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Philip Warren: The butcher whose name is on everyone’s lips

Philip Warren: The butcher whose name is on everyone’s lips

by Hugh Thomas 14 November 2016

Hugh Thomas pays a visit to Warren Butchers in Cornwall to find out how this unassuming business has become the UK’s most coveted supplier among Britain’s Michelin-starred chefs.


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Hugh is a freelance food journalist and professional glutton. Previously, he has written for The Guardian, Time Out, Restaurant magazine, British Street Food, and inapub.

If you’re a restaurant chef, Philip Warren is a name you’re likely to recognise. The Cornish butchers and graziers have, in their time, attracted custom from the country’s biggest figures in food. Most recently, for instance, they were cited in the Observer Food Monthly awards – the Soho institution Blacklock sources Warren meat for, as OFM deems it, the country’s best Sunday roast.

To label Philip Warren as one of the godfathers of butchery wouldn’t go amiss. Originally started up in 1880 by a WW Davey, the business went through ‘five or six’ family generations, Philip tells me, before it came under the Warren name. Forty years later, Philip Warren and son Ian are carrying out much the same practices their predecessors did over 100 years ago.

‘We farm only on Bodmin Moor,’ says Philip, who looks after things on the live animal side. ‘The latest pasture fad is something that’s been going on forever. But so many people have dropped out of it because it’s not efficient. It’s probably the least efficient you can get.’

So why’s that? ‘Bodmin Moor,’ says Philip, ‘is the worst, wettest upland in the country. So what we do is we have a multitude of breeds – Shorthorn, Galloway, Red Dun, Blue Grays. We call them Heinz 57s, because they’re every crossbreed you can imagine. These cattle have a natural tick resistance (tick bites being potentially fatal to cattle) which allows them to survive on the moor. Because of that we can keep the cows out twelve months a year.’

Cattle
All sorts of crossbreed cattle are reared by the Warren family
Ian and Philip
Ian (left) and Philip have been running the butchery for forty years
If we’re to get a potential new customer and they ask for the prices to be set, we don’t entertain it. If someone wants to come on, they need to come on for the right reasons. Understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

Ian Warren

Unfortunately, farmers don’t like paying the high price to keep their cattle on the moor as much as they used to. Being graziers though, the Warrens are in a good position to show cattle can be kept on the moors sustainably, while their butchery supports the independent farmers who do so too. ‘We’ve got about a hundred small farmers, from Bodmin moor to the edge of Dartmoor. We’re trying to make it efficient to farm on the moors again,’ says Philip.

Still, the eventual product, as good as it is, isn’t an attractive thing to Tesco, Sainsbury’s, or other supermarkets of that ilk. ‘Our cattle are different shapes and sizes,’ says Philip. ‘When you put them through the production line, because these cattle are built to survive, they carry more fat than usual. Which is useful for dry ageing, but to [supermarkets], fat equals waste.’

Competing with supermarkets is probably as difficult as meeting the criteria to supply them. But that doesn’t mean the Warrens hold a grudge. ‘Lidl do a thirty-day-aged Angus,’ says Ian, who’s in charge of supplying chefs and general customers. ‘Amazingly packaged, and it’s a good product. We’re the same sort of price on some cuts, and sometimes less on others.’

As convenient as Lidl’s steak is, even the most conscientious shopper can’t walk into a Warren shop in Launceston for the first time expecting a similar experience. ‘If we’re to get a potential new customer,’ says Ian, ‘and they ask for the prices to be set, we don’t entertain it. If someone wants to come on, they need to come on for the right reasons. Understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.’

The thing is, not being willing to grasp the Warren’s process would do it a disservice anyway – something supermarkets can’t (or won’t) tell you is how their food is made, yet Ian’s quite forthright about his methods, as any butcher should be. In this case, that concerns dry-ageing.

‘We have two fridge setups,’ he says. ‘The first fourteen days we keep the meat in a fairly humid fridge. If we don’t, it slows down the bacteria growth in the meat. After that, when the bacteria are growing like mad, we take it into a humidity-controlled fridge, which slows everything down. That stops your meat spoiling, stops mould spores growing, and gives a dry finish on the base of the meat.’

 
Beef
The dry-ageing process is something Philip and Ian are particularly passionate about
Beef
Their beef is some of the most in demand in the UK

It sounds simple. And really, it is. ‘Dry ageing has always been going on here,’ Philip says. Despite the notoriousness of the Food Standards Agency, not too much has to change if they decide to stick their noses in. ‘There are rules to say things have to be chilled for a certain time. Meat needs time for the flavour to develop, so we have to work within those rules to figure out how to best get there. If you walked in here back in 1880, everything would be the same, apart from the fridges.’

That may be, but even in traditional butchery, things aren’t always the same. Food trends – that phrase we love to hate – plays something of a part here, even in this little corner of Cornwall, away from the main blogosphere and Instagram circles of influence. While Ian says rib is their most popular cut, they have been seeing new interest in the less obvious options of late.

‘I’d say in the last five years of doing this, a lot more people are going for lesser cuts. Flat iron steak, featherblade, ox cheek, onglet, bavette. However, the prices have gone up because of demand, and now people are going back to prime fillet. Which we find is the hardest one to shift, believe it or not.’

I have to take ‘hard to shift’ with a pinch of salt. After all, the Warrens are known for running up a waiting list of chefs keen to get their hands on Warren cuts.

 
 
Pigs
As well as beef, the Warrens rear their own pigs and sheep
Bodmin Moor
Bodmin Moor's inhospitable environment means the animals work harder, producing better quality meat

‘It’s a dozen or fifteen chefs at the minute,’ says Ian. ‘As we take on a new customer, it’s about a twelve-week process to get used to them and them used to you. So you can’t overload with too many clients, because we don’t want to be banging it out and letting standards drop.’

The potential of too many clients might seem like a luxury, but when you’re trying hard to please chefs on the other side of the country, spreading yourself too thin as a supplier has plenty of room for trouble.

‘We’ve got Tom Adams from Pitt Cue,’ says Ian. ‘Chris Eden at the Driftwood. Paul Ainsworth. Jack Stein. Brett at The Ledbury’s a good chap. The Clove Club in East London – we deliver by night to them. So if we send anything they’re not happy with, it’s four days before we can get it back. You don’t have any margin for error.’

As Ian said before, it’s important for prospective customers to understand what they’re up to before they take them on. The same applies to chefs. ‘We try and get the chefs to come down and see the moor,’ says Philip. ‘Because until they travel there, they don’t quite grasp it. And they bring their front-of-house down, which they need to, otherwise the customer doesn’t have a clue either.’

If you were to take home anything from a Warren – even if it’s not a piece of meat – it’s a greater appreciation of traceability, and what that means for quality. Perhaps that’s in the taste. Perhaps that’s in the story. You might say the Warrens have a bit of both, but maybe Philip puts it better: ‘It’s not just the provenance,’ he says. ‘It’s understanding the provenance.’

 
 
 

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