Turning back the clock


Nick and Julia Gardner are intent on turning back the clock to the days when local farmers sold their produce locally, thereby keeping alive a Cotswold family tradition that goes back generations. As soon as the Single Farm Payment was announced, introducing a payment system based on acreage rather than subsidies for specific production systems, the Gardners decided that the way forward would be to assume greater control of their meat and sell direct to the consumer.

It wasn't long after this decision that then family head, John Gardner, got talking to butcher Pat Righton and found out that a retail butchers shop, in operation for about 35 years in Shipston on Stour, was on the market. This was an opportunity too good to miss and so the family began researching the possibilities, prepared a business plan, and then applied for a Rural Enterprise Scheme grant. The application was successful. On September 19, the family took over the shop and their business was born.

Located in the appropriately named Sheep Street, business has been brisk. Beef is sourced from heifers reared 18-24 months and produced from Blonde d'Aquitaine and Belgian Blue bulls on Hereford cross suckler cows.

Now that the bull calf subsidy has disappeared, so has demand for bull calves, so Nick is selling them in Ludlow market and plans to start rearing Blonde crosses on steers for the shop. The difficulty would be ensuring these carcases were significantly lighter in weight so that boned and rolled cuts were just the right size for easy cooking.

Early lessons

There is a lot to do at the shop and learning is an ongoing process. Animals are killed at nearby Long Compton abattoir. The aim is to produce beef bodies between 320kg and 340kg with good fat cover. The Gardeners have already established that too lean a carcase, especially in the Belgian Blues, can lead to uneven maturation which in turn affects flavour and texture during the three weeks it's left hanging in the chiller. "It was one of the early lessons for us as farmers," he says. "It was interesting to see how different the best looking cattle we selected in the yard to be killed were not necessarily the best beef in terms of carcase value, particularly fat cover and yield of tender cuts."

Pork is free-range, from birth to slaughter, and is sourced from a local producer which rears Duroc cross Landrace sows for hardiness, body length and leanness with Large White boars for growth rate and meat yield.

Sausage skills

Brian Gardner, Julia's brother in law and resident butcher, has been getting invaluable lessons from butcher Paul Beaumont who, with 16 years experience, decided to stay on and help the family get to grips with the trade. And those lessons have been paying dividends. With only six months experience in sausage manufacturing, Brian has already made his mark, winning an award for his pork sausages in the Heart of England Fine Foods competitions. He now makes 150kg of sausage meat weekly and sells 100kg of fresh sausage.

Well stocked larder

Making full use of Julia's cooking ability means the shop stocks a range of ready meals using beef and lamb from the family's two farms at Tysoe and Pillerton Priors. And sales are booming. Not since the War has the market town of Shipston seen such queues outside a butcher's shop. The secret of her success lies in the quality of the meat. Equally important is the use of quality ingredients, all 100 per cent locally produced and complementary to the meat, says Julia. " Our aim is to add as much value as possible and waste nothing," she says.

The shop sells about 300 pies a week including pork, beef, lamb, chicken and mushroom and steak and Guinness recipes. The most popular is steak and kidney. There is also a growing demand for freshly made soups.

Everything is made to Julia's own recipes and she is constantly trying out different combinations.

She is also developing a range of ready prepared meals based on traditional recipes for Shepherd's Pie and Boeuf Bourguignon.

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