What does it mean to be passionate? These days I think the word ‘passion’ is thrown about too easily, people claim to be passionate about so many things, but it seems we’ve forgotten the meaning of the word. The dictionary tells us passion is ‘a powerful or compelling emotion, like love or hate.’ For me the key word in that definition is ‘powerful.’ Passion is something inside us, something deep down that stirs emotion. When I see true passion it inspires me and reminds me why I get out of bed in the morning. Without passion we are nothing, we’re just existing.
I want my food journey across Northern Ireland to unearth this passion and give me the opportunity to meet other people who are as passionate about food as I am.
I recently paid a visit to a small holding just outside of Downpatrick and I found true passion. A couple with an unconditional willingness to give blood, sweat and tears for what they believe in.
Alan and Janis Bailey are that couple and have been the pioneers of a free range rare breed movement since the late nineties. They have been farming free range rare breed pork for over ten years on a small scale and what started out as a hobby, fuelled by a passion for rare breeds has meant their herd of Tamworths and Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs has grown to a hefty number.
The set up at Pheasants’ Hill is small scale artisan, and as I drove through the gateway I was greeted by the family dog and off in the distance I could see chickens in the field scraping around in the dirt. I made my way over to their farm shop, at the side of their farmhouse, kitted out with fridges and freezers. As I stepped into the modest shop, I was immediately salivating at the beautiful display of meat on offer - bacon, sausages, chops, loins and hams from their own pigs, legs of rare breed lamb, steaks and shin of beef, shoulders and rumps of venison and free range poultry. It immediately filled me with hope that such a place existed here in Northern Ireland, and only a 45 minute drive from Belfast.
Through the farm shop window I could see those impressive Tamworths roaming about as nature intended, rooting in the dirt and being allowed to do what pigs do. I was actually quite surprised how similar Tamworths are in appearance to wild boar, with their rusty hair and big long snout!
When talking to Alan and Janis it was clear just how passionate they are about rare breeds, they feel that it is their duty to ‘do their bit.’ They come at it from a biodiversity slant and they see the survival of rare breeds as their responsibility and truly believe in what they do. A nice advantage of this is that the meat produced by their pigs tastes delicious, ‘the flavour of the meat is just so much more intense than commercial meat,’ Janis pointed out.
I noticed the pork meat on display was a much darker colour than the pale excuse for pork you’ll find in the supermarket, due to the varied diet the pigs feed on and all the exercise they get. There is also a very practical and hugely important reason for small scale farming rare breeds and that is to guard against disease, as Janis explained ‘the point of keeping rare breeds is that if a new disease affects the commercial species then you could breed in resistance from a hardier breed which is closer to a wild animal.’
I was particularly interested in the steaks of beef that were in the fridge. The beef was deep dark red, with marbled fat running through the meat and Alan was quick to explain this beef was from Irish Moiled cattle. I had never heard of this breed of cattle and was amazed to learn it is actually native to the north east of Ireland and yet it nearly became extinct in the 1970s!
The Irish Moiled cattle only survived because a few rare breed enthusiasts could see the breed was in danger so they took it upon themselves to save it. Thankfully today the herd has been built up and Pheasants’ Hill sources their Moiled beef locally.
I can’t believe there is a breed of cattle that is native to my home country, that I didn’t know about and I’m shocked to discover it nearly became extinct. Why is there not more people knocking down Pheasants’ Hill’s door to get at this delicious meat? In France or Italy they would never let a unique native breed of animal get to the point of extinction, it would be given AOC protection and the meat would be reverred, but yet for some reason here in Northern Ireland the Irish Moiled cow has been forgotten.
In Janis’s own words ‘the Irish Moiled is an extremely ancient breed of cattle. It has been selectively bred by farmers in Ulster, the north east corner of Ireland, for hundreds of years, from the native cattle that roamed this part of the world. It is the only breed of cattle that is native to Northern Ireland.’
What a shame that after the 1950s and 1960s subsistence farming was beginning to die out in Northern Ireland and therefore the Irish Moiled also became unpopular as it was ideally suited to small scale subsistence farming. Janis explained further ‘ Ulster farmers adopted specialist European dairy and beef breeds of cattle, that produced prodigious quantities of milk, or large beef carcases, because it made farming business sense. Few farmers bothered to keep the little Irish Moiled cow, and the numbers fell dramatically, so that by the 1970s there were only 2 small herds of Irish Moiled cattle left – one was at the Toye, near Killyleagh, County Down.’
We can’t under estimate the importance to the Northern Irish agricultural economy of small scale artisan producers like Alan and Janis. They are a link to our farming and cultural past. They are a reminder of all that is good about Northern Irish food. They don’t want to make millions, they just want to have a viable business so they can keep producing rare breed pork and selling meat from other rare breed animals because they love it and they realise that if they didn’t do what they do, those breeds could be gone forever.
That’s for keeps, once these animals are gone, they are gone for good. That’s quite something to take in, when you think that intensive commercial farming driven by the wants and needs of the supermarkets has brought this situation about!
When I asked Janis if they were getting support from local Chefs her answer was a clipped ‘no.’ It seems a real shame that local Northern Irish Chefs are not utilising the produce from Pheasants’ Hill. It just seems like a no brainer for a chef like Niall McKenna to have Irish Moiled steaks on his menu at the Bar and Grill in Belfast. Surely a steak house aiming to be the best in the country would want to have the best local beef on the menu? But what a unique selling point, to have beef from Northern Ireland’s only native cattle.
It feels like a missed opportunity to create a name for a local speciality meat such as Irish Moiled beef. It has the potential to become Northern Ireland’s answer to the Iberico black footed pig of Spain, renowned on a global scale, why not? Surely that’s a cause that the Minister Michelle O’Neill MLA could take on? The humble Comber spud has recently received Protected Geographical Indication status, it would certainly be something to see the Moiled cow get PGI status!
But lets get back to the beef for a minute, I wanted to sample this native breed after listening to Alan’s description of the meat so I bought two sirloin steaks for dinner that night. At home I got my favourite frying pan onto the heat and left it there for a few minutes on full whack until the pan was smoking, the steaks were oiled and seasoned, then I fried them quickly for no more than a couple of minutes on each side. Before frying the steaks I made a Bearnaise sauce, a green salad and some home made chips.
I cut into the steak, it was beautifully tender, the flavour was immediately very deep, my mouth was flooded with a juiciness and a subtle gamey rich beefiness that lingered on my palate for a long time, creating a delicious round flavour in my mouth, from the salty savoury umami notes. The marbling of fat that ran through the fibres of the meat gave the steak an amazing rich, buttery almost creamy texture. It was like no steak I had ever eaten. I had never eaten a piece of beef with such a depth of flavour that lasted for so long.
I savoured each mouthful and pondered over the flavour which was giving so much, I didn’t want to miss anything, I might even go so far as to describe the flavour of this Irish Moiled steak as complex. There were so many layers of flavour and texture, something so new to experience in a steak.
I think I was having the spiritual conversion that Alan had mentioned! Not only was the flavour of the steak simply stunning, but I’m certain that my experience was elevated to something much more as I knew I was eating something special and of a place, I felt hugely privileged to be eating a piece of beef from an animal that was unique to my home country and that once had nearly come close to extinction. History, culture, the land, passion and expertise had all converged to produce this wonderful piece of beef I was eating.
Eating this Irish Moiled steak I began to wonder were is my place in all of this? Have I been drawn back to Northern Ireland for some reason I’m not even aware of yet? Have I always been on this path home, through Galway and Dublin? Has everything that happened in those places and all the people I met been preparing me for what I need to do?
I’ll never forget working in Sheridans Cheesemongers in Galway, hunched over a bag of freshly picked apples, my nose stuck right in the bag smelling something I had never smelt before, the sweet perfume aroma of freshly picked local apples in season, having only been hanging from a branch thirty minutes earlier. Seamus Sheridan was by my side, he said to me ‘there’s nothing like finding real food.’ The day I visited Pheasant’s Hill, spoke to Alan and Janis Bailey and tasted their steaks of Irish Moiled cattle, I found real food again – food of a place, my place, my home.
Talking to Alan and Janis that day threw up many questions with regards the state of the local speciality food sector in Northern Ireland. Was there anything being done by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and Minister Michelle O’Neill MLA to encourage the growth of the speciality artisan food sector in Northern Ireland? It has exploded in the Republic of Ireland, we have the same raw products here in the north so why could the same not happen here?
Where’s all the local farmers’ markets? Again there seems to be a lot of supprort in the Republic for this but not here? Yes Belfast has St George’s Market, but Janis certainly doesn’t believe it is being run well ‘St George’s market could be so much better, the people managing it are not the right calibre, it’s not moving on, there’s no one on the Belfast City Council, no councillors with any forward policy to promote local food.’
It was disheartening to learn also that the farm shop that Alan and Janis opened in Comber couldn’t continue, as Janis told me ’I just don’t see any proper food policy for artisan food in Northern Ireland. There’s no encouragment for speciality food, our farm shop in Comber was a nightmare, there’s Tesco down the road taking 95% of the food shop. The message from supermarkets is cheap. Whilst that is the message it is very hard for speciality producers to develop volume.’
Northern Ireland needs more creators, innovators, cheesemakers, fish smokers, growers, meat curers, artisan butchers, traditional bakers, but those people need incentive and support from the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
The food writer John McKenna said once that artisan food comes from the 4Ps, ‘it is a synthesis of the Personality of the producer, the Place it comes from, the Product itself and Passion in the manner it is produced.’ I see all of these in Alan and Janis, they have it by the bucket load and it courses through every fibre of their being, but I also think it helps to be thick skinned and quite eccentric to produce world class artisan food as Alan and Janis are doing.
If you care about where your food comes from, if you want Northern Ireland to have a blossoming food culture and if you want to be part of that culture, if you want to support the local Northern Irish economy, if you care about our history in this place, plain and simple if you want to eat good food that has unbelievable flavour, then you need to get down to Pheasants’ Hill and become a regular customer.
I thought I’d finish with a quote from Slow Food, which I think sums up the importance of creators like Janis and Alan:
‘The entire conversion from local small-scale food production for local communities, to large-scale export-oriented mono-cultural production has also brought the melancholy decline of the traditions, cultures, and cooperative pleasures and convivialities associated for centuries with community-based production and markets, thereby diminishing the experience of direct food growing, and the long celebrated joys of sharing food grown by local hands from local lands.’ – From the Manifesto on the Future of Food by Slow Food.
To be continued…
Pheasants Hill Farm Shop
37 Killyleagh Road
t: 028 44 617 246
Monday to Saturday 10am to 6pm
St George’s Market Belfast, Saturdays, 9am to 4pm