Nick leading Calum out at the Surrey County Show with me at a safe distance behind, armed with a stick!
As a main business, we also used to breed highland cows at our farm on the Surrey/Sussex and Kent borders. These are fabulous beasts being much more docile than they may look with their spectacular horns. Sadly in commercial terms they are hard work and despite being one of the UK’s oldest native breeds of cattle, are currently on DEFRA’s “at risk” register.
We had around 100 beasts, all pedigree with traceable bloodlines through the Highland Cattle Society going back to 1885, and we used three stock bulls on our farm. Calum (in the picture above) was home bred, three years old and looks after a hareem of 18 females; he weighed around 800kg. We are serious breeders and were delighted to become approved by Waitrose as one of their nominated farmers last year after rigorous quality controls, site visits and independent audits.
Waitrose are a huge supporter of the UK’s native breeds and British farmers generally. As a business they certainly recognise that quality counts and you may have noticed their highland beef promotion at Christmas time in selected stores… Waitrose also recognise that quality costs more and they do pay farmers a premium for their highland beef, recognising the much longer production process, and that is a huge credit to their business ethos.
People often ask what the link is between the shaggy monsters and champagne. While “nothing tangible” might be a truthful answer, the reason for our involvement with this breed over others was their particular premium nature. Just like champagne, the beef production cannot be hurried as they grow very slowly and do not tend to be mature until 30 months old (as opposed to continental cattle which can be from 14 to 18 months). Some of the very best highland beef is from 48 month old bullocks that have lived an outdoor life feasting on heather and bilberries – but legislation makes their production very difficult. Similarly, females are typically not bred until they are in the their fourth year. All of this means downtime and serious investment as a farmer – but a terrific natural product at the end of the day. Our beasts live outside all year round and love a cold snap to remind them of home!
These principles echo our champagne motiviation. Our main Non-Vintage champagne is aged in bottle in the producer’s cellars just outside Epernay, France (before disgorgement) for a minimum of three years as opposed to the legal minimum of 15 months. The family producer is three generation practised at the art of champagne making, nurturing his own vines all year round so that all aspects of the production are within his control – as we say from vine to wine. 22 hectares of vineyard dotted around the region and in some of the very best Cru villages gives him a potential production of only 250,000 bottles per harvest as quantities are rigorously controlled to ensure only the best juice pressings are used. Quarter of a million may sound a lot but in fact is not many, considering the region has potential for 360m bottles in a year – and that is before the planned expansion by one third to cater for theoretical increases in global demand.
So there it is; we believe that a focus on quality makes a huge difference in the long run; that alone is the perfect reason to still be working with the same champagne producer after 15 years – and breeding highland cows at the same time!
Bring on the bubbles…