Meet the farming foodies who left Oxford and have added an international twist to their beef venture. Ben Barnett reports.
Chris and Charlotte Shipley returned to the North to bring up their family after living on a narrowboat in Oxford. Their life-changing decision meant Chris left behind his life as a lecturer in organic chemistry and his wife, Charlotte, gave up a nursing career.
Their new lives on Chris’s parents’ 490-acre Manor Farm in Thornholme, near Bridlington, are proving rewarding, not least for their three daughters, Bethan, aged five, Sophie, four, and ten-months-old Maisie, who appear to be revelling in their East Riding surroundings.
Aside from the demands of parenthood, rearing British Blue, Limousin and Belted Galloway cross cattle, born on the farm, on a grass-heavy diet to sell as Manor Farm Beef and milking 70 dairy cows each day is now the couples’ shared occupation, a switch which was inspired by their passion for food and a long-term ambition to become involved in producing their own while upholding values close to their hearts such as traceability of food back to the farm.
“When we were living in Oxford we would go out to restaurants a lot and farmers’ markets and we always wanted to do something in food,” says Charlotte. “We were lured by the romantic side of farming I suppose. We had always been into cooking.”
Chris left the farm to study at Oxford in 1994. He completed an undergraduate degree and a doctorate, met Charlotte while they worked in the same pub and he never looked likely to return.
“By the end of our time in Oxford, Charlotte was an A&E nurse and I was lecturing at various colleges. We got married and had our eldest and when Charlotte was pregnant we moved to Yorkshire to be closer to family. It’s the prospect of having children that changes your outlook. It’s different when there is just the two of you and you’re working on one-year contracts – we lived on a narrowboat for nearly two years – but we didn’t want to bring kids up in Oxford.”
Charlotte adds: “I decided that I’d had enough of nursing and I’d always wanted to be an archeologist so I did a degree course at York.”
Initially, Chris sounded out York University about the possibility of a research role.
“But I came back here and shocked dad. No-one expected me to come back. I started to help out on the farm, with milking the cows and driving the combine and all that sort of stuff and at some point we started rearing our own beef here, selling it to the local abattoir to go into supermarkets but we noticed a lot of people were buying their beef from the butchers so we thought we’d try our own and if it wasn’t any good then we wouldn’t do it again, but dad sat back after he had had it as part of a Sunday roast and said it was the best beef he’d ever had. We realised we could tell people exactly where it came from and we thought ‘this could work’.”
At first their beef was sold to friends and family while they tried different breeds of cattle to identify what they wanted Manor Farm Beef to be and Chris took an artificial insemination course so they could take control of the breeding process. In 2011 they settled on a business model which sees them selling beef boxes which come in various weights and are priced accordingly. Their beef is also supplied to restaurants.
The couple also sell beef at Driffield Farmers’ Market and business has been brisk. Buoyed by their success, they are looking at ways of adding value to what they do and this has led to the launch of a new product – Yorkshire Beef Biltong which they’re showcasing at the Dales Food Festival in Leyburn this weekend.
A mildly spiced, salted and air dried meat, Biltong’s name derives from the Dutch ‘bil’ meaning buttock and ‘tong’ meaning strip. It’s a popular snack in South Africa, where Charlotte’s mother’s side of the family hail from. Chris tried it on a family visit and was spurred on to make his own. He started by experimenting in the spare room of their old home in Oxford using boxes and a lamp to try and replicate a process which, in South Africa, sees meat hung from a tree to dry out. Now they have a biltong box, imported from South Africa, so they can make a real go of it. Chris has a dedicated production space in a converted garage at the farm. Chris explains the process: “You cut beef into strips add salt, pepper and coriander and cider vinegar, marinade for 24 hours and hang it to dry in the box for three to four days at 30 degrees Celsius under a UV lamp and with dry air moving around it.”
Just one animal provides sufficient meat for up to 30kg of biltong. Unlike American beef jerky, biltong doesn’t taste smoky or sweet and tends to be thicker, so don’t be caught comparing the two in earshot of a South African, Charlotte warns.
Their biltong is available in ‘Original’, ‘Chilli Bites’ and ‘Golden Chilli’ flavours in 50g and 100g packs and has been introduced at a series of launches at local restaurants, pubs and at Wold Top Brewery. It’s so far so good, with one local South African lady ordering eight packs after hearing it was stocked as a bar snack at the Ship Inn, Sewerby. It’s also being stocked by Drewton’s Farm Shop, South Cave, and Yorkshire Ale Shop, Snaith.
Charlotte says she’s excited to find out what people think about their new product: “With Manor Farm Beef we wanted to make something we could be proud of and add value to. Now we have a product that’s the same in terms of provenance and ethos as what’s behind Manor Farm Beef and we have to put it out there in farm shops, food festivals and the farmers’ market.
“The whole interaction with people is why we did it. It gets us away from the farm and makes us sociable again!”
Farm duties and the children take up much of their time, so social media networks Twitter and Facebook have been invaluable for creating a buzz about their products, says Charlotte. One promotion on their Facebook page led to £400 of sales in just an hour.
For more details about Manor Farm Beef and Biltong, visit www.manorfarmbeef.co.uk or tweet @ManorFarmBeef