Greetings from the Yorkshire Dales. I’d like to use my update this month to reflect on the traditions and heritage that make our celebrations timeless, and the seasonality of Christmas food.
On a recent visit to Wensleydale I went to see our rare breed herd of White Park cattle. Up here, the lime-coloured hills of summer had turned to earthy greens; the stretches of woodland were golden brown. In their vast enclosure, the White Park cattle were sat in a circle, horns facing outwards as if watching for wolves. As we approached the cows bellowed and rose to their feet but kept their formation. The calves were tucked in between their mothers peering curiously at us.
This behaviour is not something commercial breeds do often as they’ve had their wild instincts bred out of them. Farmers understandably have preferred docile and softer beasts. The White Park breed however is a link to an older creature, one that the Druids kept, and which roamed the wilds of the ancient British Isles. Their strong defensive instincts remain. The White Park’s cousin, the Chillingham herd in Northumberland, offers a glimpse of how this feral animal might have lived and behaved.
Listening to friend and farmer Stuart Raw talk about the herd’s health, it struck me that in ancient times, long before the dry-stone walls of our Yorkshire Dales had been built, a shepherd would also have been a short distance away to keep watch over the cows. It was the shepherds of course who were the first outsiders to know of Jesus’s birth in the nativity. On watch throughout the night, I expect this image of the herdsmen would have resonated with early audiences of Christian missionaries. Even today our farmers are most in connection with the seasons, the landscape, and our wildlife.
The tradition of feasting also cascades down the ages. In Northern Europe, Christmas superseded and replaced previous traditions of Yule and Saturnalia. Around the Winter Solstice people need something to celebrate – with little sun and cold weather. It’s my belief that food is the basis of human connections, and a society with a rich food culture is all the richer for it.
Christmas is the food event of the year and Christmas dinner is often cited as the nation’s favourite meal. To me it’s no coincidence that this tradition consists of seasonal food that is warming and comforting. Seasonal food always tastes better, though traditions at this time of year are surprisingly changeable; the turkey for instance is a relative newcomer to the table. Prior to the 1950s, chicken was the mainstay of British festivities. In fact, Christmas was for many households the only time of year they would eat chicken.
There is a powerful message in this recent cultural history. Chicken fell off the Christmas menu as it became more ubiquitous in the cities thanks to the broiler and battery farming. For special occasions, people want special foods. Back then, turkey was a novelty for many, however with more generous yields turkey became the meat of choice for a country trying to shrug off rationing and the shortages of the war years.
‘Better’ meat has to mean something different today. The best quality food is that which preserves the traditions of the countryside and retains the human aspect of food production – just like the shepherds watching out for their flocks. As I look at the glossy Christmas food brochures and the uncomfortably low prices of food in the supermarkets, it’s not hard to wonder what the real cost of this mass-produced food is, or how much goes to waste having been bought for the sake of being cheap.
Whatever your favoured Christmas centrepiece is, my advice is to choose something where you can be assured of quality and provenance, and rewards better, human ways of doing farming in balance with the environment. Choose food that’s seasonal and grown locally or to a high standard, and if you can, use your Christmas dinner as a starting point to only eat seasonally.
Our range this year is our most extensive yet, and my advice would be to not leave it too late as we’re facing unprecedented demand. Unfortunately, we have finite supply of our better meat as we look to work with farmers who do things properly: we don’t want them to rear more animals at the expense of quality husbandry.
From myself, our Farmison & Co family, and our producers, suppliers and farmers, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.