As I gazed out of the window, with Custard our campervan backfiring her way through the Welsh Valleys recently, I noticed herds of beautiful black cattle grazing the hillsides.
They’re a common sight on the Welsh landscape and are appropriately named Welsh Blacks. They were once so frequently used in place of currency in Wales they became known as the ‘black gold from the hills’. The breed is one of the oldest in Britain having inhabited the region for about 1,000 years.
It got me thinking. As an Eat Local enthusiast I’m always seeking out regional varieties of fruits, vegetables or cheese when camping, but what about varieties of cattle too? I make every effort to buy locally-raised meat from reputable farms but I’ve never really considered supporting regional breeds too. So should I?
I suppose gaining more information about what we eat can only be a good thing. And, with a bit of research I’ve discovered there’s a wealth of interesting stories behind many of our native and local breeds.
As you tour the countryside on your camping travels, a bit of cow-spotting will reveal a vast array of colours, markings, sizes and physiques. Most are named after their county of origin – Hereford, Ayrshire, Sussex, Jersey and Devon Red Ruby are just a few. Many have been bred to suit the weather, vegetation and terrain of the area they originate from.
For example the dense-boned, large-shouldered Sussex was bred as a strong animal that could plough the heavy clay of the county, while the Red Ruby of North Devon was bred to easily digest the harsh grasses of the area’s moorlands.
The stocky Welsh Blacks are well-suited to their landscape. They are tremendously hardy and are equally adept at negotiating rugged terrain as they are grazing the fertile lowlands. Their wonderful thick, black, curly coats give them the ability to withstand temperature extremes and a good dose of wet weather. Not that I’m making any inference on the Welsh weather of course.
Welsh Black cattle and their drovers have played a significant role in the country’s social history. Much of the early infrastructure and roads in Wales were established for taking the Welsh Blacks many miles across the border to sell them at English markets. The routes became notorious for ambush by bandits and highwaymen who knew the drovers were returning with large amounts of money.
It was this constant threat of robbery that prompted one drover, David Jones, to form a bank in 1799 to encourage other drovers to invest their earnings on their way home. It was known as the Black Ox Bank as its bank notes were embellished with pictures of black cattle, and became a popular bank in Wales. Having spent an afternoon in a field of these beautiful and docile animals, I can see why farmers love working with them.
The Nixon family at Pen-min-Cae Farm have a herd of 120 pedigree Welsh Blacks on their 115 hectares by the banks of the River Wye near Builth Wells. They, like many other Welsh Black farmers, are passionate about the breed and the beef it produces, which is famed for its intense full flavour and is much sought after.
The Nixons pride themselves on using natural methods of farming and animal husbandry, or as Nigel Nixon puts it “farming at nature’s pace and not force-feeding any crops or animals. Welsh Black Cattle suit this pace of farming as they are a slow-maturing animal.”
All the Nixons’ animals are born and reared on this mid-Wales farm and cared for as part of the family. Nigel knows each individual member of his herd, and can tell you the history and behaviour of every animal – something that only comes about from spending so much time among them.
Herds reared like this are healthy, live long and calve well. For the meat eaters among us this traditional method of animal husbandry pays dividends in the quality, flavour and texture of the meat that is produced. There are also health benefits associated with eating beef raised on a pure grass diet as opposed to cattle given a diet of concentrated feed. The Nixons tour the country serving up their Welsh Black burgers at farmers’ markets, country fairs and food festivals and are happy to talk about their farming to customers. When you understand how people like the Nixons raise their animals, it’s clear why we should support this kind of farming.
If we only ever choose our meat and milk based on the cheapest price, we encourage intensive farming and artificial feeding practices. Demanding cheap dairy and meat products also means that only the highest yielding breeds of cattle are favoured while some of the rarer breeds get lost altogether.
While it’s nonsense to suggest we only eat regional breeds, according to where we travel, I think there’s a case for arming ourselves with a little more knowledge about the breeds of animals we use as food. Supporting specialist breeders and farmers to maintain their high standards is beneficial to us all.
In the case of the Welsh Black, with its enduring links to the Welsh landscape and history I think it seems right to ‘go local’ when eating in a Welsh restaurant. Or why not cook some yourself? Its dark red colour and intense flavour is the pride of many a Welsh butcher who will happily suggest some camp-friendly recipes for their product. With such good flavour I prefer to keep things simple and cook my steak over the coals. However, the mince also makes extremely good burgers. If you are lucky enough to be camping in Wales this year, I recommend you give it a try.
Know your beef
Nigel and Joanne Nixon from Pen-min-Cae sell their organic beef burgers and beef products at a range of farmers’ markets including Brecon. Look out for them at food festivals, game fairs and agricultural shows and equestrian events as well.
For more information on Welsh Black Cattle and details of accredited suppliers of pedigree Welsh Black beef click here.
For a good book on getting to know your cattle breeds, try British Cattle by Val Porter, published by Shire Publications.
The best way to learn more is by shopping for meat at farm shops and asking lots of questions.