W I L D  B E E F

Richard & Lizzie Vines  Chagford, Devon

In producing 'wild' beef (for 'wild' read 'traditional' or 'old-fashioned') Richard Vines is living out a dream. He began his career in the Army and was then employed for some years by the pub and hotel chain Grand Metropolitan. His ideal, however, had always been to go into farming.  Eventually, he took the plunge and bought a small farm on the edge of Dartmoor, favouring Dartmoor because he wanted to keep cattle and the climate in Devon is particularly suitable for them.  The moor was also seminal to his ideas on nutrition:  the land is not only organic but permanent pasture, which means that it hasn't been ploughed and sown with grass as part of a crop rotation.  Besides the advantage in terms of quality that he believes this confers, it provides a much more varied menu than usual, since there are many sorts of grass plus heather, bilberries, blackberries, bracken, and envy ivy, which cows seem to like (in very small doses) if they feel ill.

His first cattle were two pedigree cows of the local copper-coloured South Devon breed, from whom he hoped to build up a herd.  However, they made a bad start: one died, and so did the calf of the other.  Instead of more Devons, he then bought four pedigree Welsh Blacks from Cerney in Gloucestershire.  The bossiest, who became the herd leader, was called Cerney Ann.  Her descendents all have names ending with Ann after her and still supply the herd leaders. 

Richard's original plan has been to breed pedigree cattle rather than produce meat, and with this in mind he was careful to keep the two breeds pure.  At the same time, he had become aware that even in Devon, the heart of cattle country, it was virtually impossible to find really good beef — added to which, as he said, he had to live.  He therefore started to sell his own meat, using a small slaughterhouse which he trusted on the other side of Exeter, near Ottery St. Mary.  The hotel Gidleigh Park, which is near his farm, was his first customer.

Soon afterwards, he married Lizzie, who had formerly worked at Sotheby's but loves the cows and threw herself into the work of the farm as if born to the job.  In 1998, like Peter Gott of Sillfield Farm and others, the Vines were introduced to Borough Market by Henrietta Green's Food Lovers' Fairs.  By this time their herd was fast outgrowing the space at their farm, and with the prospect of increasing sales at the Market, they leased a second one at Ottery St. Mary, near the slaughterhouse, to which they transferred most of their cattle.  They have since moved them again, this time to an organic farm in Wiltshire where the pasture is permanent, as on the moor, and the farmer a conservationist with an especial interest in flowers, so that the cows have exchanged heather and bilberries for orchids.

Although he is hesitant in talking about it, Richard has thought long and deeply about nutrition.  His theory, put briefly, is as follows.  The fertility of the soil depends on the proportion of fungus and bacteria it contains.  Most of the farmland in the Western world has been exhausted by intensive cultivation, in particular constant ploughing and the rigorous application of fertilizers and pesticides.  In consequence, plants have shallow roots which don't penetrate far enough to reach the minerals in the deeper layers of the soil.  In his view, even people eating organically often suffer from malnutrition because of the lack of minerals such as boron in their diet.

In explaining this, he was careful to emphasize that his ideas are entirely his own, with no scientific backing.  All he can offer by way of proof is that, despite his initial bad luck with South Devons, his cows seem to have exceptionally strong immune systems.  For the purposes of this book, scientific corroboration scarcely matters, since the proof which concerns us here is in the eating — and his beef really is absolutely outstanding: succulent, full of flavour, and remarkably tender.  Most of it nowadays is crossed, but Richard still keeps a nucleus of pure-bred cattle, including North as well as South Devons.  However, he says that he doesn't think breed makes that much difference to taste: 'It's the feeding that counts!' (Is he thinking of orchids?)  To do the taste justice, you should perhaps serve the beef plainly, ie roast or as steaks, but Richard also stressed the importance of using the whole of the animal: hence the recipe for Wild Beef Bolognese that follows.