Wagyu in Sussex: on the farm at Trenchmore

Wagyu in Sussex: on the farm at Trenchmore

by Chloë King 26 April 2016

Chloë King dons her wellies and heads to Trenchmore Farm to discover some of the most beautiful cows (and beef) being produced in the UK.

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Writer and illustrator Chloe King is founder of the food lovers’ book club Cook the Books.

Writer and illustrator Chloe King is founder of the food lovers’ book club Cook the Books. A member of the Guild of Food Writers and a Royal College of Art graduate, Chloe is happiest working on projects that combine her love of food and cooking with her interest in art and culture, people and places. Based in East Sussex, Chloe's freelance portfolio spans graphic art, journalism, events management and lecturing.

I don’t know what I’m expecting to discover when I arrive at Trenchmore Farm to learn about their Sussex Wagyu. I’m ashamed to admit I have been amusing myself with the thought of turning into a yard in rural Cowfold, near Horsham, West Sussex, to find a bunch of people rubbing down cows.

You see, the one thing I understand about Wagyu is that it comes from Japan, where farmers have a tradition of massaging cattle. This, I’ve been told, helps fat disperse throughout the muscle, producing steaks so magnificently marbled they melt in the mouth – steaks also so prohibitively expensive you only find them in high-end restaurants.

It doesn’t take long for farmers Andrew and Joanne Knowles to put right my misconceptions. It turns out Wagyu simply means Japanese cow, with example breeds being Akaushi and Kobe, which refers only to cattle reared in the Kobe region. Wagyu breeds produce the most succulent beef in the world, but the reason for this – the propensity to lay down intramuscular fat that is virtuously high in mono-unsaturates and oleic acid – is a genetic trait.

The massage part, says Andrew, is a ‘slight myth’ derived from a common misunderstanding about the context of farming in Japan. It comes from the fact that many Japanese farms are smallholdings, where maybe just a single cow will be kept in a barn. ‘The cows tend to be indoors quite a lot,’ says Andrew, ‘so they get stiff, and the farmers massage them for that reason. We stroke ours a lot. I don’t know if I’d describe it technically as a massage, but they get quite a lot of attention!’

Trenchmore Farm focuses on two things – Wagyu beef and homemade cider
The cows are a cross between Akaushi and Sussex breeds, resulting in a fantastic flavour and buttery texture

Holy cow

We’re sitting in a sunny yard, surrounded by Andrew and Joanne’s herd of Akaushi-Sussex crosses. Spring has sprung and the cattle are only just being set out to pasture. Most remain in barns and a state-of-the-art roundhouse, munching on hay. The herd is exceptionally quiet and peaceful with gleaming coats in varying shades of sienna. Two calves were born only this morning.

Trenchmore beef is what is known as a ‘suckler herd’. They spend their first six to eight months with their mothers on a diet of milk then grass, and once weaned they are fed hay, silage, local brewer’s grains and apple pomace from the farm’s cider orchard over winter. With the goal of creating the best possible diet, Andrew and Joanne have set up a hydroponic chitting shed which produces fresh barley grass designed to improve the year-round freshness of their cattle feed and in turn, the seasonal consistency of the meat.

It appears my second goof was to think that Wagyu beef is almost impossible to get in the UK. Thanks to a small number of specialist farmers like Andrew and Joanne, the meat is making an impression in British restaurants. ‘The breed wouldn’t even register on the scale in the UK,’ says Andrew. ‘But it’s starting to attract a bit of interest because chefs are promoting it. There is a bit of cachet attached to Wagyu because of the intramuscular fat – it’s soft and buttery in flavour as a result.’

While it remains a premium product, crossing Wagyu with native British breeds and supplying locally is helping to make it more affordable. Last year’s top tasting steak at the World Steak Championship was a Wagyu-Angus cross – ‘I worry that people think it’s just hype about the Wagyu, but it is actually really good,’ says Joanne.

This Wagyu is crossed with descendants of Ashdown Forest oxen, which Andrew says have an intrinsically fine flavour, giving Trenchmore the best of both worlds. They supply twenty-eight-day aged beef, mostly to hotels and restaurants, including the nearby South Lodge Hotel (where some of their cattle graze during summer), Gravetye Manor, Ockenden Manor, Alexander House and their local pub The Crabtree.

The herd's diet includes apple pomace from Trenchmore's own orchard and grains from a local brewer
Wagyu beef is famed for its marbling, which results in a melt-in-the-mouth texture
Andrew and Joanne Knowles
Andrew and Joanne Knowles set up Trenchmore just four years ago

In the kitchen

Wagyu are much smaller than big-farmed continental breeds, and Andrew and Joanne, who are keen advocates of nose-to-tail cooking, supply by the half animal. ‘The butchers love us as there’s no waste,’ says Joanne. ‘Our chefs get all the fat and the bones, which they love. Our butchers are excited about it too because they are working with seam butchery – it gives them something new to work with.’

‘All of the secondary cuts have got fantastic flavour,’ adds Andrew. ‘They’ve just been neglected, but they’re enjoying a revived interest nowadays. A customer who has just taken some for the first time, The Cat Inn in West Hoathly, has said it has been good fun in the kitchen – they’ve stretched and pushed themselves to do something they wouldn’t have thought of doing before. So it’s worked out really well.’

Dave Mothersill, head chef at The Salt Room, has been using Trenchmore Wagyu to make scores of different dishes using every cut imaginable. ‘Braised shins with Sussex wild garlic was a wonderful combination,’ he says, ‘but the firm restaurant favourite is the roast Wagyu rump.’ Some of the most memorable dishes Andrew and Joanne have tried include Wagyu corned beef and brisket croquettes.

Chitting shed
The chitting shed grows fresh barley grass for the cattle to eat, which improves their seasonal consistency
The cows spend their first eight months with their mothers, before being weaned onto silage and hay

Back to the pasture

Joanne and Andrew describe themselves as ‘second career farmers’, and this is only their fourth year keeping livestock. The farm has a shininess to it, and it is clear every care is being paid to the herd’s welfare and the improvement of the land on which they graze. Only five years ago, it was empty scrubland. ‘What we’re trying to do here is be as sustainable as we can,’ says Andrew, ‘and as low on intensity as we can be whilst producing a super product.’

Andrew studied agriculture at university and was a farm manager for a few years before leaving to pursue a different career. ‘I feel like I’m coming back to it,’ he says, ‘but so much has changed in that time.’ The biggest and most challenging change, he says, is that the retail price of food has been pushed far below the cost of production. ‘The powerful buyers of the food chain all know that the subsidy is there to buffer farmers from the worst vagaries of the commercial realities of farming,’ says Andrew. ‘It’s a self-defeating thing in the end.’

Seeing how Trenchmore operates reminds me of the idyllic scenes of my daughter’s picture books. On the first hand, it’s reassuring to see farms like this in my home county, yet I can’t help but think how deeply commercial farming falls short of this image – how far we need to come in terms of attributing a justifiable price to the meat we buy. It’s frustrating there’s no straightforward answer.

‘I think you’ve got to be careful about making easy conclusions about farming,’ says Andrew. ‘Like all ecology, it’s interrelated. It’s every step in the chain, from when they’re born to when they are butchered to how they are cooked. If you pay attention to detail in every link, you end up with a kind of compound effect; something that’s really good. Everything affects everything else, and that makes it quite hard sometimes.’

The powerful buyers of the food chain all know that the subsidy is there to buffer farmers from the worst vagaries of the commercial realities of farming. It’s a self-defeating thing in the end.

Andrew Knowles