If you are what you eat, then on one memorable occasion recently, I was an old cow. Stop heckling at the back of the room, I’ve heard it all before, often from my own family.
I was invited to a lunch cooked by one of my favourite chefs, Tyler Torrance of The Boarding House in Halesworth, to sample meat from Fen Farm Dairy. Fen Farm are, as their name suggests, primarily dairy producers, best known for their award-winning raw milk Brie-style cheese, Baron Bigod.
But working in tandem with butcher, Jeremy Thickitt of Clarke’s of Bramfield, they are beginning to market aged Montbeliarde beef.
This is matured, of course, by the traditional method of dry ageing by the butcher. But ‘aged beef’ is a refined way of describing what others butchers and producers call ‘old cow’. Utilising the meat of retired dairy or beef cattle is a long-established habit in Spain but farmers in the UK have been slower to embrace the possibilities. That’s now changing.
There are good reasons for this. The cynical might say it’s simply a way for a farmer to maximise profit. I have no problem with that, actually, because farming is a tough way of life and the profit margins are often small. It was anger over the absurdly low, supermarket-driven prices paid for milk that first led Fen Farm to explore new ways of making a living and to move into cheese making.
But it is also logical to assume that if we enjoy other forms of slow-grown meat for its depth of flavour – think mutton versus lamb – then the meat of an older cow would be equally tasty. (It is.)
And finally, it’s about the quality of life of and respect for the animal. An animal that’s too old for breeding will normally be sent straight to market, often with a long journey in front of it before going to a slaughterhouse and ending up, at best, somewhere far down the food chain as anonymous burgers.
An animal which is to be fattened up for the sort of cuts which might grace your Sunday dinner table will enjoy a bit of pampering in its twilight months. It can also be slaughtered locally, reducing the stress on the animal.
But you probably want to know what it tastes like. Deeply, profoundly, beefy is the short answer. If it was a wine you’d say it had a long finish.
Tyler cooked it four ways … roasted marrowbones first, with horseradish and barley porridge sourdough (so moreish I struggled to stop stuffing my face, yes, I’m that classy); then the tenderloin served raw as a tartare with egg yolks (divine).
This was followed by a 16-hour roasted topside with braised featherblade; and finally Txuleta Basque-style sirloin chops, cooked over hardwood and charcoal.
We finished with Baron Bigod and Tyler’s home-made quince cheese. It was a princely meal from beginning to end.
We were eating a nine year old dairy cow which butcher Jeremy had hung for six weeks. This meal was partly an experiment to gauge interest … most of my fellow guests were chefs … and the meat could perhaps have benefited from more marbling, but Jonny says future animals will have more fattening time.
I’ve eaten old cow elsewhere where the animals have had more finishing and it does make a big difference, keeping the meat moist, especially when it’s being cooked on something as fierce as a professional grill. But that’s part of the learning curve and Jonny and Dulcie are quick studies.
We all agreed the raw tenderloin was a highlight of the meal: perfectly prepared, melt-in-the-mouth and fabulously flavoured. As Jeremy says, the fillets and sirloins will virtually sell themselves … aged cow is already a favourite with hardcore steak enthusiasts and would be a wow for a summer barbecue.
But there are also whole rump roasts to be had, and the forequarters make spectacularly full-flavoured burgers and casseroles.
The professional opinion? “It’s phenomenal,” said Tyler, taking a break from the kitchen. “The provenance, the ageing – this is Suffolk at the forefront of what’s going to be happening in the next 10 years in British cooking. And it’s been a lot of fun to play with.”