Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Pure Pastures, Rare Flavour

My third article published in the local magazine, Letchworth Living. (April 2011 edition) www.letchworthliving.co.uk

Cheeky Spouse gets acquainted with her food at Offley Hoo Farm.

I wanted to find out just what a real farm is actually like, especially as I'm very much a 'towny', but I feel I need to see more than just an idyllic portrayal of one. Today was to be very educational, to say the least, as I set out to build more of a relationship with what I eat.

If you live in Letchworth, you'll no doubt have driven along the A505 between Hitchin and Luton and seen the wide expanses of countryside, with its undulations covered in lush green or the golden glow of oil seed rape, this landscape is the product of a good farming ethic carried out by Offley Hoo Farm’s award-winning farmer Jon Birchall. Of the 7000 acres covering the King's Walden estate, Jon manages 2000 acres following practices to fulfill the requirements of the High Level Stewardship Scheme.

Sunday morning is blessed with some fine sunshine, a brief but welcome brightness in what has been a largely dull week. Turning the car in to the entrance, I spot Jon hosing down the yard, as I get out, a friendly and inquisitive Border Collie trots up to greet me. When I bend down to stroke the dog, I get the feeling Jon nearly always takes second place when visitors arrive.

Jon is an extremely affable chap and is more than happy to tell me about the farm he manages. Although I've lived in the area for over 20 years, there's always something new and interesting to learn. The vast King's Walden estate covers two distinct soil terrains one lies just over the very end of the chalk of the Chilterns and both give rise to prime pasture.

I’m shown a map dating from around the 1920’s which clearly marks out all the fields. Knowing in the past, many fields were enlarged by grubbing up the hedgerows, I ask if the landscape has changed much over the years. Jon explains that even today, little has altered and in fact many of the smaller fields have endured modern farming.

We get into the truck for a tour of the estate, this is also a good time to check on the animals out in the fields – the native rare breed cattle, sheep and pigs produce some of the best local beef, lamb and pork. Our journey takes us out onto a muddy farm track past a rapeseed oil crop, where a clever device mimicking a bird of prey, swoops over the field to deter pigeons making a meal of the new shoots. When this crop is mature its seeds will be crushed to extract the oil which can be used for cooking or to make margarine.

The trip takes in a huge area and Jon points out his various fields describing how he’s transformed some of them from arable crop land to grass pasture. He explains how boundary margins (uncultivated strips around fields) prevent overspill of fertilisers and pesticides into the surrounding hedgerows and also points out a beetle bank, a long, low grassy mound. Areas like this are left to allow wildlife to flourish, particularly insects. Being part of the Stewardship Scheme means that farmers are actively involved in maintaining and improving countryside habitats throughout their work on the land.

It is easy to take our local landscape for granted, but only now do I fully appreciate how and why it looks the way it does. Hedge planting is carried out and land left to naturalise so that the native flora can return.

You may be asking, “what has this got to do with meat?” Well, good grazing and great care make for superior tasting meat.
At Offley Hoo, Jon has chosen livestock that are well suited to the environment. The animals are relatively easy to care for and economical to rear, but superior in every way.
Jon stops at a barn where Longhorn cattle have been brought in for the winter. They are truly magnificent animals. They do indeed have long horns, but seem gentle enough. Not often having had the opportunity to see cows this close up, I’m surprised at how thick and wavy their coats are. There are a few calves still suckling from their mothers and despite their cuteness I don’t feel at all fazed by the fact that I’m looking at what is potentially my dinner.

Offley Hoo’s Wiltshire Horn sheep roam happily in fields over the farm and when I visit, many of them are pregnant, so by the time you read this they may have already given birth to their lambs.
They grow to quite a heavy weight without putting on excess fat and the meat is full flavoured which makes it very desirable to discerning consumers.
After returning to the yard, Sarah (Jon’s wife) takes me to see the piglets. They are Large White/ Middle White crosses and perfectly adorable as they run around and climb all over one another. I’m relieved they are locked in a stable as mother pig looks quite protective.

It may seem odd to be eating rare breeds, but if we didn’t, they simply wouldn’t exist. The rearing of old native breeds for meat, is in effect a conservation programme which in turn is better for the animals, environment and us.

For more information about the farm and meat sales visit:

Open Farm Sunday
Each year Offley Hoo opens its gates to the public as part of a nationwide event to give people the opportunity to get in touch with the land that feeds us. There will be lots of activities including a chance to meet the animals, tractor rides and a food market.
This year it will be held on the 12th June and should be a great day out for all the family.

Photos: ©childsdesign 2011


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