slashed.
On Shedbush Farm, however, their £87 chicken is kept in small, stress-free flocks and will live until it reaches 18 months. It grows at a natural pace, pecking on organic food. So, to make a living, the Bells price its meat accordingly. Is it ridiculous? Well, Locatelli, who has used Shedbush chicken, claims the birds are the size of a turkey and that he can get between 12 and 18 portions out of each breast - that's 24 portions, minimum, from one bird from the breast alone. Given that a decent-sized free-range organic turkey can cost about £60, a Heritage Prime chicken isn't quite the fearsome leap into food fantasy that its price tag suggests. It's never going to make it on to a high-street fast-food outlet, but nor are many other non-organic birds.
And what about flavour? Does the taste of a Heritage Prime chicken justify the financial outlay? We didn't get to taste the chicken (things are killed here when they're ready, not when you order them), so we had to take Locatelli's endorsement on trust. "I have customers who phone to check when the chicken is on the menu, then book for two evenings once they know when it's available," he reveals.
However, we did sit down to a pork feast, and there was no getting away from it, the quality and flavour-depth of the meat lived up to billing: melting ham; a multi-textured terrine; a punchy, 100% pork sausage, and beautifully sweet ribs. All were very good indeed, the rib and the sausage especially so. If one of the underpinning motivations for chefs is to provide their diners with food they couldn't create for themselves at home, then being able to use raw materials like those we tasted must be a big advantage.
It must be pointed out that for Denise and Ian, achieving the best taste for their produce is not an end in itself. They farm animals biodynamically because they truly believe that humans must rediscover a respect for animals and stop squeezing the earth dry of its last remaining resources. The fact that rearing animals slowly and naturally delivers the by-product of exceptional flavour is a bonus.
But the way they farm - coupled with the size of the acreage available to them - means that the Bells are never going to be able to increase their productivity. And they don't have the facilities to finely butcher meat on site, which means they have to sell, for instance, quarters of beef or sides of pork rather than deliver butchered cuts to restaurants.
This problem, inevitably, will keep some restaurants from considering sourcing their meat from Shedbush. "You're going to hate me for saying this," Poole warns the Bells, "but although I want flavour, what I need is consistency. Half a side of beef is no use to me. I know how to butcher it and cook it but that's not the issue. I just haven't got the storage."
Locatelli, on the other hand, is able to take whole sides of pig, whole lambs, even whole quarters of beef from Shedbush because his restaurant, Locanda Locatelli, is sited in the Churchill InterContinental hotel off the city's Portman Square and the hotel kitchens have huge walk-in fridges which Locatelli is allowed to share. Moreover, as one of the hottest restaurants in London, Locanda is able to charge charge upwards of £10 for a starter.
Growing market There's no doubt, though, that there's a growing market for quality reared meat. "People are interested in provenance," says Harris, "and you can put it on the specials menu and charge as much for a rump steak as you do for a Scotch fillet."
So is it an impossible dream? Can biodynamic and organic production match the nation's appetite for "pure" meat? "This is not about farming less and better," says Ian of Shedbush's methods, "just better." Heritage Prime could certainly produce more meat if the Bells could increase the size of their farm. And this is something the couple are currently looking at doing. However, to do this could entail a move to a different site, which seems a shame after putting so much effort into the land around Shedbush Farm. Wherever Heritage Prime comes to rest, though, the Bells will need support from the restaurant world. Unfortunately, the reality is that the restaurant business may not be able to provide the support. For all the interest shown by some chefs in provenance, taste and sustainability, most will be excluded from this project by the demands of the bottom line. "These people should be subsidised - we need to get back to natural farming," declares an impassioned Locatelli.
With that we got back on the bikes, with plenty to think about. All four of us had been inspired by what we had been shown, but, at the same time, saddened by both the Bells' predicament and the problem of squaring good sourcing practice with good business practice. Did we ride slower? No, and our minds were racing too.
- He takes off the breast, slow-cooks it in a sous-vide, then slices it very thinly like carpaccio. This way he gets up to 18 portions per breast (a maximum of 36 portions in total).
- He uses the leg meat in a chicken salad.
- He uses the carcasses and leg bones for stock.
- He makes salami out of the cheaper cuts, including the head.
The London Bikers
- Giorgio Locatelli, Chef-proprietor, Locanda Locatelli
- Henry Harris, Chef-proprietor, Racine
- Bruce Poole Chef-proprietor, Chez Bruce