One of the very first things I noticed on my first visit to The Drapers Arms almost two years ago was the wonderful simplicity with which the menu was written. Then, as still - annoyingly - now, there was something of a fashion in some quarters for exhaustively detailing the provenance of absolutely everything, making menus tiring to read when they should be succinct, appealing summaries of what’s to come.
Only the most tiresome foodie trainspotter really cares which specific farmer reared their beef, and only the finest-tuned gourmet palate can tell the difference between a 21 and 28-day aged steak. But The Drapers Arms, a place which since that first visit I have grown exceptionally fond of, attracts a very particular kind of customer, the kind of educated eater who, while not needing to be spoon-fed endless information about what’s on their plate nonetheless respects good husbandry enough to want to know something about the suppliers behind their scoff.
With this in mind landlord Nick, head chef James and I set off one sunny Thursday evening on the first ‘Suppliers Safari’ - to see for ourselves where the produce Drapers customers trust to be the best quality comes from and report back on what we found.
After a very comfortable night spent at The Crown Inn at Stoke by Nayland on the Essex-Suffolk border - its restaurant, like The Drapers Arms, is well worth a visit and Nick's written up our delicious dinner on their blog - we headed off in Bridget, Nick’s vintage Peugeot convertible for Coggeshall, home of The Rare Breed Meat Company which supplies The Drapers’ meat and poultry.
Founded and run by father-and-son team Howard and George Blackwell, Rare Breed isn’t, as I’d first thought, a farm (although they do breed no-doubt superlative turkeys and geese) but a hub for a small co-operative of local farmers - all based within about five miles and all known to the Blackwells personally - from whom they source beef, pork, lamb, chickens and seasonal game. Slaughtered at a local abattoir, it’s then brought to the Blackwells’ ultra-modern, ultra-hygienic butchering facility where it’s cut to order, packed and despatched to customers which include some of the country’s best restaurants.
It’s one thing to take a supplier’s word for it that the livestock they sell is reared in the best possible conditions, quite another to see it with your own eyes, so we piled into George’s 4x4 and drove to one of the farms they buy from. Sheep and their lambs occupied a couple of undulating fields, a stream running along the bottom edge from which the flocks drink the purest spring water. Cows, still in ample barns until the grass in the fields is long enough for them to graze on, fed contentedly on straw and silage while the bull strolled proprietorially round, eyeing us visitors suspiciously and protectively.
Some of the cows looked a little skinny, relative to their size; it’s because they feed at their own speed, so fatten more slowly, unlike intensively-reared animals which are fed a fattening diet from day one so that they can be in the abattoir and on supermarket shelves months earlier than these specimens.
Only the pigs - the ubiquitous Gloucester Old Spot variety - seemed less free than ‘free range’ might suggest. Bred on one farm before being brought to this one for rearing - fattening up, to put it bluntly - the pigs were in pens in an open-sided barn that, while admittedly a million miles away from the cramped stys in which intensively-farmed pigs are raised, didn’t seem quite as near-to-nature as for the other animals. This isn’t to say there was anything wrong with how they were being reared; we just didn’t find their conditions quite as reassuring as we had the cows' and sheep’s.
So far, so idyllic, but for me the most important part of the trip came when we returned to Rare Breed Co and were shown around the cold store where row upon row of carcasses, and shelf after shelf of cuts of meat, vividly reminded us that however well the animals might live, they are all born to die and for our consumption. Every single carcass that comes to Rare Breed Co is traceable back to the farm it came from, the flock or herd it was raised in, the bull, ram or boar that sired it. Every animal is treated as respectfully in death as it was in life, and that to me is the true value of this type of labour-intensive, expensive farming.
I was born and raised in the countryside; our garden backed on to cattle fields and one of my enduring memories of childhood is of feeding very contented-looking cows handfuls of lush, green grass. But while these animals were docile, they were not domestic, and I understood from an early age that the reason the cows weren’t in the fields year-round was because sooner or later they would be taken away, killed, and turned into meat.
Many diners today - mostly, it’s true, urbanites, but some country people too - are so used to romanticising provenance, with farmers’ names becoming like designer labels, that I sincerely believe they forget that what they’re eating was in fact once a living breathing animal. Some consumers seem to think that knowing where their food came from geographically, what it was fed on and how long it was hung for somehow exonerates them from feeling any actual complicity in its death. The reality is that, by choosing to eat - say - beef, you have killed that animal as surely as if you personally fired the bolt into its head in the abattoir.
And that’s fine, as long as you accept that with consumption comes responsibility. If we continue to demand cheap meat, in massive quantities, then there will always be a demand for intensive farming, animals raised in confinement, fed on growth hormones and artificial fattening agents before being slaughtered en masse and hacked, probably by machine, into uniform chops and steaks.
Places like the Rare Breed Meat Company make it possible for anyone to eat respectfully, humanely reared produce at, it must be said, a price not vastly higher than the mass-market alternative. Not just in places like The Drapers Arms, either, but also at home - Blackwell’s Farm Shop sells to the general public from the Coggeshall farm and online, as well as through dozens of stockists nationwide.
I was greatly honoured to be invited on this first Suppliers Safari and look forward with interest to seeing if the next trips - to The Drapers Arms’ fish, dairy and vegetable suppliers - are as enlightening and educational as this one.
Posted by +Hugh Wright