Farmers are serious about meat quality. It can take years and years of careful selection to ensure just the right lean meat content, combined with the optimum distribution of fat, for the tastiest and most succulent meat.
So it would be a crying shame if that perfectly marbled beef steak ended up in a distinctly average casserole, or a perfect pork sausage found its way into a disappointingly soggy toad in the hole. It would be like falling at the final hurdle – the kitchen counter. But short of standing over the consumer’s shoulder as they stir, whisk and simmer, what can you do?
In 2009, Tim Rymer, chairman of JSR Farms, decided that what happens in the kitchen was too important to ignore, and embarked on a year-long project to convert a derelict pig unit into a fully functioning cookery school. The aim? To make sure that the 30 or 40 years it took to genetically improve the animal, wasn’t wasted in its final few minutes.
“If a consumer doesn’t have a good eating experience, there’s a danger they’ll say ‘I’m not going to eat beef again’,” explains Tim. “We saw this as a great opportunity to increase cooking skills in the area, not only among adults, but children as well.”
The school sits on JSR-owned land in Driffield, Yorkshire – one small part of the 3,600ha (8,895-acre) business that encompasses pig genetics, pig and beef production, arable and a portfolio of property.
The school opened its doors last October and offers a range of courses from chocolate making to canapés, but I’m signed up for Yorkshire Born and Bred – a one-day course that promises to teach me how to make traditional dishes using the best Yorkshire produce. The lady tasked with helping me find my inner Delia is the school’s chef, Ali Bilton.
Herself born and bred in the county, Ali tells me when I arrive that almost all the produce on the menu is locally sourced, and on closer inspection this is much more than a customer-friendly turn of phrase. With the exception of a handful of lemons, nearly every single ingredient in the kitchen was either grown or reared in Yorkshire or the surrounding counties. And Ali should know – she scoured the county to find them.
The plain flour comes from cereals grown by Tim and Caroline Sellers – owners of the Side Oven bakery in Driffield. The onions were grown by John Gossop in nearby Goole. Rhubarb, carrots, butter, herbs, cheese, oil and honey – all local. And the wild duck (which we later stuffed with sloe berries – picked locally) was shot the day before by her fishmonger’s 10-year-old son.
On the few occasions that Ali can’t find it or make an ingredient herself, she finds a local business that can.
The Yorkshire parkin I make is flavoured with a pungent ginger, courtesy of Asharun Spices in Harrogate. Flying Man lemon curd – an award-winning local brand – gives our rhubarb bread and butter pudding a novel twist. And my favourite dish of the day – a melt-in-the-mouth Givendale prime beef casserole – is cooked for several hours in nothing more than a bottle of Wold Top micro brewery beer (my only criticism here is the recipe called for the whole bottle, meaning there was nothing left over to drink).
Ali agrees it’s time consuming keeping the menu so painstakingly local, but insists that it’s worth the extra effort – even when it involves driving a headless deer across Yorkshire in the back of her car in preparation for a game course.
“The quality of the produce you start with is the most important thing. Unless you make an absolutely catastrophic error during cooking, you can’t go too wrong with quality ingredients.”
The local story of the food is built into other aspects of the business, too, starting with the building itself. The rundown farmstead, which was heavily bombed during the Second World War, was transformed by local joiners, plasterers, carpenters and kitted out in soft furnishings from local upholsterers.
Early on, Tim and Ali realised it would be difficult to make the space pay purely as a cookery school, so a key part of the build was to make the space as adaptable as possible – “so it could wear many hats”, says Ali.
The kitchen’s four island cooking stations are fully moveable so they can be pulled into different formations. This allows JSR to market the school for classes, food tastings, demonstrations and workshops – and it seems to be working. Already the facilities have been hired by potato growers who wanted to bake, boil, mash and fry new varieties to test their suitability for different recipes.
The team at JSR also designed the site to include a lounge area, dining room and six en-suite bedrooms, with a view to catering for corporate functions and away days. Now the business is starting to find its feet, Tim believes the corporate market is something they can start to push a lot harder.
“We see Grimsby and Hull as the food capital of Europe. There are lots of companies that could make use of our facilities and we’re planning on doing a roadshow to raise our profile among these companies.”
They are also putting the finishing touches to a three-bedroom holiday cottage, are looking into offering Saturday clubs for children, and have approached the NHS about running healthy eating courses.
Six months after opening their doors, they are still seeing what’s popular, but already there have been some surprises. Their Gentlemen Please course (a strictly men-only guide to the preparation of a two-course dinner) has been their most popular offering to date.
“Often it’s bought as a present, but the men seem to like cooking without being under the glare of their wife, and knowing they won’t get told off for messing up the kitchen,” says Ali.
It would be easy to see cookery as the light or frothy sideline to the serious business of genetics and meat production; Tim would be the first to admit the classes on offer are all about having fun with food. But, importantly, he doesn’t class the school as a diversification, rather a “natural extension of what we’re already doing in the way of beef and pork eating quality”.
Commercial pig production is at the heart of JSR’s business (they produce 95,000 slaughter pigs a year) and in the same way they commit years to breeding precisely the right animals, they’re prepared to commit time to make the cookery school a success.
“You have to give a project like this at least three years,” says Tim. “If you felt you had to be profitable in year one, it’s a big risk. We were in a position where we could afford to take a medium-term view.
“I liken it to getting a fly-wheel started. The first year is going to be a lot of hard work. The second year is about building momentum. By the third year, it should have momentum of its own.”
Courses range from £40 for a 2.5-hour course, to £150 for a full day with lunch.