The year 2012 marks the Henman family’s 150th anniversary of farming in Oxfordshire. Crops such as wheat and beans have been harvested by past generations in the Islip area since 1862. The Henmans now oversee their farm from the village of Woodeaton, the main priority being the cultivation of their 1200 acres of arable land. However, the latest scion in the lineage has decided to take the family business down a different path. Anthony Henman, 35, has in recent years set himself a new challenge, taking on a special breed of cattle to rear in his fields. In 2008 Anthony acquired 11 Dexter cows, renowned for their excellent meat, with the ambition of selling superior beef from the farm gate to the local community.
Anthony’s project is particularly intriguing given the nature of the breed in question. Dexters are of Irish origin and are the smallest native breed in the UK. Traditionally a smallholder’s cow, the animals are of such modest frame that they are often not considered commercially viable by farmers. While steak lovers swear by the succulence and flavour of a Dexter, the low volume of meat produced means it is not the obvious choice for economic gain. I therefore found the Pegtop project an endearing one, a challenge to the common conception and a commitment to an exceptional end product at the potential sacrifice of profitability.
What started as an expensive hobby has now grown to a much larger scale. The 35-year-old now owns 110 cows, with his stock likely to rise to 150 after the spring-summer calving season. His reasons for starting this venture were simple. Anthony told me that he loves to eat out but more often than not is disappointed by the mediocre beef on offer in restaurants. He therefore set out to create the best possible conditions to produce high quality meat. Anthony said that he was originally drawn to the flavour, physical definition and fat marbling of the petite Dexter, and that the results have been excellent. “Now I never eat beef when I go out for dinner because I can’t get it as good as I make it,” he said.
At Pegtop Farm a dedication to exceptional beef and animal welfare leads to a strict adherence to a number of principles before slaughter. They are all totally grass fed and ‘extensively reared’ and Anthony believes this makes a big difference to the flavour of the meat. “You can tell the difference between intensively reared and grass fed. [Grass fed] has a fantastic flavour, cooks beautifully and doesn’t dry out. From birth until slaughter you’re looking at 24 to 30 months with my cows, whereas an intensively farmed one is usually between 15 and 24 months,” he added.
The actual slaughter is also a point of great significance to the Woodeaton farmer. “We use a local abattoir, Long Compton, who butcher and pack the meat for us. It’s a very peaceful abattoir. Animals aren’t stupid and they can sense stress, but when they arrive at Long Compton they’re in a peaceful environment with no fear, and that has a knock on effect on the meat,” he said. Anthony hangs his beef for a minimum of 21 days, another fundamental in the creation of flavour and tenderness.
After I had enjoyed a peaceful stroll with Anthony and his amiable cows, it would not have been right to leave without picking up some Dexter beef to sample for myself. From his small shop I took home a few sirloin steaks, a packet of minced meat and a silverside joint. While each had their merits, the mince was particularly special. I treated it very simply, making an uncomplicated burger mix with a few shallots and a handful of herbs. I chargrilled the burger to medium-rare, devouring the beef in a brown bap with cheddar cheese, crispy bacon and a little lettuce. There was a good fat content in the meat but the burgers managed to retain a superb plumpness in the pan, instead of shrinking down and producing a spitting pool of rendered oil – a great sign. The finished burger was one of the best I have every eaten; succulent in the extreme with a deep, mineral flavour.
Anthony said that he manages to shift everything he produces, but as his herd grows, he will need to sell more meat. He faces the same predicament as many other local food producers – the struggle to persuade locals to sacrifice the practicality of supermarket shopping. “It’s so easy for people to do all their shopping in one place; obviously we are less convenient. People live hectic lives so it’s not easy, but once you’ve tried our beef, you’ll come back,” he said.
After two years the project is just now starting to yield some profit. Anthony told me that there were no guarantees when he started. “I took a massive risk starting from fresh. I didn’t know if rearing Dexters could be profitable and how it would pan out, but you have to be passionate to succeed,” he said. And passion is certainly not something that he seems to be lacking: “Nothing motivates me more than a challenge like this. Another farmer who intensively rears his cows once questioned my methods and said to me – ‘beef is just beef’.” With that, Anthony turned to me with an earnest expression and finished, “Not to me it isn’t.”
This article appeared in the Oxford Times magazine, ‘Limited Edition’, in July 2012.