The not-so-confusing success of rare breed meat

Some of the rare and native breed cattle farmed by Charles Ashbridge.
Some of the rare and native breed cattle farmed by Charles Ashbridge.
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This may sound wrong but rare breed meat has never been more popular.

It’s one of those phrases that doesn’t seem it should make sense because by eating the meat from rare breed animals we’re surely contributing even further to their downfall?

The fact of the matter is that increased demand leads to increasing production and the success of cattle breeds such as the Beef Shorthorn, Lincoln Red, Belted Galloway and Highland in recent times are testament to this. There is a restaurant in Leeds called Rare that specialises in rare breed meat and farmer-turned-rare breed champion Charles Ashbridge’s Taste Tradition business is now 11-years-old.

The catalyst for Taste Tradition came from a mouth-watering meal at Mount Grace Farm in Cold Kirby near Sutton Bank cooked by his mum Joyce. Charles, who had his own cattle by the time he was six, had wondered how he could make a small family farm profitable and viable enough for him to stay in agriculture.

Today, he has 400 head of cattle at any one time across two farms, with a rented farm at Sutton-under-Whitestonecliffe added five years ago. He also has butchery premises in the process of relocating from Thirsk Industrial Estate to Hutton Conyers near Ripon that sees 200 rare and traditional native pigs processed every week, as well as cattle and sheep.

“The taste of Berkshire pork from our local butcher cooked by my mum (Joyce) was the best thing I’d ever had. When we couldn’t get it again I started thinking about the commercial possibilities and in November 2003 we bought our first batch of 19 rare breed pigs.

“They are better tasting because they mature more slowly than the mass-produced breeds. My thought was that if we could maintain consistency of product the demand would be there and that gave me the aim of being the largest rare breed pig producer in the country.”

Charles started by selling to the public but it was the move to supplying top-end restaurants that made the business respected throughout the UK.

“It’s all about economies of scale. I believed the London market was really important and today around 80 per cent of our meat is going into restaurants in the capital. Beef now accounts for 60 per cent of all our sales and we’re still big players in the rare breed world, but we now encompass all traditional native breeds.

“I buy cattle from markets at Thirsk, Selby, York, Darlington and Carlisle and every animal is finished the way we want to in order to achieve the consistency we need for our customers to keep buying from us. We also have our own suckler herd of 55 cows including Longhorn, Dexter, Belted Galloway, Galloway and Aberdeen Angus breeds. Pigs remain a speciality for us with rare breed suckling piglets being one of our most in-demand products.”

Dexter beef is one of Charles’ personal favourites and it has also won Taste Tradition, that he runs with butchery business partner James Wright, a major accolade.

“Dexter is consistently very good beef and its flavour is one of the best but like any meat it all comes down to how well the animal has been fed and looked after. I’m a strong believer that happy animals make for better tasting meat and that cattle, pigs or sheep are a bit like racing cars in that they can only do as well as what you put into them. We won best beef product at the Meat Management Awards up against all the majors with a Dexter fillet steak on the bone.

“We’re also only as good as our team and as well as running the business with James I’m fortunate that my mum has always had an accountancy and bookkeeping background; that my dad has been so supportive; and that my cousin Andrew now runs the day-to-day farming operation.”

Charles is married to Rachael who is a vet. Their eight-month-old son William is now only five years and four months away from starting his own herd if Charles is keen to maintain consistency.