The dairy cows of Cumbria do not moo in Spanish accents. Their udders supply only British milk. The cattle enjoy a little less sun, and a lot more of Cross Fell’s bracing north-easterly Helm Wind, which, contrary to its name, has nothing to do with The Lord of the Rings.
But on Andrew Barraclough’s farm just outside Penrith, in the North Lakes, his cows have a new-found commonality with the famous herds of Spain — at least those in Galicia and the Basque regions. Barraclough has been inspired by the prized old beef they’re known for. And is one of the first farmers on our shores to try to replicate it.
In 2015, Galician and Basque beef was the dish of the day, after being served at ultra fashionable joints such as Chiltern Firehouse, Lurra and Kitty Fisher’s — largely thanks to Nemanja Borjanovic and his company supplier Txuleta (more on him later).
Londoners raved about tenderness, marbling, and a rich, intense flavour. All these are the consequences of time. The herds of Galicia are allowed to wander freely upon pastures until they’re as old as 17. Barraclough’s cows are not dissimilar, but are more akin to Basque cows, which are retired dairy “dames” that would otherwise be destined for the mincer, their prime and succulency forgotten.
Barraclough’s project is not fuelled on inspiration alone. Unsustainable milk prices meant that he needed to find new ways to stay afloat. Along with Lake District Farmers (LDF), which supplies London’s restaurants with Cumbrian meat and works with around 50 farmers in the Lake District, he decided on a dairy beef venture. Now, his Holstein Friesians (occasionally other breeds, too) enjoy a fattening five-to-nine month retirement.
“These cows have worked hard,” Barraclough says. “Normally, they’d go to become cheap burgers. But by giving them a summer on the grass, and a high-fibre finishing diet of grain, they mature. We’re seeing proper marbling, and the meat’s flavour is pronounced.
“As well as this, it’s about using the animals in the best possible way. It’s sustainability, and giving real respect to the animal.”
Russell Dodds, of LDF, told me that after six months of trial and error, the group is seeing a new, quality product emerge to distribute to restaurants — one that London chefs are eager to cook with. He said that the luscious grass of Cumbria and a dose of warmer weather allows for an aged beef that rivals that of northern Spain. Its fat is wheat field yellow.
“We had teething problems to begin with, but we’re slowly getting there. The beef is getting better. We talk to chefs who often fondly mention to us Galician and Basque produce. I think we’ve got a great alternative now. And it’s British. Customers appreciate provenance, they want a story.”
Of course Dodds would talk up the beef he sells, but the chefs who use it add weight to his claims. There have been a number of high-profile London restaurant groups trialling the meat — to much acclaim. Turner and George sell Galician beef to the public. Some have already started putting it on their menus.
One is Steve Englefield at the Jugged Hare in Barbican: “I’m a big fan of the beef from northern Spain. This is similar, really earthy and dark in colour. I like the strength of it, you get a real hit of beef. I keep it very simple, you don’t need to do much to it. It’s best left alone on a charcoal grill and served with chips and a jus or sauce.”
Englefield added that he puts Barraclough’s beef out in his restaurant display window when available. It ages a little more there, and informs his customers that they’re getting something British.
“I like that a farmer in Britain is using old dairy cows for something more. It gives more meaning to their lives. We need to respect these animals and give them what they deserve after milking, to have those months living happily is something positive. It’s a small gesture. A lot of people are paying more attention to the environment now, and to how food is produced,” said Englefield.
Another London chef cooking with Cumbria’s old dairy beef is Ben Tamlyn, executive chef of the Compass Group, a contract catering company based in the South East. One of Compass’ most high profile clients is Google in London, and Tamlyn is in charge of keeping the company’s workers, or ‘Googlers’, sustained. Its employees, who are used to eating well, expect the best, and Tamlyn told me that Barraclough’s beef is in high demand, with the likes of The Ledbury’s head chef Brett Graham also eager to order in when LDF have it available.
“This is essentially a waste product,” Tamlyn told me. “We’re repurposing the meat, giving the cows a more honourable death. It’s clear that the maturing process, with lots of grazing and high quality grain delivers a premium product.
“I like to take as much of the animal as possible. There’s the more regular fillet and short rib cuts, but trickier cuts work too. They’re just as prime. We braise the shin, and take brisket and cure it so that it’s like corn or salt beef. This is quality food.”
The reason Barraclough’s venture piques such interest is because it might mark the beginning of a new, wider trend. He’s following in the footsteps of Taste Tradition farm in Thirsk, north Yorkshire, which has also started working in parallel to Spain. Nemanja Borjanovic, who imports Basque and Galician beef to serve at Lurra and other big name restaurants, was largely responsible for the hype in 2015 — when he opened Basque restaurant, Donostia. Two years ago, he too hatched a plan to make use of British dairy beef, which he gets from Taste Tradition. Last year, he began distributing to Goodman, Chiltern Firehouse, Kitty Fisher’s, Portland and Clipstone.
“We [the Yorkshire farm and Borjanovic] know how good Basque and Galician beef is,” Borjanovic says. “It proved so popular. But we thought: why not do this here? British beef is, I think, the best in the world. It’s taken a long time to get this going — dairy cows have hard live, so they need time on the grass. This doesn’t just happen. There are farmers who think they can just sell old animals. But you need a plan in place. It’s all about fine husbandry, diet, and time.”
Borjanovic tells me that the beef is hit or miss, but when it’s right, it’s on a par with its Spanish counterparts — maybe even better. And, like Barraclough, supports the idea of “dual purpose” cows. Giving them a new lease of life post-milking, and in turn reaping the rewards.
Merlin Labron-Johnson, former executive chef at Portland, uses ex-dairy beef when he can: “The meat really is a little milky, and the fat really creamy and yellow. There’s a marbling you get on it that doesn’t compare with other beef. I think it’s brilliant that we’re starting to see this product here. It’s great to cook with.”
Chef patron at Tredwell’s, Chantelle Nicholson, is also keen to get on board: “I really like the idea of utilising the meat too, rather than it being culled, and to learn there are British farmers now supplying it is very, very interesting and exciting.”
This British alternative, while a risky investment to farmers, offers a potentially cost-effective new revenue. And it’s down to ambition and quality that means Yorkshire and Cumbria are seemingly forging a “British Basque Country”. Northern Spain is warmer than the Lake District and the Yorkshire Moors, but all are at altitude and thus get their fair share of rain. All this means fine pastures upon which cattle can graze.
Galician and Basque beef will remain synonymous with the melting textures and marbling supreme that comes from the weathered old cows of Iberia. But in years to come, who knows — maybe the hilly wetlands of northern England will be known internationally as the home for comparable, world-class dairy cattle too.