Eating with the National Trust
PUBLISHED: 16:53 20 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:29 20 February 2013
Visit a National Trust property and you could be eating food raised on the premises
The Cotswolds has been among the leaders in the growing movement towards locally-sourced, free range and wild-fed food, and the National Trust in Gloucestershire is one of its champions. Trust tenants are actively being encouraged to rear naturally-fed livestock or grow fruit and vegetables for the local market - and the results are increasingly featuring on Trust restaurant menus.
Those who visit the commons of Minchinhampton and Rodborough may have noticed the distinctive panda-coloured Belted Galloways and all-black Welsh Blacks which roam there at certain times of the year. These strong and hardy cattle are chiefly 'employed' by the Trust to graze the species-rich Cotswold grassland and keep it from being invaded by rank grass and scrub.
The animals get little food other than the grass and wild downland plants they eat, so they produce some of the finest beef you can buy - it has excellent flavour and is rich in valuable compounds such as Omega 3 fatty acids.
At 30 months, selected animals are sent for slaughter to an abattoir in the Forest of Dean approved by the RSPCA Freedom Food Farm Assurance Scheme. The meat is hung for 21 days before being butchered for the market.
Connoisseurs of fine beef can sample the results for themselves by dining at the Bell at Sapperton, east of Stroud, but you don't have to go to a restaurant to try it - you can now buy your own National Trust-reared beef direct from the stockman. You can order a mixed 10kg pack - a typical pack might include a mix of topside, brisket, silverside, top rump and ribs - for your home freezer at around 8 a kilo. It is available only between September and December - contact Matt Stanway on 01452 810058.
Not so many years ago the deer cull at Dyrham Park in the south of the county had to be carried out discreetly for fear of offending the sensibilities of animal lovers. Fortunately the climate of opinion has changed, and the Trust now makes a virtue of the supply of wild game for its own restaurant and to the open market.
The herd of fallow deer which roams the park's 260 acres (and which originally gave the place its name) dates back at least to the 17th century, but by the time the Trust took Dyrham on in 1976 it had been reduced to a pitiful remnant of just 26 ageing beasts. Careful management has since brought it back up to a healthy 190-strong herd.
The animals have no natural enemies other than disease, so 70-80 deer are culled annually to keep the herd healthy. Fortunately, wild deer is greatly in demand on the UK and international market, as discerning venison eaters find its flavour more distinctive and gamier than farmed meat.
Blackmoor Game in Hampshire, who take most of Dyrham's deer, supply restaurants and butchers around the UK and on the Continent with haunches, shoulders, saddles, racks, steaks and noisettes, even kebabs and game pie mixes, as well as livers, kidneys and hearts. Rising beef prices have helped to strengthen the price of UK venison, which is good news for the Trust.
Not all the meat is sold on the open market. Dyrham's restaurant takes a proportion of the venison each year and it remains on the menu from early September until the supply runs out some time during the winter. Take the chance before it is too late to try Dyrham Venison Casserole, cooked in red wine and rosemary from the garden, or even the venison liver pt.
Dyrham is home to an ancient orchard which contains some of the oldest varieties of pear in the country - experts have been invited in this autumn to try to complete the work of identifying them. A new orchard, the Nichols Orchard, has been created from a derelict donkey paddock, and more than 40 varieties have been planted here. October 18 and 19 are Apple Days across the Trust, but at Dyrham it's Pear Day instead, and visitors will be able to taste different varieties, learn how to tell them apart and even taste dishes made from them in the restaurant.
Up at Snowshill Manor the same weekend, you'll be able to taste many apple varieties in the raw as well as enjoying the work of the National Trust cooks, who will be pulling out all the stops to show just how delicious and versatile is this much-disregarded fruit. Pork casserole, cakes, puddings and toffee apples will be among the treats on offer, and there is no charge beyond the normal admission fee.
There are Apple Days too over the same weekend at Westbury Court Garden across the Severn, the UK's only surviving Dutch water garden, where some 13 varieties grown in the gardens will be supplemented by examples from other Trust properties. Your taste buds will be able to take a journey through time, from a variety grown in Roman times up to the Edwardian era. You can even try a medlar - a relative of the apple which is too hard and acidic to be eaten raw, but which becomes something of a delicacy after it has 'bletted' or been allowed to rot slightly.
For more information about local produce, apple days and other food-related National Trust events, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk