So I’ve been hearing lots about heritage meat recently. What’s the big deal?
Heritage meat is, to put it simply, from livestock at the very top of the genetic chain. In modern commercial farming, animals are bred to grow more quickly and to meet the high-octane standards of supply and demand. In contrast, heritage breeds are slow grown, ethically reared, grass fed and, above all, have deep and layered flavours.
So they’re the best then? The godfathers of meat? But why isn’t that the norm?
Heritage breeds such as Longhorn cattle and Saddleback pigs need traditional, high-welfare rearing methods, top-quality animal husbandry and lots of time to grow to maturity. There’s no rushing here, and the effort it takes to farm these pure pedigrees means they’re not cheap either.
Some breeds are known to take longer to grow to market weight, while others don’t produce as much milk or (in the case of chickens) eggs, and so were never selected for factory farming. However, their continued existence is critical to maintaining genetic diversity and avoiding potential disaster in the future.
Disaster? Are the commercial breeds going to rise up?
The Irish Potato Famine in the mid-1800s is a good example of what we mean. The Irish farmers relied almost entirely on one strain of potato, which was then struck down by blight. The lack of diversity was a major cause in the tragedy. Maintaining variety among livestock means that not only is the lineage protected, but also, if we have another mad-cow-disease-type situation, there’s a smaller risk of losing an entire stock.
In Europe, half of the breeds in existence at the turn of the last century are now extinct and a high percentage of the remaining ones are in danger of disappearing over the next 20 years – so it is worth considering.
Okay, so they’re clearly important and we’ve got to look after them. But if they’re not commercially farmed on a large scale, how are they on the up?
Consumers are increasingly concerned about the origin of their meals, as well as the sustainability and treatment of foodstuffs – and this fits perfectly with heritage farming. Heritage cows, sheep and pigs are raised naturally in stress-free environments. Livestock is left to roam free across pasturelands, feeding on rich grass, so when it comes to producing fine-quality meat, it doesn’t get much better. There’s just the right balance of marbling between meat and fat, especially after a suitable amount of ageing.
The combination of animal well-being and delicious chops equates to a very attractive product, as Lee Simmonds, co-founder of online butchers Farmison & Co, tells Food Spark: “The buzz words on people’s lips are ‘provenance’ and ‘traceability,’ while taste plays a leading role too. And we wouldn’t be in a position to talk about taste if we didn’t work with farmers 100% committed to the ethical farming methods they use to preserve these traditional heritage breeds.
“One of the most interesting things is our customers’ in-depth knowledge of the different breeds that they’re buying. There are waiting lists for breeds like White Park and Longhorn. In the same way that people develop a taste for their favourite grapes, so are they becoming discerning about the different varieties of heritage breed meat on offer.”
But if they’re in short supply, isn’t it a tough order for supermarkets to adopt heritage meat?
Pretty much. Imagine how much Sainsbury’s would need to stock its stores! The movement is largely in the realm of the butcher for now, but it is becoming an easier proposition for online stores to get in on the action.
Also, due to the increasing demand for these heritage breeds, steps are being taken to see what innovations can be utilised to make them more accessible to a wider audience. Trials on alternative feed have been going on in the US, for example, with researchers looking into ways to increase the rate of growth in heritage turkeys, which are typically older than faster-growing commercial birds when they hit the market, processing at around 27 weeks compared to 16 weeks.
Then there’s the possibility of incorporating heritage cuts into meal kits, or even into premium-range ready meals or packaged meats. With more people trying to cut down on their meat eating, people are likely to spend more on the beef or pork that they do consume.
Expect these innovations to slowly pick up as more and more consumers begin to see heritage meat as the ‘Marks & Spencer advert’ of the meat world. It may be pricier and low yield, but in terms of trend and quality, these Old Testament breeds definitely make the cut.
Companies like Farmison are very sexy from a butcher perspective. Led by chefs, it’s all about the integrity of the beast. I think heritage meat is going to be a new thing along the same lines as veg. For example, you’ll go to any retailer and you’ll know where a parsnip is grown, the variety of that parsnip and its heritage.
All of those things will start to come through in meat, and people won’t mind paying quite a lot of money for that, as they realise that with these upgraded staple offerings, they eat so much better, with deeper and more delicious flavours.