MasterChef: The Professionals finalist Adam Handling on a tour from field to fork
It is a bright late autumn afternoon and there is nothing to break the rural calm except the rustle of leaves on the turn. But listen carefully and you occasionally pick up a gentle scuffling noise and a swish-swish-swish sound. Inhale and there is a sweet, vaguely boozy aroma in the soft air. It is not what I expected and, looking at his reaction, it is not what chef Adam Handling is expecting either.
We are standing in a large cattle shed at Tibbers Farm on the 90,000-acre Queensberry Estate in rural Dumfriesshire. Drumlanrig Castle, the historic seat of the 10th Duke of Buccleuch, is a couple of miles away. The castle, known as the pink palace due to its rosy sandstone exterior, is crammed with priceless paintings by Rembrandt and Gainsborough.
Tibbers Farm may be less grand in appearance, but it houses masterpieces of a different kind - and the prime treasures gathered in the shed are approaching the peak of perfection. It is here that Alistair Kingan, a fifth-generation tenant farmer, gathers his cattle for the final weeks before slaughter. Some of the 110 beasts in here have just days to live, but there is no sense of stress, panic or industrialstyle farming. The animals are clean, settled and well-fed, munching their way through a daily 30kg of barley, a by-product of whisky distilling. The barley explains the sweetish smell and adds to one of the most sought-after facets of the beef - the marbling of the flesh.
In fact, if you were looking for a single word to sum up the style of farming practised by Kingan, 'respectful' would be a good place to start. It is no coincidence that the philosophy chimes with that of the Buccleuch beef brand, a high-end supplier whose buyers select from the very best of Kingan's breed.
Outside in the fields of the 500-acre mixed farm, the younger cattle feed on rich grass. An MOT on the hoof every few months from an animal nutritionist ensures the herd gets a balanced diet with sufficient protein. The average age of slaughter from this all-steer herd is 22 months, by which time the live weight will be about 650kg. It is a gentle, nurturing process.
Kingan has a 1,400-strong mixed herd comprising Aberdeen Angus, Charolais, Hereford, Limousin and Luing. The premier beasts are destined for Buccleuch, which will sell to the likes of Berners Tavern in London and Handling's new venture, Adam Handling at Caxton at the St Ermin's hotel in Westminster.
Handling's culinary star is very much on the rise. Although best-known as the MasterChef: The Professionals 2013 runner-up (most people mistakenly think he won), the 26-year-old has also scooped the 2014 British Culinary Federation Chef of the Year title. He has launched a book and a chocolate range and has a host of celebrity-style cooking appearances, including a date in the Cayman Islands in 2015.
Then there is the small matter of the Scot putting his stamp on Adam Handling at Caxton, where he heads a brigade of 14 including two sous chefs.
The 72-cover restaurant offers a full Á la carte, an ambitious 11-course tasting menu ("tasters from Adam's signature dishes") and a grill menu of prime Buccleuch steaks.
Handling has an affinity with Buccleuch going back to his stint at Fairmont St Andrews, where he regularly used the supplier's fillet. He was introduced to the beef as head chef of the hotel's fine-dining restaurant and has remained loyal to the brand ever since.
When he moved to St Ermin's, he dropped the business's existing supplier in favour of Buccleuch. It was a decision based on taste and consistency. "The proof is in the eating," says Handling.
He says he never rates a product by be consistent every time," says Handling. "My spec was slightly different to the regular spec that Buccleuch go for. They go for nice, small ribeyes so you can have a thick steak.
I wanted large eyes, which Buccleuch can get. "I am used to the beef - it's consistent and it's a delicious product. I could take a smaller ribeye, but the dish I have now, which is just a steak [on the grill menu], I do to 450g. Can you imagine a small ribeye at 450g? It wouldn't be a steak - it would be a log. I want big steaks because I serve big portions."
Buccleuch's exacting standards mean that only maybe a dozen of the 110 animals being finished in the Tibbers' shed will meet its requirements.
Following slaughter in Ayr, the carcasses are taken to AK Stoddart's, an independent beef processing company in Broxburn, West Lothian, and the UK's largest processor of certified Aberdeen Angus beef.
From Stoddart's the meat is delivered to Campbell Brothers in Bonnyrigg, Midlothian. Buccleuch and Campbell Brothers formed a partnership in January 2011 and some other exciting ventures, including Argyll Hill Lamb (see below), are in the pipeline.
It is at Bonnyrigg that Handling's tour of Scotland takes a magic turn as we are led into Buccleuch's sacred inner sanctum - the dry ageing room.
Hanging down one side of the room are the five-bone ribs, destined for succulent ribeye steaks, côte du boeuf and carveries, and next to them are the three-bone sirloins. It is a stunning display that would not look out of place in a modern art gallery.
Racked up on an opposite wall is shelf after shelf of maturing cuts that impart a nutty quality to the chilled air. The total stock value of the beef is £300,000.
The methodical and costly (because time is money) dry-ageing is crucial as the humidity and temperature control evaporates moisture from the meat, enhancing its flavour. Natural enzymes and muscle fibres slowly break down, resulting in two key attributes sought by chefs and consumers: taste and consistency.
Butcher Davie Hunter is the keeper of the crown jewels and takes care of Buccleuch's regal beef. Hunter explains how different chefs have different requirements. The chef of one well-known London restaurant prefers his ribeyes "quite lean with no heavy core fat," says Hunter, but Handling, on the other hand, likes the meat "really well marbled." The rib selection and preparation is bespoke.
Each restaurant's holding of beef has a fiveweek rotation, moving up the shelves as it ages. Most chefs want a maturation of 28-35 days. Handling, who inspects the stock for Caxton, prefers 35 days and then leaves the meat to "settle" for five to seven days after it arrives at the restaurant in London.
Fillet, says Hunter, needs a minimum of 21 days, but he shows me two silky cuts that a chef has requested at 40 days. "This fillet will be even more tender," says the butcher. "I think mature beef has a creamy, dairy taste." It looks like you could eat this fillet with a spoon.
Handling is so impressed that he breaks the habit of a lifetime and buys a striploin. The chef and McCole work their way through the dry ageing room until they find a specimen they think will appeal to the chef, and minutes later, the rib is being skillfully butchered and prepared by Hunter, and is then packed away ready for that night's delivery to London.
Handling says he knew Buccleuch beef was great, but now he understands the reasons behind its distinctive quality. The visit to Tibbers Farm and the tour through the nurturing, finishing, cutting, maturation and fine butchery stages has been an eye-opener.
"I can understand why the meat is as perfect as it is and it is because of how they treat the cattle. It makes sense," says Handling. "I didn't realise how many people touch each beast and are involved in the process before the chef gets it. Seeing it helps you understand why you are paying a premium.
"I know I am a good chef and I will fight for my life career-wise, but I am also a young guy and I am willing to learn - and I can learn so much from people like Neil [McCole] because he is so knowledgeable."
Knowledge allied to a deep understanding of cattle-rearing, butchery and the finest beef's eating qualities are key to the success of the operation, as underlined by Jason Shaw, managing director of Campbell Brothers. All the relationships that exist throughout the chain are critical, but none more so than the one between Buccleuch/Campbell Brothers and AK Stoddart's.
Shaw says Stoddart's guarantees supplies of the "very best, densely marbled, heavily worked muscles; firm, burgundy-winecoloured and yellow fat carcasses."
"Our bit is simple," says Shaw. "We are the arts and crafts tradesmen, where we age appropriately, treat with utmost respect and delicately seam butcher the prime cuts for steaks, rib roasts and loins.
"For us, the defined grading and calibration of what we trade on can only be established once the carcass rib and loin are cut into."
AK Stoddart's might slaughter 1,000 beasts a week, but it will not know which animals fit Buccleuch's exacting specifications until the "skin is off."
"Scarcity is rarity," says Shaw. There are visual and physical tolerances as well as sensory properties [ feel, sight, smell, colour] that Stoddart's graders look for.
"In short, we take the finest graded cattle, visually selecting the carcass with experts, then deriving the finest dry-aged primal muscles through natural, slow airflow maturation and butchering the cleanest cuts, bespoke tailoring to each chef's specific needs. The process and cost is like distilling the greatest single malt whisky."
Which takes us back neatly to the peace of Tibbers Farm, where the grass-fed herd ends its final days gorging contentedly on distillery recycled barley.
For more information on Buccleuch Beef, go to www.campbellbrothers.co.uk
Argyll Hill Lamb
Restaurant menus south of the border are starting to showcase a distinctive sweet meat from west Scotland: Blackface lamb. The animals, so-called because of their distinctive facial markings, feed on the wild grasses, heathers and mosses of the remote islands, peninsulas and lower Highlands.
A campaign by the Argyll Hill Lamb co-operative to market the lamb to a wider audience has been given a huge boost by a tie-up between Campbell Brothers and Oban-based Forteith Foodservice.
The co-operative comprises 14 farms, including outposts on Mull and Islay. The sheep are reared in a similar manner to wild deer, being "hefted" to hills where they forge their own territories, and the mountain habitats require the animals to be fit, which means leaner meat.
Last year, Forteith bought 750 lambs from the co-op and Campbell Brothers agreed to match the figure for its first intake this year.
The first batch of 47 lambs, sourced from two farms on Islay, was dispatched to hotels and restaurants in London, including the Corinthia and City Social, at the start of November. Forteith Foodservice's third-generation boss John Forteith, who has taken a close interest in the project, explains the appeal of the meat to chefs: "It is the leanness and the flavour that stand out. There is a sweeter and richer flavour to the meat because it has worked hard.
"We take the cream of the flock and it benefits the co-operative because it gives them a guaranteed price through 12 months."
Photos by Richard McComb