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Life in the farm lane

14 July 2005
Life in the farm lane

As a racing driver, Jody Scheckter was remorseless in his determination to reach the top. Despite being involved in one of the biggest accidents in Formula One history, at Silverstone in 1973, his ambition and talent won through and he went on to be crowned world champion with Ferrari in 1979.

Today, he is just as ambitious about achieving success in his latest venture, Laverstoke Events. He's launching this upmarket hospitality company in September off the back of his 2,500-acre biodynamic farm, near Overton in Hampshire.

The new company will offer a bespoke service, catering for everything from a dinner for 10 people to a festival event for as many as 3,000, and will specialise in serving spit-roasted rare-breed meat, salads and vegetables - all of which have been raised or grown biodynamically on the farm.

Scheckter already sells his meat and more than 100 varieties of vegetables, herbs and fruits - which are grown in a walled garden - via a farm shop, mail-order and a box scheme. His plan to serve only produce reared on the farm through the planned events company means that some of the most expensively reared rare-breed meats in England will be on the menu.

Actually, Scheckter's ambition to grow "the best-tasting, healthiest food, without compromise" was originally confined to feeding just himself and his family. Certainly the "without compromise" element of his mission statement is something that few other farmers have the luxury to pursue.

"Everything I'm doing appears to go against all the rules for running a farm commercially," he says. "The accountants say it won't work. Although it's not yet self-sustaining, it will be eventually."

Following his successful Formula One career, South African-born Scheckter went to the USA, where he launched Firearms Training Systems, a company that made simulators for military and police use. He sold the business to return to the UK in 1996, for a sum, as reported in the Sunday Times Rich List, of 100m. While he wouldn't confirm this figure, Scheckter admits that his wealth is an important element in being able to fund what, for many, is the ultimate Utopian food project.

In his efforts to produce the tastiest and healthiest food, Scheckter is leaving no stone unturned. As well as carrying out research into biodynamic farming in the USA, South Africa, the Netherlands and Germany, he has established a research laboratory at Laverstoke Park - believed to be the only one in Europe - with the aim of determining how the micro-organisms, vitamins and mineral levels in the soil alter the taste of the food being reared and grown on the land.

"It all starts with the soil - 90% of farming is about the quality of the soil," says Scheckter. "The better the soil, the better the grass, and the better the taste and health of the animals that eat the grass."

For Scheckter, the only way to achieve the perfect soil is by farming biodynamically. "It's more than organic - it's the best, natural healthy environment for allowing animals and plants to flourish," he says. While 500 acres of the farm are already certified as organic with the Soil Association, all 2,500 acres are currently registered as "in conversion" to be certified as biodynamic with Demeter - the trademark that is administered by the Biodynamic Agricultural Association - early next year.

There are currently only 125 biodynamic farms and smallholdings in the UK, and by next year Laverstoke Park will be by far the largest.
While preparations have been made to establish the best soil, Scheckter has built up extensive herds of rare or traditional breeds of animals. They may not be as commercially viable as conventional breeds because they are smaller and grow more slowly, but they fulfil his prime aim of providing the best-tasting meat.

In his determination to find the tastiest beef in the world, Scheckter has travelled to Argentina ("where I first tasted wonderful beef during my Formula One days"), resulting in the build-up of a herd of 30 pure native flat-backed, short-legged Angus cattle (which represents one-third of the total world population).

Other rare breeds at Laverstoke include traditional Hereford cattle, rare Middle White pigs, an unusual breed of pig from New Zealand called Kune Kune, and five varieties of sheep including Lleyns, Polled Dorsets and Balwens.

A unique breed of wild boar called Laverstoke Blue is the result of a cross between traditional wild boar and pigs to produce a breed that approaches the earliest type of non-domesticated pig. And water buffalo are kept for both their meat and their milk, which is used to make a range of vanilla, coffee and toffee ice-creams.

Driven approach Scheckter's efforts to find the best-tasting chickens and establishing the optimum time for slaughter is typical of his driven approach.

"We tried six different breeds and then started to slaughter them at weekly intervals from 70 days until we reached 100 days, which we determined was the best time for flavour," he says, pointing out that chickens bred for supermarkets are forced to mature at about 40 days. Laverstoke's Sasso Gris chickens are then hung for a short period to enhance their flavour further.

Maran chickens are kept for their eggs, laying about 150 per year, compared with the 300 or so laid by a conventional hybrid hen.

Laverstoke Events will specialise in serving spit-roasted meats because Scheckter, brought up on barbeques in South Africa, is adamant this is "the purest method of cooking" meat that has been reared with such care and passion.

He has an abhorrence of canaps and prettily arranged food, so his approach to catering is all about serving wholesome hunks of the best-tasting meat, accompanied by the freshest tasting salads, followed by hearty home-made apple crumbles, served with Laverstoke's own buffalo ice-cream. "I really think that this is the kind of food people want to eat - whether it's at a wedding party or a corporate function," he says.

Laverstoke's purpose-built barbeque - first constructed in the USA as a spin-off from Scheckter's firearms business - can roast a whole cow, buffalo, pig or lamb. Beef and buffalo take about 12 hours, while pork and lamb take between four and six hours. Sausages and burgers made on the farm can be barbecued too.

While Laverstoke Events will be officially launched with a celebrity party in London in September, newly appointed public relations and events manager Suzi Alexson is putting together a team of people to run the company.

She has already recruited Gert Venter, the former F&B manager of Cascades hotel in Sun City, South Africa, as operations manager. His experience includes heading the catering operation for the Nedbank Golf Challenge, the largest golf tournament in Africa, during which 10,000 meals were served a day.

Within the next 12 months, Alexson hopes to have put together a team of about 25. "In particular," she says, "we're looking for the right chefs who share our philosophy in serving the best-tasting, healthiest meat."

Although the official launch is in September, the company has already catered for 800 people at the farm's open day last year, as well as fed 1,200 people on each of two consecutive days at the nearby Overton Sheep Fair. And on 2 July it catered once again for Laverstoke's open day, at which James Martin, newly appointed consultant chef to the company, carried out cookery demonstrations, among other attractions.
refreshingly different

"There are many hospitality companies around, but I think what we're intending to do is something refreshingly different," says Scheckter. "We'll be catering for people who really care about the way their food is grown and raised, and are prepared to pay for it."

As well as private parties and corporate functions, both home and abroad, Scheckter hopes to be able to host events at big sporting venues.

"Funnily enough, though, I don't expect to do much business at Formula One events," he says, "as all the major teams have their own catering companies."

Scheckter doesn't intend to stop at the events company. In the future, he hopes to open a restaurant on the farm, serving Laverstoke's products, including farm-produced cheeses, yogurts, butter and cream, which are all currently in development. "And then," he reveals, "I'd like to take the Laverstoke restaurant concept to London."

The biodynamic approach

Biodynamics was devised 80 years ago by Austrian philospher Rudolf Steiner.

It involves a holistic approach to farming, which is self-sufficient in compost, manures and animal feeds, with all external inputs kept to a minimum.

At Laverstoke Park, this is achieved by the making on the farm of all composts and compost teas.

Compost tea is a water extract of compost that is sold brewed. It contains soluable nutrients, enzymes, hormones and a complex of organisms that are continually tested to ensure the right components are achieved, resulting in the maximum flavour of the end product.

Scheckter intends to operate a closed farm, and to this end has built and abattoir on site, which will be operational from September but will also accept animals for slaughter from surrounding farms.

"you can't produce good-tasting beef by putting animals on a truck for an hour-and-a-half," he says. "The stress on the animal is enormous and will affect the flavour, tenderness and colour of the meat."

Chefs who want to source biodynamic produce should contact the Biodynamic Agricultural Association (BDAA) on 10453 759501.

Chefs on biodynamics

Few restaurants in the UK serve cuisine with biodynamic ingredients, as there are only 125 farms and growers in Britain certified to rear and grow produce biodynamically.

Consequently, the supply of biodynamic produce is low and the price is high. But those chefs who do deserve it, rave about it.

Michel roux Jnr of Le Gavroche, London, buys biodynamic meat from Denise and Ian Bell, who run Heritage Prime Mets at Shedbush Farm, Lyme Regis, Dorset, and he is a convert.

"I would serve biodynamic meat to my customers and eat it myself all the time, if I could get enough of it," he says. "The taste and texture is like nothing I've tasted before - but it is bloody expensive."

Roux adds: "I but pork, beef, lamb and chicken when I can - all of which have been reared by someone who really cares for the animals, feeds them well and cajoles them to the very last second of their life.

"I served my father a chicken from Denise and he was flabbergasted. He couldn't believe such a succulent, tasty chicken with fanstastically crispy skin could be British."

Cyrus Todiwala also buys biodynamic meat from Heritage Prime Meats, which he serves at Café Spice Namaste, London.

"It might be more expensive," he says, "but no meat tastes more fabulous. Food is your medicine, and I passionately believe that the way we treat and feed the animals we eat is of the upmost importance to our wellbeing."

Heritage Prime Meats products are sold by dead weight by the whole, half- or quarter-carcass. Tamworth pork is sold at £10.95 per kilogram, pure Aberdeen Angus and Shorthorn beef are £10.90, and Portland Hoggett is £10.95.

Denise Bell says: "The price reflects the considerable time we keep the stock on herb-rich pastures, and the animals' special diets."

Heritage Prime Meats can be contacted on 01297 489304 or via www.heritageprime.co.uk

Where to buy Laverstoke Park rare breed meats

Chefs can buy Laverstoke Park's rare breed meats by calling the butcher's shop on 01256 771571. The dead-weight price for Aberdeen Angus is £10.85 per kilogram and Dorset Hogget is £9.95.

All meat is butchered to individual catering requirements.

www.laverstokepark.co.uk

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