The kids are alright: the rise of British goat meat

The kids are alright: the rise of British goat meat

by Tom Shingler 10 February 2016

Tom Shingler sits down with James Whetlor of Cabrito Goat Meat to learn how he single-handedly created a demand for a new, ethical ingredient – all from four goats on a small patch of land in Devon.

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Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor at Great British Chefs. After studying journalism and working on national food magazines, he joined Great British Chefs in 2015 and has travelled the length and breadth of the UK to interview chefs and photograph their beautiful plates of food ever since. Tom is responsible for all the editorial output of the website and, of course, is obsessed with everything to do with food and drink.

For any chef, being knocked off your bike while working in London and having to take a year out would be a huge blow to your career. When it happened to James Whetlor he certainly wasn’t over the moon, but it was the first in a chain of events that led him to setting up Cabrito Goat Meat, a company that now supplies top restaurants and Ocado.

After the accident James returned to his hometown in Devon, and a few months of experiencing the more relaxed country life meant he and his wife decided to stay put. Once his arm healed, James took a job at the River Cottage Canteen in Axminster; meanwhile, he was offered a bit of land that needed some work doing to it. He got talking to a goat’s cheese producer at a farmer’s market through a friend of his at River Cottage, and bought four billy goats to help cut back the grass. ‘Will [the cheesemaker] was determined not to kill any of his billy goats, despite it being standard practice throughout the goat farming industry (only females are kept for their milk),’ says James. ‘After buying the four to work on our bit of land, I bought two more off him to put on the menu at River Cottage Canteen – it sold out on both nights. I started to think that our little conclave in Devon can’t be the only place in the UK with a surplus of billy goats and a taste for goat meat, and realised there would be demand for it in London.’

James continued to buy billy goats, saving them from needless slaughter at birth, and sold his first to Jeremy Lee at Quo Vadis in April 2012. Places like St John and Bocca di Lupo soon became customers as well, and by the end of his first year James had bought and sold seventy.

Billy goats
All billy goats were killed at birth in the UK – until now
James first had the idea to sell goat meat to top restaurants when working at River Cottage

Get your goat

The next step was to secure a more consistent supply – James’ cheesemaker friend only had a small herd and couldn’t supply the billies he needed to take the business further. Luckily, Devon is farming country, and James soon found someone with 1,000 billies that agreed to work with him. ‘What people don’t realise is that setting up the farming side of the business was a lot harder than getting it on restaurant menus,’ says James. ‘There were no goats being raised for meat in the UK whatsoever, and all billy goats were being killed at birth. There were a few places you could buy the meat online but it would often come vacuum packed from France.’

It wasn’t just a case of buying the goats from farms – James had to convince the farmers to spend time and money rearing them to a large enough size. ‘If goat isn’t selling in a restaurant, then a chef can just serve it as a staff meal,’ he explains. ‘But if the demand for goat meat suddenly dries out, then there are farmers with a thousand goats on their farm with no one to sell them to. Convincing people to take that risk wasn’t easy.’ But James managed to set up enough links between farmers and chefs to make it work. The birth of this new industry – raising billy goats for meat – was completely new to the UK, and just three years later there are nearly 10,000 being reared annually. James and his company have been at the forefront of everything, linking farmers with restaurants and retailers.

James’ big break came just before Christmas last year, when Ocado agreed to start selling Cabrito Goat Meat on its website, making it available to home cooks. ‘When we found out we were going into retail we had to find lots of farms to work with very quickly, and just about pulled it off,’ he says. ‘Selling goat meat to high end restaurants is easy but to know for sure there is a demand at home too is quite a big risk.’

Goat meat
James suggests cooking the meat just like lamb at first, then experimenting with different flavours.
The meat is now sold to top restaurants across the UK and stocked in Ocado

Making the switch

I know goat meat will never replace pork, chicken, beef or lamb, but if we can make it as common as partridge, guinea fowl and venison, then that’s all we need to do.

James Whetlor

The reasons why we should be eating goat meat are numerous. But why has it never caught on in the UK? ‘There’s never been a British culture of eating goat meat – we’re a sheep farming nation,’ says James. ‘The UK had a massive wool industry, so there was no reason why shepherds would look after goats when a sheep’s fleece was worth so much. We were also never invaded by the Moors, who were known to introduce goats from North Africa to Europe. No one has tried to introduce a supply of goat meat in the UK before us because there was no demand, but there was no demand because no one was supplying it. It was a true Catch-22 situation.

‘Goat meat is prominent in a lot of Caribbean and Moroccan dishes which have found their way over here, but the meat imported for them is often very low quality – usually a tired out milking goat that’s too old,’ adds James. ‘We rear billy goats as a high end product, so they become something completely different.’

James’ company sells goat chops, shoulders, mince and shanks to the public – cuts which are always associated with lamb. So why choose goat instead? James says it’s the authentic and ethical choice. ‘Almost all the lamb recipes we know, such as tagine and curry, would have originally been made with goat,’ he says. ‘The meat also has a different flavour profile, so it could work with flavours and spices that don’t always go well with lamb. There’s also the hugely unethical practise of slaughtering billy goats at birth, which will only stop if more of us eat goat meat. If you’re a vegetarian because you don’t want to harm animals but you’ll quite happily eat goat’s cheese, then you’re still contributing to a system that until now has culled all the male offspring.’

So far, the arrival of high quality, home-reared goat meat has been a success, and it’s becoming more and more popular as awareness spreads. But James still has a lot of work to do if he plans to reach his overall target – to permanently put an end to slaughtering British billy goats at birth within the next ten years. ‘I know goat meat will never replace pork, chicken, beef or lamb, but if we can make it as common as partridge, guinea fowl and venison, then that’s all we need to do,’ he says. ‘It wouldn’t be a huge change in British eating habits, but it would be enough.’