Welsh Lamb has made it onto the top table. In the past decade or so, it has crashed the fine dining rooms of the world, making a new, branded name for itself with global gourmets from Canada to Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. Taste.blas reveals more about what makes Welsh Lamb a true jewel in the Welsh crown.
More than a third of all premium lamb produced in Wales is exported – a £133m business – and every day its influence strengthens with the chattering connoisseurs of elite dinner parties in emerging economies. In Wales, of course, we’ve appreciated our lamb’s unique flavour for centuries – but even here, the lamb of our fathers has now metamorphosed from the caterpillar years of scullery staples like cawl and chops to the butterfly joints, the naughty noisettes and the minxy medallions that sit comfortably on the plates of chefs and cookery programme cognoscenti alike. So why are discerning diners seeking out our saddles and cultivating a taste for our cutlets?
Welsh Lamb has some pretty damn good branding. It is nearly 15 years since Hybu Cig Cymru (Meat Promotion Wales) pulled off the coup of earning Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status from the European Union’s posh product club. (PGI status means it does what it says on the marble slab – that it comes from a farm in Wales.) It now sits alongside mighty indigenous brands like Champagne and Parma Ham.
The Hill Farmer: “We give back; we don’t clock in.”
Every day across Wales, holidaymakers delight in “hero picture” landscapes and how the ravages of time have miraculously produced such precious yet random resources. Well, in truth, they haven’t. Each view is often more due to farming nurture than good old nature and it’s largely family-made, over generations of arduous, back-breaking, agricultural activity.
“There are thousands of kilometres of hedgerows in Wales. We’ve planted a lot in the last 15 years. You won’t see a similar landscape anywhere else in the
world,” says Richard Roderick, of Newton Farm, Talybont-on-Usk, in the heart of the Brecon Beacons. “But we’re at a crossroads. Unless our family farms remain viable businesses, these traditional, centuries old skills – hedge laying skills, dry stone walling etc – will disappear very quickly.” Richard, is a former Farmer’s Weekly Sheep Farmer of the Year, regularly hosting college and industry trips, including groups of foreign food journalists. Newton Farm’s 650 acres rise from 220 to 1200 feet, producing beef and lamb from 80 sucklers and 1,000 Suffolk and Texel cross Mule ewes. It is one of the 13,738 sheep holdings in Wales, collectively rearing more than 10 million sheep a year and employing 50,000 people. “We are the third generation to farm this land,” says Richard. “We’ve done a lot of work to maintain the land, protect our animals and provide a home for local wildlife (including the locally famous lesser horseshoe bat) – and, of course, for our visitors and tourists to enjoy.” He champions Welsh farming and its high welfare standards and reflects on a life of constant care and team effort. Richard’s wife, Helen, is a qualified accountant, and apart from looking after the books throughout the year, takes three weeks annual leave to help with lambing and calving on the farm. Sons Andrew, 22, Tudor, 21 and Matty, 18, all help when they can. “We give back, we don’t clock in. Welsh Lamb is a high quality product because of the attention to detail. Without viable family farms you just can’t maintain lamb production as we have it in Wales,” said Richard.
The grass expert: “It’s just like a good wine!”
“Wales is one of the few countries in the world with the perfect climate for growing grass,” explains top Grassland Consultant Charlie Morgan. “And the type of plants that grow alongside, such as clovers, trefoils, plantains and other broad leaved herbs are all important for creating a well-balanced diet.” “Then nutrients; the young grass is sweet and appealing; high energy sugar content allows for greater absorption and utilisation of protein, leading to a healthier lamb and a cleaner environment. Much of this depends on the acidic and organic matter levels of the soils. In lamb terms, it’s just like a good wine!” “Then there are the important trace elements; it’s like their daily dose of multivitamins! The multi-species plants have varied root zones allowing for optimum uptake and on low intensity, Welsh family farms, the animals can revel in the choice and then be rotated to fresh pastures” continues Charlie, who is also Secretary of the Federation of Welsh Grassland Societies.
Richard Roderick with visiting party of Swiss Chefs: “Much of the taste of the meat and eating quality is affected by the soil type, climate and the vegetation adapted to the unique environment of Wales on the western extremes of Europe. This cannot be recreated or replicated, leading to specialised unique product”.
The Quality Butcher: “You can’t get more local than that!”
Great local produce is attractive not only to the nearby community but to visitors far and wide. When traveling, many people make a regular diversion to Rob Rattray’s quality butchers shop in Chalybeate Street, Aberystwyth. “We get quite a few people who call in as they are travelling from north to south and vice versa,” says Rob. “‘Local’, ‘traceability’, ‘sourcing’ are all very big words in all food retail now. We’ve just had an order from local Michelin Star Restaurant with Rooms, Ynyshir Hall, for two of our lambs. They came from a farm one mile out of town – you can’t get more local than that!” effuses Rob, who also owns the 100-acre Ffos y Fuwch farm nearby that supplies the shop where his wife, Sheila and son and daughter Steffan and Elin share the work. His lambs take ten days to go from field to shop and that includes a week or more of hanging in his fridge. “This is a traditional family butchers. We offer quality cuts from lambs reared on the windy, west Wales hills where the grass is steeped in the fresh sea air.”
The Salt Marsh Farmer: “Customers enjoy the story of the food”.
The North Gower coast is officially part of an “area of outstanding natural beauty” and nowhere reflects that award better than the tidal plain near Llanrhidian, an
estuary environment where the sea sweeps over the peripheral grassland twice a day for ten days a month. These 4,000 acres host 1500 ewes, the flock that provides Gower Salt Marsh Lamb. ”It’s a very limited, exclusive market simply because we cannot put more animals on the space that we have to work with here,” explains owner Rowland Pritchard. “The grass the lambs eat includes samphire, sorrel and sea thrift and I can’t describe the special taste of the meat, you simply have to try it. It’s not just the sea and sea salt, although, of course, that plays a large part in developing the overall taste”. Gower Salt Marsh Lamb is a marketing co-op shared with neighbouring farmer Colin Williams. “We feel that it is part of a very special thing; a product of the land, sea and grassland that is created here.”
“We sell to customers who are looking for quality, heritage and traceability, as well as great taste. They enjoy the story of the food that they are eating,” continues Rowland.
The Lowland farmer: “A 300-year heritage.”
Few farmers can be as passionate or boast such a long line of farming heritage as award winners John and Fiona Davies, who farm at Ystradowen near Cowbridge, in the Vale of Glamorgan. They have set up and established their now well-known micro-brand GlamLamb. John’s family have farmed in south Wales since 1715; John’s father and mother moved to lowland Wern Fawr Farm in the early seventies with John farming in his own right since the eighties. “In the lowland climate, we can lamb in January/ February onwards,” says John. “On this land, the ewes milk like cows! We have endless milk which they guzzle and then they nibble our rich farm pastures – they grow naturally, laying down rich marbling fat which gives the lamb taste and tenderness.”
Like many Welsh farmers, John is always looking to improve the genetics of his flock to cater for more efficient production and modern consumer tastes. “We run a closed flock; all ewes are born on our farm only. We buy in rams which we source from the best genetics in the country. This breeding policy gives us quality, healthy replacement ewe lambs for the flock and also provides full traceability of our lamb as all GlamLamb has been born and reared solely at Wern Fawr Farm.” John took a diploma in marketing and he and Fiona came up with their brand. “We work food fairs and successfully retail through our website glamlamb.co.uk. We’ve won six Great Taste Awards from the Guild of Fine Food.” So, that world-beating taste? Our experts tell us that there is nowhere else in the world that produces grass from age old soil that’s better, lusher, more nutritious – and certainly as well watered as Welsh grass. This verdant “vino” is a Grand Cru Classe among other vins de water table.
And, of course, there’s the ever-honed, consumer- friendly genetics that continually enhances and improves each farm’s staple flocks of ewes. However, it’s the farmers that produce it that are a truly rare breed. Their husbandry, dedication, determination and resilience has brought a taste from a far off time into the modern age. If special protective measures are good enough for the lesser horseshoe bat, then perhaps there should be similar sanctity for another what could be endangered species – Wales’ lamb producing farmers.