I’d just eaten some of the best beef I’ve ever tasted. Not in some smart steak restaurant, but sitting in an open-sided barn, on a farm in the Trent Valley, deep in the Midlands.
Rain drummed on the corrugated iron roof and ran in rivulets across the concrete floor, while Tom R Hill, head butcher at top London butcher Turner and George, grilled thick ribs of beef on a makeshift barbecue until the yellow fat sizzled, then sliced them into dark-edged slivers. Across the farmyard, a couple of black and white cows meditatively chewed the cud – Holstein Friesian dairy cows, the same breed that is on our plate.
Yes, dairy cows. Top-quality beef has traditionally been produced by specialist beef breeds like Aberdeen Angus or Shorthorn. Dairy animals, when they are no longer producing enough milk – usually at around five or six years old – are generally slaughtered immediately, and their ultra-lean meat sold cheaply for mince, burgers and low-grade ready meals.
Around the farmyard table were the team who, along with Turner and George, are determined to shake up the meat industry and prove that well-produced dairy beef can be as, or more, delicious as the finest conventional beef.
Our hosts, farmers Andrew Hallifield and his partner, Amy Greetham, who are busy passing plates, take in retired dairy cattle and fatten or “finish” them. Pouring large glasses of red wine was Nemanja Borjanovic, the Serbian-born restaurateur and meat dealer, whose specifications Hallifield and Greetham work to meet.
And at the end of the table sat the often overlooked link in the chain, David Jess, a third-generation slaughter man whose family abattoir near Glasgow is small and specialist enough to deal with the particular demands of what is still a niche market.
Dairy beef’s natural advantage is its age. Beef cattle are generally bred to put on weight quickly, so they are ready to be slaughtered by the age of 30 months, which, after the BSE outbreak, was the maximum age for meat for human consumption.
Even since the 30-month rule was relaxed in 2005, OTM (as over 30-month animals and meat are known in the business) animals still carry extra costs at the abattoir, including removing the spinal column, which makes them less economically appealing to farmers – who have, after all, also to cover other costs, including feed, for every extra day they keep the cows.
Younger beef is more tender – and we are a nation obsessed with tenderness, with bland-but-soft fillet steak still considered the best cut by many. But the flavour of older beef is deeper than from less-mature beasts, with an almost Bovrilly savouriness – possibly because as cattle age they develop more myoglobin, a protein that binds to iron and oxygen, making for darker and more flavourful meat. As for the alleged toughness, if you can manage a sourdough sandwich, you’ll have no problem with a well-produced dairy beef steak.
And yet, explained Borjanovic, OTM meat still carries a stigma. He first fell in love with dairy beef after eating “vaca vieja” in Bar Nestor in San Sebastián, the gastronomic heart of the Basque Country. The Basque have long appreciated an old milker, and txuleton, dairy beef steak, is traditionally served in cider houses and pintxo bars. Borjanovic knew he had to serve it at his London restaurants, Lurra and Donostia.
“Initially, I spoke to our butcher and said I had found this beef that was amazing, would you bring it in for our restaurant? He said if others in the industry found out he was bringing in OTM meat from Spain it would give him such a bad name it would be a detriment to his business. So I thought I’d better do this myself.”
Borjanovic started by bringing in a small batch to sell as a special, and “the response was incredible. People were handing their business cards over the bar and asking to be called next time we had it in.” Now “old cow” has become trendy, and restaurants such as Kitty Fisher’s and Chiltern Firehouse serve it.
The obvious next step was to start producing it over here. Through his restaurant contacts, he met Richard Turner of Turner and George, and, with the help of Instagram, teamed up with Hallifield and Jess. And they sold not just to restaurants, where much of the tiny British production was going, but to home cooks, too.
Hallifield obviously takes particular pleasure in nurturing the cows that come in. “A dairy farmer’s job is to produce milk – at the end of the day, the cow is just the by-product. I like to think that we are taking a by-product and turning it into something prime.”
When a dairy cow arrives at the farm, “there’ll be no fat on her, she’s skinny,” he continued, in his gentle Derbyshire accent. “The first job is to ‘dry off’ the animals [stop them lactating]. You have to do it carefully. For the first few days they wake us at 4.30 because they want milking.”
We strolled up to one of the fields to admire the black and white dairy cows grazing on the thick grass, alongside a herd of rare White Park cattle. Greetham expanded, stroking a particularly dark-eyed beauty: “She’s come in good condition. But that one has no conformation – there’s no gloss to her coat. She’ll be here maybe eight months. Depends how she settles and feeds. A very lean old cow can take a year.”
Some will be fed indoors on corn first, some go straight out to grass, but they’d always rather the cattle went out to grass, for cost reasons as much as anything. “Grass is by God; and this,” declared Hallifield, picking up a handful of feed, “is by the bank manager.”
The cows that stay in are in open-sided barns, and each pen has an outdoor area known pleasingly as a “loafing yard”. The cows can go in and out as they want. “When it’s snowing, they like to stand outside and look up at the sky,” Greetham told me.
The aim is to rest each animal “so she’s not producing milk, and she starts to produce meat”. Older dairy animals gain weight more slowly than beef breeds, but Hallifield told me, phlegmatically: “What we are trying to do is bring them on steady, which gives a marbling rather than a layer of fat on top.” This, everyone around the table agreed, was the key to good meat, and, as Hill said: “Chefs don’t want a thick cap of fat, they want it marbled all the way through.”
When the time comes, the animals are driven to Jess’s and, in the small abattoir, are dispatched with early in the day, minimising the stress to the animal. The meat is stored in Lurra’s ageing rooms for six weeks, important for tenderness as well as flavour, before sending it on to Turner and George to be sold to customers.
The beef is delicious, but it’s more satisfying even than that beefy flavour to know that the animals are developing their full potential. As Hallifield said, patting the glossy rump of a contented cow: “They aren’t being milked two or three times a day. They’ve come to the happy farm.”
The best places to buy dairy beef steak
Rump, sirloin or rib eye steaks. There is also a taster box available that covers the whole range, for £55.
Burgers, rib eye, sirloin and fillet steak from the organic Somerset farm. From £8.50 for a 225g sirloin.
A range of steaks available from November; 80-day dry-aged sirloin steaks (2 x 250g), £22.45.