British native breed beef is rising in popularity, and about time too. With more local farms rearing rare breeds and London’s best burger joints championing it on their menus, Hugh Thomas takes a look at what traditional British breeds are and why we need to ‘eat it to keep it’.
The UK has 34 breeds of native cattle that have evolved unchanged for centuries.
Who does the best beef burger in London? Patty & Bun are in with a big shout. Maybe Honest, who butcher everything themselves. Or how about Burger & Beyond, whose meat comes from their own farm? While Bleecker is another strong contender. It’s all personal preference, of course. Though the front-runners have one thing in common: they all use native breed beef.
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Bleecker work with South London-based The Butchery, who source traditional and rare British breeds from small farms, to make the perfect patty. Nathan Mills co-runs The Butchery; ‘her product is based on having the beef as standout,’ he says of Bleecker founder Zan Kaufman. ‘What we have is a very consistent and higher than usual fat content.’
Though Nathan is a little reserved when talking about his client’s demands, both Bleecker and Nathan are more than happy to note one thing; part of what makes Bleecker’s patties so delicious is down to the breed of cow their burgers are made from.
What is native breed beef anyway?
Native breed beef is meat from traditional British breeds of cow, which have evolved unchanged for centuries. Hardier and better equipped to withstand the British climate compared to continental breeds, they’re also more disease resistant, generally more docile towards humans, and exceptionally efficient at converting grass to fat and protein. Economical disadvantages – such as the time they take to grow to reach slaughtering age – are offset by their superior flavour.
Take Dexter, for example. This is a cow which typically doesn’t grow much higher than the human waist. It would be of no interest to mass producers looking to get as much meat from a single animal. Still, it has well marbled flesh with a sweet flavour that’s even more intense in a smaller cow. Something you’d never get from a commercial variety (in the UK, this is often a Limousin cross or Charolais cross) that require their diets to be supplemented with grain rather than purely grass.
Park Farm’s Sussex breeds grazing on pasture.
The UK has 34 breeds of native cattle, including some household names, and some not so familiar. Look out for Hereford, Belted Galloway, Shorthorn, Highland, Angus, White Park, Red Poll, and Sussex, to name a few.
An important part of Britain’s food production
Sussex breeds are thought to be descendants of red cattle that roamed the Weald since at least the 11th century. They have evolved over hundreds of years. Andy and Anne Clarke at the 300-acre Park Farm in Kent are two of those farming them. ‘We call them grass converters,’ says Andy. ‘And they’re very good at it. Our cows are kept on wild flower meadows. They survive easily on poorer quality pastures, so we can use the sweeter grasses for the young stock, to fatten them.’
The advantage here is massive. ‘Virtually all the land we farm here is lots of small fields with hedgerows, so it’s unsuitable for growing crops,’ Andy says. Since at least two thirds of the UK countryside is suitable only for grazing, native breeds’ ability to subsist on it is an important part of Britain’s food production. Not only that, conservation grazing, best achieved with native breeds, helps maintain or promote healthy, biodiverse natural ecosystems.
Native breeds: threatened by extinction?
Despite the suitability of native breed cows to the British countryside, many varieties aren’t getting the attention they should. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust, which was set up in 1975 to promote endangered UK breeds and, in worst cases, save them from extinction, lists five breeds currently on its ‘critical’ list. Foremost is Albion, from Derbyshire, which had a particularly hard time during the Foot and Mouth crisis in the ‘60s. ‘They have just come onto the Watchlist after a long battle for recognition,’ says RBST Field Officer Ruth Dalton.
Thankfully, the clear and growing demand for native breeds means many other varieties are getting the attention they deserve. ‘Generally,’ says Ruth, ‘we’ve seen a welcome increase in native cattle numbers and registrations in recent years, and the future for most of them looks bright.’
‘The future looks bright’
Perhaps it’s no surprise UK beef has been exported for centuries. British breeds have a reputation around the world, while their bloodlines can be traced to almost anywhere from the US to Japan. We may begin to see more advantages of British native bred beef ourselves, but there’s more required of us than that – while the RBST’s phrase ‘eat it to keep it’ might seem paradoxical, it stands to reason.
Stuck for something to cook this Sunday? Try this perfect roast beef recipe.