taste tradition farm visit

By Joseph Yaeger

Late last month La Fromagerie head chef Alessandro Grano and I traveled to North Yorkshire to visit our meat supplier, Taste Tradition. James Wright, one of the co-owners, met us in Thirsk in his pickup truck. A third-generation butcher, James's demeanor was gentle, his tone of voice mild and calm. Any nerves Alessandro and I had were instantly quelled. We drove to their new butchery – a repurposed factory from the second world war – where he showed us their ageing and packing facilities. 

During the war, a train-line ran directly through the factory.

Alessandro, obviously pleased by his plastic coat & 'hairnet', entering the butchery.

Alessandro amongst the beef & pork.

James detailing the provenance of each beef side, as well as how they'll go about breaking it down into individual cuts.

Racks of steaks in the ageing room – this side had been exposed to the bone-dry air for over 40 days.

Same racks, opposite side, cut that morning.

James then introduced us to the managing director, Charles Ashbridge, who co-founded the company with his mother, Joyce, in 2004. Beside James Charles was intense. His energy was higher, and I got the sense that he, consciously or otherwise, didn't suffer fools. They were perfect foils – it made sense why they'd become business partners. The four of us hopped into Charles's Land Rover and drove out to one of their three farms. This one, situated on two and a half acres of grains and cereals used for winter feed, Charles explained, was where they fattened the cattle.

On a winding one-lane he stopped beside a hedgerow. We got out and he led us through a metal fence into a field. The smell of hot grass was potent. At the far side of the field along a stone wall was a smattering of cows – white, chestnut, and black. Charles strode into the field and called them. Recognising him, their ears piqued, heads raising. Those lying down got to their feet. Again he called. They took several slow steps in his direction and then stopped. Charles didn't budge. He told us reassuringly that cows can be standoffish around strangers, but they would eventually come around. His stance was contained, calm, hands in his vest pockets. We waited. Eventually a few approached. Back in the car I commented on his extreme patience. He explained to me that cattle are customarily a lot like their farmers, and in that regard he had learned the advantages of being patient, showing little stress and treating them with empathy and respect.

Charles, waiting patiently.

Alessandro making friends.

In a barn with sunlight peaking through the slatted walls and skylights he introduced us to several traditional and rare breeds of cattle – Limousin, Charolais, Dexter, Belgian Blue, Angus and Highland – as well as familiarising us to his 'beer feed'. A special mixture of brewer's grains, he described the artful process of transferring the Dexters onto the feed and how to do it ethically so it agrees with their digestive systems. (Once every month or two beer-fed Dexter burgers appear on our menu – they are incredible.) Charles also let us handle some of the winter feed, into which he places whole potatoes, a recipe unique to the farm. The fermentation process resultant from baling effectively slow-cooks the potatoes. They were dense, slightly crumbly and almost tacky in texture. The smell was distantly reminiscent of Spanish blue cheeses.

Charles with a handful of beer feed.

The aroma distinctly ale-like.

Winter feed.

At a second barn Charles, who – much like James in his respective vocation – comes from three generations of Yorkshire farmers, went into greater detail as to why they'd founded Taste Tradition. "The farmer doesn't know what the butcher wants, and the butcher doesn't know what the chef wants," he said. It was a problem. By including James, and by wholesaling directly to chefs like Alessandro, they'd unified once-disparate parts. "I know every one these cows," he went on, one foot perched on the railing, "I know how they will taste. Finishing is so important." I was struck by his frank confidence. In the silent moments I observed him watching his cattle, his eyes investigating each animal; even casually showing the two of us around the farm I sensed that he was still working, making mental notes.

At a smaller pen Charles's tone shifted. Inside we watched a dozen suckling pigs trotting around. He explained that these pigs had been separated from their mothers. They were just about ready to go to the abbatoir. As a rule Taste Tradition keeps them on their mothers for six to seven weeks – uncommonly long in the industry – nevertheless he didn't seem thrilled by the prospect of suckling pigs in general. His exact words were, "I don't really like to see that." He'd first bred cattle at age six, and while cows were ultimately his preference and passion, he had a special respect for pigs. Later, over a pub lunch, I queried him on their intelligence. With a serious expression he said, "Very intelligent animals." I found his balance of empathy and pragmatism laudable; it was heartening to know that the same issues faced by meat-eaters were likewise faced by the farmers raising the meat.

Alessandro & Charles at the suckling pig pen.

Suckling pigs.

Shirts drying at the farmhouse.

Shirts drying at the farmhouse.

Over lunch Charles and James asked us when we were headed back to London. "Around six," I told them. They seemed surprised. It was rare, I sensed, for visitors to spend a whole day with them. After glancing at one another for a moment, James offered, shrugging, "We can show them the pigs." This was somehow both a statement and a question at once. They had spoken earlier about the process of releasing a group of Mangalitzas (a rare breed pig originating in Hungary) into a nearby forest to help with clearing and maintenance. It had been a massive success – happy pigs allowed to exercise their natural curiosity in diverse terrain. Plus free labour, as it were. Charles nodded. We would go see the pigs. The group that they'd show us weren't Mangalitzas, and they weren't in a forest, but the concept was equivalent.

We parked on the side of a two-lane road and walked along a fence. When we reached the wooden gate Charles let out a single, clipped call. There was a moment of quiet, then from every direction pigs emerged, snorting and grunting on approach. Charles climbed the gate and stood with them, patting them, explaining the process of raising and breeding pigs. He fielded Alessandro's questions. His expertise was deep. Listening to him I tried to imagine sustaining a passion for a lifetime. "For as long as I can remember I knew I'd be a farmer," he said. I struggled to find a single identifying interest or feature that I'd possessed since the age of four. My name. That was it. Perhaps this was an apt analogy, I thought; farming, livestock, animal behavior – to Charles these were as ingrained as his name. 

Charles and his pigs. Note the ground – almost completely cleared.

Pigs in a more overgrown portion of their enclosure.

This one scratched itself for probably five straight minutes against the fence.

This one scratched itself for probably five straight minutes against the fence.

Charles Ashbridge, Alessandro Grano & James Wright

Charles Ashbridge, Alessandro Grano & James Wright

As we drove back to the butchery Alessandro got a panicked phone call. There was an event in the Marylebone shop the following evening and someone had forgotten to order lamb chops. Back at the butchery everyone had left for the day. The place was empty. James asked us to bear with him as he suited up in his jumpsuit, eyewear and hairnet. We sat in the office. Alessandro pointed out a beautiful over-under shotgun below Charles's desk. We laughed. This was decidedly not London. Ten minutes later James emerged from the back with an insulated cardboard box. Thirteen lamb chops.

We rode the train back to Kings Cross and parted ways, Alessandro with his big box of lamb. The following day he cooked them for a summer supper. The day after that I tasted the leftovers. I thought of Charles's words as I savoured the lamb: the farmer had known exactly what the butcher wanted, and the butcher had known exactly what the chef wanted. They were delicious, granted, made more so perhaps by the symmetry of the occasion.

Waiting at the pub for our train, box of lamb chops in the foreground.

Waiting at the pub for our train, box of lamb chops in the foreground.