Category Archives: Ben’s Meat Blog

Ben Watson, brother of Guy, grew up on Riverford farm in Devon. While Guy started growing organic veg, Ben became similarly obsessed with making sausages, bacon and charchuterie – which eventually grew into our Riverford meatboxes.

Ben’s blog reflects his passion for all things meat – including issues surrounding animal welfare, the supply chain and why we choose the farmers we do. If you’d like to know more about our favourite dishes (from how we cure our bacon to our best-loved recipes), Ben’s blog will provide insight on how Riverford meat finds its way from the field to your plate.

Ben’s meat blog: Food fraud, regulations & halal

For once, organic British shepherds must be rubbing their hands in glee. Their reputation is definitely 100% untainted. There aren’t any organic licensed halal slaughterhouses and I shouldn’t think there ever will be. In fact it’s all a bit of a storm in a teacup. It’s hard to get a complete picture of what goes on in New Zealand abattoirs but, in all probability, the method used for halal and non-halal slaughter is identical, except for the prayer. But as usual, a little bit of digging exposes a murky world of parcels of meat without addresses or senders. In the UK some halal slaughterhouses, endorsed by purists, don’t pre-stun at all. Nor do kosher Jewish operations, and demand for certain cuts means that surplus meat is sold on to the conventional market.

Food fraud has become the buzz phrase of the year and this week’s news shows yet again how the existing system of self regulation, combined with external Food and Trading Standards, just doesn’t work. Organic standards aren’t perfect but make a difference because everybody concerned wants and needs them to.

For the vast majority of our lamb and beef, we use a local operation a couple of miles away that Riverford has been dealing with for over thirty years. They’re a family run business with three generations actively involved. It’s a s*** job but someone has to do it, and they do it with a degree of feeling that makes me happy to shout about it rather than hide it – and that’s saying something.

I was going to go on to talk about news from a couple of weeks ago that many processed lamb ready meals were anything but. I think I’ve said enough. That particular fraud won’t happen with a short, straight supply chain. Who knows what happens on a slow boat from New Zealand?

Ben Watson

Ben’s blog: wine cellar overhaul – meet our new gutsy reds & classy whites

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Ben Watson, Guy’s brother, has given our wine range a good overhaul  – here’s his blog about the thinking behind the new cohort of gutsy reds and classy whites.

Good wine from good farming might sound a little trite but most organic wine is as much a product of the vineyard as milk is of a cow. Great wines are made in the vineyard and after that minimal intervention is the name of the game.

Thirty years ago winemakers were tearing their hair out and crying ‘how can we make good wine from organic grapes?’ Now, with better practises in the vineyard and improved hygiene in the cellar they are asking the opposite; ‘how can we make good wine without using organic grapes?’

So, with this in mind, and the fact that it’s a natural partner to all things Riverford, we’ve been having a good look at our wine list.

Thanks to the chancellor’s avarice value for money lies in the £8-10 bracket so that’s where we have been concentrating our efforts. Once you’ve knocked off the duty and VAT, wine for £7 or less doesn’t offer much value.

So far we’ve added six; a very classy white and red from a top producer in Pic St Loup in the Languedoc,  a lovely rosé from the southern Rhône, a gutsy medal winning Corbierès and two meat and stew friendly ‘Reserva’ reds from Chile.

Top of the pops will be a red and a white from the Marche region of Italy. Wine writers have been ‘bigging up’ Central Italian whites as the next Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc and the Saladini Pilastri Falerio, a blend of Trebbiano, Pecorino, and Passerino, doesn’t disappoint. Floral on the nose with a touch of mown grass with an apple and herbal flavours, it has good body and acidity and a slight but noticeable bitter almond finish – perfect for vegetable, fish and poultry dishes. The Rosso Piceno is 90% Sangiovese and 10% Montepulciano and spends a month or two in large old oak prior to bottling.  This is more than just good quaffing wine – it’s made for Bolognese or a hearty ragù.

Once the Italians arrive, we’re putting the new wines (minus the Chilean Carmenere and Rhone rosé) in a mixed case of six for a bargain £44.75 (20% off on deliveries from 4th November).

So far we’ve been concentrating on the winter reds. After Christmas we’ll start thinking about the whites and lighter reds …

venison season: Ben’s blog – going back to my roast – whoops, roots

Occasionally, for whatever reason and in whatever way, we all feel the need to get back to our roots. Genealogists can spend hours on the internet. For organic food lovers, venison is the way to go. It’s about as natural and unadulterated as meat gets. Truly wild animals can’t, by definition, be organic, but farmed venison, whose breeding and life cycle has hardly changed in the last thousand years, can. In fact, without the likes of Bad King John and James I and their bloodthirsty chums chasing them, a deer’s life is on the up. These days they’re born in the spring, live a stress free ‘park life’ and are dispatched in the field, eighteen months later, by expert marksmen, before the stress of autumn rutting.

losing the stigma

Across the pond, venison is all the rage with followers of the Weston A Price Foundation, but you don’t have to be an earth mother to enjoy it. The season for farmed venison actually starts in August, but despite it shining on the barbecue, it’s much more suited to autumn eating. Why we don’t eat more of it is a mystery, because on health, welfare and sustainability grounds it can’t be beat. It’s taken a generation for venison to divest itself of its toff nosh/cute bambi/’no I deer’ jokes image. It’s been a tough nut to crack, but finally the health benefits (high in protein, iron and Omega-3, low in fat and cholesterol), availability and our endless quest for something new has won it its rightful place on our plate.

‘v’ is for versatile

When I think of venison, I see comforting casseroles and chunky red wines, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Firstly, it’s just like any meat: some cuts grill, some roast, others stew. Secondly, venison is worldwide and totally adaptable – it takes rogan josh and stir fries in its stride. It also lends itself beautifully to my current favourite ‘dish of the day’, Bo Kho/Vietnamese Beef Stew. My top tip is, in a casserole, once you’ve browned your meat and added the liquid, don’t even think about letting it boil. Slow cookers/crock pots are best but, failing that, the oven on minimum setting is your best bet. Lean meat always needs TLC.

To keep the venison company, we’ve got some exciting new wines coming your way in October. Nativa Cabernet Sauvignon will work with roasts and steaks and Nativa Carmenere is perfect with casseroles and stews. There will also be a rustic Rosso Piceno for ragus and an award winning Corbières, so watch this space for our new Autumn wines.

Ben Watson

Ben’s meat blog: why beef prices are going up

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The cow jumped over the moon, and organic beef prices are going in the same direction.
Horse-gate has been good news for food businesses whose core values centre on known and proven provenance. Organic certification is by far the clearest way of demonstrating this, but the problem now is that everyone is trying to muscle in on the act. Supermarkets, who for years have paid little more than lip service to organics, treating it more like a loss-making inconvenience they could do without, are all reportedly desperate to re-list as much organic produce as possible – particularly beef. However there just isn’t enough to go around.

Last year’s poor harvest and growing conditions has meant that even low input, extensive organic farmers haven’t had enough fodder (grass, silage and hay) so they’ve turned them out to wait for the sun to shine and the organic spring grass to grow and give them a rich enough diet. Poor supply is compounded by the fact that until recently, premiums for organic beef have been minuscule (as low as 5%) and many farmers have decided that the challenge of producing their herds as fully organic has been too great, so have surrendered their organic certification as a result. If the supermarkets had supported organic farmers over the last five years, rather than giving them the cold shoulder, supply wouldn’t be so tight now. Now the premium has risen to a stonking 30% with no signs of levelling off. Rearing organic beef, even on grass, does cost more money, but not that much. Most farmers would be happy with 12-15%, which I would hope you would be happy to pay. It seems like a small price to pay for the peace of mind guaranteed provenance brings and the good work organic farmers do looking after our green and pleasant land.

At Riverford we have a good relationship with our suppliers. We pay a fixed price based on an average of the last quarter and this has worked well. Obviously they want to make an honest buck, but our farmers would much rather deal with us than buyers for the multiples. Most of them have been around for long enough to have experienced first hand the fickle whims of ‘those who must be obeyed.’ They didn’t start farming, and convert to organic, to see the fruits of their labour disappear into an anonymous black hole to be blended with 25% horse meat.

However, no farmer will go on selling beef for significantly less than market price for long, so we’ve shortened the last quarter by a month to hurry up the process of bringing our prices into line, so we can still pay a competitive price for our suppliers’ organic beef.

I’m afraid the inevitable outcome will be a small rise in our prices for all things beefy, but rest assured, we will keep increases to a minimum. We want to work with, and support our farmers as much as we want to deliver the best priced, best quality food via the shortest supply chain. That’s the Riverford way.

Ben’s meat blog: ‘Horsegate’ a few months on

It’s been a tough start to the year for the conventional meat industry – ‘horsegate’, closely followed by more research showing that a diet heavy on processed meat products isn’t a good option.

Two seemingly separate issues, in practice closely connected. Now that we have had a month or two to reflect, and the emotional outrage has dissipated, we are left with a murky picture of duplicity and dodgy dealings. The food ingredients industry is partly made of unaccountable, offshore, often privately-owned trading companies with tentacles extending all over the world. Containers of frozen and chilled product crisscross Europe, and the world, controlled from an anonymous computer in a hidden away office – these people don’t want a high profile. Given that this is the world we live in, and governing international traders in offshore locations is nigh on impossible, you could argue that we all got off lightly – this time.

It’s made the multiple retailers shout about provenance and buying British, but in practice that won’t extend beyond meat cuts on the shelves. They can set up supply chain audits to their hearts’ content but when the main driving force is price and the quest for cheap food, what are they worth? They might get the right species but that still leaves plenty of scope for abuse. Drugs and antibiotics, concealed fat, mechanically recovered and tenderised meat, animal welfare etc aren’t going to show up in a DNA test. And don’t get all NIMBY and say it’s only our continental cousins who are to blame.

Question: Where does all this dodgy meat end up?

Answer: In processed meat products. Hence,including both in this blog.

Question: Is food processing and technology for the benefit of the industry or the customer?

Answer:We might convince ourselves that it’s making our lives easier and bringing us food that we can’t make at home, but the main driver is adding value, extending shelf life and making money – so the answer for ten is industry. The contents of a factory made sausage or pâté bear no resemblance to what you might make at home. Obviously we don’t make turkey twizzlers and the like, but I wouldn’t want to. I can’t believe that I would be writing this if all processed meat products were made with a view from the customer perspective rather than that of the food industry.

At Riverford, and in much of the organic world, things are different. Food technology does have its place in organic food but, thanks to the Soil Association, it is mainly for the benefit of the consumer. The list of ingredients in our sausages, burgers and bacon is short. You can fit them and product costings on the back of an envelope, which was about as close to a business plan as I got.

As one of our butchers said – ‘with our burgers the mincer is only saving work for our teeth’. Now that is the ultimate example of food processing for the customer’s benefit – very much the Riverford way.

If you would like to see our burgers, click here:http://j.mp/1321jjQ

Lamb is to Easter what turkey is to Christmas but why?

Despite being a relatively recent import from the Americas, at least Christmas turkey marks the culmination of a natural ‘season fitting’ yearly cycle. Paschal, Passover, ‘lamb of god’ significance is something of an anachronism and doesn’t really fit in with farming reality. However there’s nothing wrong with a bit of pagan ritual to remind us of our past – especially when it tastes so good.

Most flocks of ewes naturally lamb in late winter/spring and take four months plus to grow, meaning that eating new season lamb at Easter definitely doesn’t fit into any rationally conceived farming calendar – even less so this year with Easter in March. However, like sheep, farmers are an adaptable breed and if you want to eat lamb at the time they would normally be born, then lamb you shall have – albeit outside of the natural lambing cycle.

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Officially, a lamb becomes a sheep when it grows four teeth (after about a year). With culinary trends happily favouring slightly older, more flavoursome lamb (approx. 9 months – 1 year old), many of our farmers are able to lamb later, in mid-summer, for the Easter market. This means a lamb which is a little older, but season fitting. Carefully managed, separating slow-growing triplets from faster-growing singleton and twin lambs, means many of these older lambs are at their prime now.

Our Easter lambs are all Devonian, born and bred from Peter Howlett at Moorhuish Farm, Brixham, David Camp near Totnes and Nigel Eggins on the River Tamar. All are three of our top farmers that we have worked with ever since we started offering meatboxes at Riverford. The Camps are an old Devon farming family with fathers, uncles and cousins all over the place – their lambs grow just over the hill from Riverford in Totnes, and on a big strip of National Trust land overlooking Hope Cove on the coast.

Born in late spring/summer last year and raised traditionally, our lamb may be a little older than the 4-month old slightly forced, mainly indoor reared, ‘sucked lamb’ available. This makes for a happier, healthier lamb that is older but much, much tastier.  Chefs love their milky, sucked lambs as a vehicle for their sauces but, for a roast, older is definitely better.

Here are a few ideas for your Easter lamb:

The classic roast lamb with rosemary and garlic: Takes a lot of beating but for flavour and easy cooking, slow roasted shoulder is equally good – particularly when the lamb can share the oven with a dish of potato dauphinoise or gratin while you relax or build up an appetite.  If there is just the two of you, or you really want to push the boat, out try a rack or two. For guaranteed foodie brownie points rack of lamb can’t be beaten – half an hour in the oven, sliced into cutlets and artfully arranged and we’re all queuing up for Masterchef.

Given the seasonal scarcity of fresh greens, a flageolet bean cassoulet with a few carrots mixed in is the ideal Easter accompaniment for roast lamb. Again it can be done in advance so Easter lunch can be as easy as you want to make it.  Just leave room for a chocolate egg or two.

Thanks for reading.

Ben Watson

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