A longstanding relationship between a family of tenant farmers and a renowned landowner has taken the idea of local food to a commendable extreme.
Aberdeen Angus beef cattle seen grazing the pasture within the 3,600ha owned by the Castle Howard estate in North Yorkshire take pride of place on the menus of the estate’s eateries and butcher’s shop.
Five generations of the Fargher family have been farming as tenants of the estate, with Michael, his father Don and son Ben supplying beef to its various eateries and farm shop for almost two decades.
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Based almost literally a stone’s throw from the estate’s Baroque stately home, some 15 miles north of York, the Fargher’s farm is just minutes away.
About 18 years ago, the family was approached by the estate with an offer of supplying their beef direct to its farm shop, cafés and restaurant.
Michael says in an age where supermarkets are squeezing producers on price for their product, the chance to supply an ultra-local buyer, with which the family already had a strong connection, was a no-brainer.
- 200ha wheat, barley and oilseed rape, plus fodder beet for cattle feed
- 180ha pasture
- 120 Aberdeen Angus suckler cows
- Spring calving, grass-based system
“Years ago, tenants and landlords were typically at loggerheads, but we are all working well together here,” he says.
The Aberdeen Angus breed was selected for its ease of calving and suitability to the family’s grass-based system, finishing well on homegrown barley and fodder beet.
The cattle are managed day-to-day by son Ben, grazing the parkland in full view of the house and the 270,000 visitors it attracts each year.
The estate’s many footpaths mean that the cattle are always on show, so there’s a strong incentive to share the positive story behind this sustainable, high-quality beef production.
“I once had a customer of the farm shop ring me about her daughter, who was deficient in iron. A doctor had recommended she either buy tablets for her daughter or buy some beef from the estate’s butchery.”
As a vegetarian, the shopper was mainly concerned about the welfare of the beef she had been advised to buy, and wanted to quiz Michael. This presented him with a great opportunity to share the advantages of buying super-local, grass-fed beef.
“We’re very transparent about the way we rear our cattle,” Michael explains. “They lead a five-star life and are very well looked after. The beef is far superior to what you find in the supermarket.”
Product with provenance
On average, the estate accounts for four finished bullocks every month. They are taken to an abattoir about 40 miles away where the carcasses are hung for 28 days before being delivered to the estate’s head butcher, Tony Thompson. He loves the quality of the Aberdeen Angus beef he gets from the Farghers.
“It’s a smaller carcass, about 600kg, but it is cracking meat with excellent fat marbling – not quite as lean as that of a Limousin, for example,” says Tony. The fat marbling is key to the beef’s flavour and succulence.
Once sliced and diced, beef is sold direct to customers via the farm shop butchery, alongside lamb produced by Richard Clifford, another tenant farmer on the estate. Meat is also supplied to the three eateries on site.
The Courtyard Café is based in the old stables across the court from the butchery and is open to peckish punters year-round, while the Boathouse Café sits beside the estate’s great lake and the Fitzroy self-service restaurant opens seasonally within the main house.
“Now is the time for us to really push that important field-to-fork message,” says the estate’s head of commercial operations, Matthew Nicholson.
He believes people are prepared to pay more for their food, as the estate is seeing growth in the numbers coming to buy the grass-fed, locally produced beef and other such produce. He calls it “product with provenance”.
There’s the environmental message driving this growth too, as people have become increasingly concerned about how their food is produced and the distance it travels to get to them.
“The Howard family are the custodians of an incredible part of the UK and are passionate about the environment,” he adds. “The drive for local food and supporting our tenants comes from them.
Menu at a glance
Main meals at the Castle Howard Estate’s core eatery, The Courtyard Café, are all priced around the £12 mark while sandwiches and lighter bites range from £6-£9.
We tried the estate-reared Aberdeen Angus cheeseburger served with chunky chips, featuring melt-in-the-mouth minced beef.
The cottage pie, also featuring the Fargher family’s ultra-local beef, is served with minted crushed peas. Simple, honest tucker. We were also treated to a seasonal special – the estate’s pheasant in a scrumptious cider casserole with mashed potato and kale.
A firm favourite are the sausages, made using pork from a farm about 20 miles away. These are served with a root vegetable mash, crispy kale and a caramelised onion gravy.