Dovecote Park in Stapleton in West Yorkshire buys in high-quality beef, veal and venison to process and sell to Waitrose supermarkets, as well as to high-end foodservice contracts. Lisa Jenkins took a group of chefs to find out more
Established in 1997, butchery and abattoir Dovecote Park prides itself on maintaining the highest standards of animal welfare, traceability and husbandry, sourcing the highest-quality livestock from producers across the UK and Ireland.
The company has on-site facilities including a state-of-the-art abattoir, a skilled butchery team and a new product development department, as well as a second site in Skellingthorpe in Lincolnshire. All its beef hindquarters are aged for a minimum of seven days on the bone, with specially selected cuts aged for a minimum of 30 days to produce its ‘dry-age' range.
Jeff Kirby, primary production planning manager at Dovecote Park, says: "Everyone loves a rib-eye, or anything with a rib in and the demand is extraordinary. Tomahawk steaks are popular too, and because these cuts are so popular, market forces determine the prices. The next most popular cut is the fillet."
Ian Booth, executive head chef at the Wentbridge House hotel in Pontefract, has the job of serving dinner to the hungry group the night before the visit, and the majority choose rib-eye.
Kirby explains that Dovecote uses a robotic warehouse system for picking meat products ready for distribution to Waitrose, which amounts to 700,000 retail packs a week. In the latter part of 2018, an investment of more than £7m was made in additional plant machinery.
The chefs discuss the welfare of the animals at length over dinner, joined by Ray Thomas, Dovecote's trading manager, and Richard Canvin, who alongside David Gunner is joint chief executive of Dovecote Park.
"We have to do justice to the meat we are putting on our plates," says Souto.
Canvin agrees: "The welfare of our animals is paramount. The cattle are led through to the abattoir from lairage [a holding pen where animals rest before slaughter] via a carousel system. Our veal calves are grazed until they are eight to nine months old and are farmed to the highest possible standards."
The carousel system was introduced by Temple Grandin, an animal advocate and professor of animal science in the US who is reponsible for abattoir design around the world.
Every animal that arrives at Dovecote Park comes from one of more than 800 approved and audited farm suppliers. All the farmers keep their cattle on straw or other bedding rather than slatted floors.
Dovecote Park also buys from 34 venison producers, with farmed venison (red deer) coming in from September to March and park venison (red, fallow and Sika deer) from September to February. The 15 parks are audited under the same strict protocols as the cattle farms.
Smith says: "The demand from our guests for meat products that are farmed, processed and cooked to the highest standards is rising. I believe it's vital that the whole chain, from the farmer to fork, operates with these exacting standards, which are constantly evolving and are sustainable for the future.
"I know that if I want the best products that these generally aren't the cheapest. Of course, there is always a cheaper option, if you are prepared to sacrifice quality, but I'm not," he insists.
Murphy says: "We know what we want because it's what we like to eat in restaurants and therefore serve on our menus. Consumers also have a choice nowadays in shops, whether that is organic, natural or a grass-fed product. They are prepared to pay for that quality. But as chefs we also have a responsibility to sustain the supply of beef. On my menu I have short rib of beef, cooked slowly for two days and then glazed to serve."
On the tour
On the second day Martin and Kirby, a qualified butcher and Dovecote employee of 21 years, meet us for a tour of the factory and facilities. We are joined by Canvin, Lucy Peacock, livestock manager; Paul Finney, venison manager; and Ben Watling, Dovecote's new product development manager.
Our tour includes a demonstration of the new automatic warehousing system, the boning hall, the chillers and the dry-ageing facilities. The retail and dispatch area is mind-blowing and on a gigantic scale.
A visit to an abattoir is never easy. The live cattle coming through Dovecote Park are a substantial size, averaging 600kg with a dead weight (the butchered meat) of around 335kg. The chefs see the process in reverse. Through the sheer volume they almost become acclimatised to the amount of meat being processed, but the size of the beasts hanging from hooks and being skinned ready for butchery is a sight to behold.
The reality of the process is a surprise to some of the chefs. The cattle are professionally and rapidly moved through a series of machines; it's spotlessly clean and everyone involved is sprayed repeatedly with an antimicrobial solution to maintain the highest hygiene standards.
The chefs then walk through the lairage, where the cattle are kept on straw before being led through the carousel system. The last thing to see is the cattle walk - the beginning of the process. Here the cattle are stunned and quickly killed before being rolled through for cleaning and processing. The conversation continues about how to respect the meat that is being served in hospitality.
Townsend says: "As chefs I think we all owe it to the animals to be respectful. After seeing a cow put to death inches away from me, that couldn't be more important. We should make every effort to use everything and waste nothing. We need to use the best we can and to have knowledge about the product. Appreciate how you store it, handle it and finish it on the plate. You owe the animal that respect."
Buckley agrees that chefs should be using different cuts of meat on their menus. "This would help with the overall price of the animal and would make meat more sustainable. Also, different cuts require more creativity and it's good for chefs to continually experiment."
Dineen says he and his fellow chefs have a responsibility to educate customers. "As chefs if we want beef to be more sustainable than it is at present, we need to be using the secondary cuts rather than the go-to primary cuts, like fore-rib, fillet and rib-eye. In my opinion the mouthfeel of secondary cuts, such as bavette, blade, flank and brisket, has much more depth and a superior flavour.
What about traceability?
Souto says: "After the horsemeat scandal people want to know where their meat is coming from and to trust their supplier. At Dovecote Park you have that traceability and that gives customers their peace of mind.
"We have some of the best tracked and quality beef in the world and we need to give our beef its worth and tell its story. Our British breeds in the UK do well without supplementary feeding and produce a sustainable carcass that is ethically farmed."
The chefs walk back to the conference centre on site at Dovecote Park, for a lunch of beef, they reflect on the visit.
"The facilities here are amazing," says Buckley. "It's like visiting a country estate rather than a meat processing factory and every process here has been executed in the most respectful way."
Bateman comments on the quality of the operation and the forward-thinking mentality on the use of technology alongside traditional butchery methods.
Murphy adds: "Understanding the process and operation of what exactly happens with the cattle from start to finish has been a bit sad in parts, but at the same time incredible to see. Seeing how efficiently the company works was truly an eye-opener."
"I can't wait to take this experience back to my kitchen," says Dineen. "It's been such a memorable experience and one I will never forget - it's been a great privilege and a very inspiring trip. The sheer size and volume of the operation took my breath away, as did the welfare of the animals and the work that goes into ensuring the highest of standards are met each and every day."
"The size of the operation, including the dry-ageing unit was truly a sight to behold," agrees Townsend.
Watling and his new product development team work closely with production and sales to create, develop and implement new product ranges in order to meet chef's demands and trends.
"Within development it's fair to say that technique-driven cuisine and nose-to-tail cookery are at the forefront right now. And this isn't just within the hospitality sector - we are finding the consumer wants to replicate the experiences of dining out at home. The revival of traditional cuts like skirt, oxtail and cheeks come as no real coincidence. These cuts have exceptional flavour and texture - just what the consumer is looking for.
"An example of this could be a sous vide ox cheek bourguignon, where the cheeks are cooked at a low temperature to enhance the gelatinous properties, and the bourguignon provides a richness and a nostalgic feel to the dish. Some of our other foodservice chefs smoke the oxtail and use it to make croquettes with a caper aÁ¯oli," he adds.
The group agree that Dovecote is totally committed to the sustainable growth and delivery of a business founded on integrity and ethical principles, and it seems further inroads will be made into this sector as well-respected and well-treated meat becomes the standard.
•José Souto, chef-lecturer in culinary arts, Westminster Kingsway College, London •Adam Smith, executive chef, Coworth Park, Ascot •Gary Townsend, head chef, One Devonshire Gardens, Glasgow •Ben Murphy, head chef, Launceston Place, London •Adam Bateman, group operations and development chef, Principal Hotels •James Buckley, executive development chef, the O2 London (Levy Restaurants UK) •Scott Dineen, head chef, Goldman Sachs, London (BaxterStorey) *A version of this article appeared in the 2 November issue of The Caterer with an incorrect job title. Ray Thomas is the trading manager of Dovecote Park.*
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