Vittles 7.3 - Cull Yaw

Chatting about Fields, by Jeremy Chan

“Ok I don’t want to be crass but that cull yaw fat is thick. I took a piss this morning and it left a 2-3mm layer of fat on top of the water”

I got this text from a chef whose name has been redacted a few days after a side of cull yaw had been transported up from Devon by Matt Chatfield, deposited with Vaughn Tan and then helpfully butchered, trimmed and sent to all corners of London (including my own kitchen where I was left with some rolled belly, a bit of shoulder and a decent sized chop). For the chefs who got a piece it was like someone has just uncovered some rocks from the moon — banal to an outsider but full of intrigue to the expert. No-one quite knew what to do with these tranches of meat, dry and blackened from the ageing but old ewe rather than the beef most chefs would be used to. Slow cooking was a popular option — one roasted it in the oven overnight and had it in a pilaf; one did a cross between a chu hou braise and a nikujaga, with daikon bronzed by the sauce and fat; I did the Fergus Henderson lamb recipe which calls for 20 shallots and 20 cloves of garlic, to stand up to the taste of the meat, which ended up in a sandwich a couple of days later. All of us had the same verdict: uncompromising.

You can take that verdict as you like, but it was a positive one. This is meat that reminds you that it is meat — that something died to make it and has been in a carefully controlled process of decay ever since. The chop I ate had layers; eating it was excavating an archaeological site where you could see strata from different time periods. The fat had the texture and taste of lush cream, right at the point it is about to turn. As I said: uncompromising. That this meat comes from Matt Chatfield, an uncompromising farmer, and was destined for Ikoyi, an uncompromising restaurant, is no surprise.

Today’s newsletter has been written by Jeremy Chan of Ikoyi on the cull yaw program and the challenges it represents for the whole supply chain. For those who know too much about the aa dril-extended Twitter universe, you’ll know that Matt and I have had our political differences, but I massively respect what he has done as a farmer. Previously the conduit between the produce of Cornwall and the kitchens of London, Matt has started again at the extreme end of the chain - the farmer - and like Max Jones describes in his newsletter, he knows that “processes of the past, silently hold the key to the future of food”.

Ikoyi needs little introduction, as one of London’s most lauded and most misunderstood restaurants. Often mis-described as a West African restaurant, people have been trying to pigeonhole it since it opened. Jeremy offers a new definition here: a beef restaurant (as opposed to restaurant beef, which is what I do), with cull yaw inducted as an honourary cow. This seems much more interesting, an admission that the meat on a plate is an equal collaboration between chef, butcher and farmer, a chain that relies on transparency and trust. You can’t eat at Ikoyi right now, but you can see that chain on Philip Warren’s website On The Pass, where the meat destined for restaurants is sold direct to the public. If you dare, and you have the mouths and the freezer space, get a side. It’s meat that could turn you vegetarian, or instill a new respect for it for life.

Chatting about Fields, by Jeremy Chan

“The best news is that I’ve got beavers,” exclaimed Matt Chatfield, just before we ended a recent phone call. Matt has played a critical role in connecting London restaurants with leading farmers in Cornwall; in fact, we met nearly three years ago over a conversation about my restaurant Ikoyi working with Phillip Warren Butchers, acclaimed purveyors of grass-fed beef and meat. Fervent outpourings about nature, woodland areas, pasture, dung beetles and the characteristics of aged sheep fat are not uncommon during conversations with Matt Chatfield, who has made the opportune shift from restaurateur to farmer in recent years. Indeed, his surname forms an uncanny hybrid of his inclination to ‘chat’ and the place where he finds most solace, the ‘field’ – especially if beavers reside there, since their presence points to ecological diversity. 

His passion for regenerative farming practices and exceptional quality meat has culminated in an ongoing cull yaw program in Devon and Cornwall, a system whereby mothering sheep at retirement age are grazed and fattened in higher welfare on forested pasture. The term ‘cull yaw’ refers specifically to an older female yaw (ewe) that is too old for breeding. It’s taken more than a year to prove the cull yaw program can integrate into the butchering system of Phillip Warren. As Matt is keen to point out, the challenge is to demonstrate consistent quality via sustainable methods, and also to evidence sufficient demand for a product that might ordinarily be overlooked. I have been working with the Warrens for several years since opening Ikoyi, and have been lucky enough to trial and experiment with earlier stages of the cull yaw in between receiving our usual ribs of native breed cattle. 

One of the first times we cooked with the cull yaw was during a collaboration dinner with Kristian Bauman of Restaurant 108 in Copenhagen. Stereotypes surrounding older sheep, or ‘mutton’, lead many customers and chefs to question the textural challenges of this kind of meat, asking whether the bite would be too tough or sheepy’. And mutton often conjures up an image of a scrawny, withered beast, lacking that supple tenderness of young lamb. So we were amazed when the carcass of the eight-year-old yaw arrived, that the fat covering was so great we could barely discern the eye of the loin. What lay before us seemed more like a perversely plump Iberico pork rack than a side of elderly ewe. The texture was sublime: gentle resistance followed by a pillowy melting into the mouth. The flesh flavour was delicate, almost too subtle, due to the fact that sheep over the age of five stop producing lanolin, the wax secreted by the sebaceous gland of wool-bearing animals.

We were all very impressed, but somehow the flavour hadn’t fully penetrated the meat. Although there was certain pride in seeing us cook with it, Matt wasn’t fully satisfied with the final product. The great pig farmers in Spain of Iberico Maldonado maintain that the ambulatory life of their pigs are the years of flavour-building, working the muscles while foraging for herbs and plants in the barren hillsides of the Extremadura. When considering the life of a sheep compared to that of a cow, there are considerably fewer pressures. Without the burden to produce milk and a recovery time of up to six months between births, the itinerant existence of the sheep searching for food is hypothetically conducive to a flavour-building lifestyle. Why, then, was the meat we cooked not as complex in character as we expected, especially given the Warrens had it aged for ten weeks?

Since then, the Warrens have incorporated the cull yaw into the same dual ageing process applied to their beef. The carcasses undergo up to two weeks in a higher humidity setting to relax the meat, catalyse bacterial growth and generate complex flavour compounds. Perhaps akin to the slow, cold fermentation of bread, the yaws are then moved into a colder and lower humidity setting to steadily control the activated ageing. The lack of flavour we had experienced may have been a result of bypassing this crucial first step, which harnesses the right conditions towards an aged beef character. Matt’s hypothesis is that the varieties of seeds slowly infiltrating his pasture will in future enhance the finishing diet of his sheep, yielding the same effect, one would hope, as the acorns on an Iberico pig.

Having spent my first year at Ikoyi looking for the perfect meat, I realised this was an impossible endeavour. One cannot simultaneously serve chicken, beef, pork and lamb on a menu and have each product attain the same exalted quality. Outstanding ingredients derive from great producers. As we serve a menu exploring seasonality in a diverse yet balanced format, the meat serving only takes place once and rarely more often than this during a single meal at Ikoyi. In developing this format, I realised that if I were to serve just one meat course it must originate from a consistent butcher whose practices and goals for flavour were in line with the restaurant’s: nutrient-rich, sustainable, grass-fed meat. In order to maintain and develop quality, I had to nurture this relationship. What I learned is that by focusing on beef and the integrity of our source, we would achieve far more than if we diluted our capabilities with multiple kinds of products. It was in this sense that Ikoyi became a beef restaurant.  

Before the pandemic we had been consistently cooking with hand-selected ribs and sirloins from the Warrens aged for extended periods of time. Every few months or so, a member of their team picked for us ribs of a particular eye diameter and fat-covering in a variety of breeds. There was natural harmony and trust in communicating our preferences but leaving it to the farmers and butchers to choose, store and age our meat. The system was mutually beneficial. And luckily our shelves also occasionally witnessed a rotation of cull yaw, aged for up to three months. These ewes, which would have typically been sent to abattoirs to end up as cheap meat for the market, were now slowly bathing in aromatic baths of their own fat.

Matt and I were equally excited about the project. We had many late-night conversations about the latest cut-through. We knew we’d found something special when the moment the loin of sheep was sawed open, a huddle of eager chefs gasped in wonder at the reveal of a beautifully marbled and dark eye. Since there is a fair amount of fat and connective tissue on the sheep, the meat requires very careful cooking. I always intended every mouthful for our guests to be tender, edible and delicious. In order to do this, we carefully trim the loin from its bones, portioning the leg into its constituent muscles, some for cooking, others for tartare. The shoulder, the more challenging element, is first deboned, then slowly braised, chilled, pressed and coloured before serving. We slowly roast the fat at 115C overnight with aromatics, gently caramelising any residual solids, which yields an incredibly nutty fat that hasn’t burned off any of the sweet aroma gained from ageing. This fat is our most prized cooking device, proving to be a gentle element in which to confit the loin and leg portions, imparting flavour and preserving precious juices. Rather than grilling to achieve a crust and wood-smoked flavour, we kiss the flesh on bars and a hot plancha, creating barely enough browning Maillard reaction to interfere with the honeyed notes of the meat. 

My reverie of cull yaw continues as the crisis goes on, and I hope to be reunited with my team, our kitchen and our producers to cook once again. However, there is a clear reality that our prized ingredients must be shared and enjoyed outside the restaurant for now, that the future survival of our butchers, fishermen and farmers relies on the domestic market. Similarly, in order to sustain ourselves during this time, we chefs have had to share techniques and ideas in Instagram posts and essays, as with this very piece. It is perhaps through passing on to others the very information that made up our bread and butter before this crisis, information that in itself was a collaboration between chef and producer, that we can open up the metaphorical doors to our now virtual restaurants.

Jeremy Chan is the chef and co-owner of Ikoyi, a Michelin-starred beef restaurant he runs with Iré Hassan-Odukale in St James, London, which takes inspiration from West African ingredients. While Ikoyi is closed you can find the meat that would have been cooked there at Phillip Warren’s On The Pass. You can find him on Instagram. Jeremy was paid for this newsletter.

Matt Chatfield is a farmer and former restaurateur who started The Cornwall Project to shorten the supply chains linking Cornish and Devon produce to the best London restaurants. On his 500 year-old family farm, Matt raises beef cattle and “cull yaws” and partners with Phillip Warren to dry-age the meat. You can find him on Instagram and on Twitter.

All photos courtesy of Scott Grummett, a food and drink photographer whose work you can find on his website and on Instagram.