On the farm with the Ritchie family, suppliers of quality assured Scotch Lamb

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Click here for Andrew's recipe for Roast feather blade and confit flank of Scotch lamb

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          As part of The Staff Canteen’s partnership with Quality Meat Scotland, we visited Montalt Farm in Perthshire to find out exactly what goes into producing farm assured lamb that’s good enough to bear the Scotch Lamb label and meet the standards of chefs like Andrew Fairlie. Montalt Farm is an upland livestock farm in Path of Condie, Perthshire in the East of Scotland. It is part owned and tenanted by the Rictchie family with 80 suckler cows and 580 grass-fed breeding ewes providing the highest quality, farm assured Scotch Lamb which they supply to top restaurants like two-Michelin starred Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles. The farm is run by father George Ritchie and his son John. George looks after the cattle and John the sheep. George’s wife Karen also lives on the farm as does John’s wife Alix and their two young daughters Millie and Ellie. The Ritchie family first took over the farm in 1926 when George’s father, a ploughman working the farms in the nearby Bridge of Earn area, took on the tenancy then bought it outright for just £200. According to John Ritchie: “When he came here everything was dilapidated and falling to bits but he built it up with his brother. They bought another farm next door and it all went from there.” Now the farm covers 750 acres of land comprising 250 acres of good pasture, 370 acres of rough grazing, 100 acres laid over for hay and silage and 30 acres for swedes to help fatten the lambs over the winter. This land supports 580 breeding ewes, three quarters of which are Scottish mules and a quarter Texel cross mules producing around 950 to 1,000 lambs a year, each of which gets to graze on 4-5 acres of grass in the summer. “The Scottish mules are very prolific,” says John. “The amount of lambs sold from the ewes is 170% so for every ewe we get 1.7 lambs. The Texel cross mules give a real butcher’s quality lamb with a bit more meat on the carcass and they work very well off a grass-feed system.” The sheep are also well suited to the terrain which is hilly but not overly high, sitting at between 250-300 metres above sea level. They are hardy enough to survive the harsh winters but productive enough to provide more lambs than other hill breeds. Montalt has been farm assured for 12 years, a necessary adjunct to bearing the Scotch Lamb label and having PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status. Farm assurance from birth is unique to Scotland and the controls are rigorous: welfare standards must be met and handling facilities must be approved as well as food storage areas, medicines and veterinary records. Montalt is part of a health scheme for sheep which constantly monitors the animals for diseases and infections. Well-looked after animals make for better-tasting meat and also keep farmers like the Ritchies ahead of the game. As John says: “We’re working in a global market with lots of sheep meat being produced all over the world; for us to make a niche and stand out, we’ve got to go that extra mile so that we can say everything we produce is to a standard that no one else is really producing at the moment.” The year at Montalt starts slightly later than more southerly or low-lying farms, with lambing taking place around the second week of April. This is due to the later winters in Scottish highland areas which can sometimes see snow up to the beginning of April. For this reason it is rare to find spring or new season lamb in Scotland but as John explains, spring lamb, born in March, is often fed on concentrates and its flavour and texture can suffer without the natural grass to feed on. “Our lambs are born on grass and fed on grass right up to slaughter. We only use cereals or concentrates in really exceptional circumstances so they’re only eating what’s naturally in front of them,” he says. The Ritchies start selling their lambs around the beginning of August until December or January, sometimes keeping some back to sell in February or March the following year if they think there will be demand. This nearly-year-old meat is called hogget; it is less fashionable than lamb but it has a stronger, more mature flavour which John himself likes to eat. Whether it’s lamb or hogget, all the year’s lambs are sold before the next season’s lambing begins again in April. Ewes which have given five ‘crops’, or five years’ worth of lambs, can also be sold as mutton which is especially prized by the Muslim community. “Round about this time of year there’s a big demand in the markets for two or three-year-old ewes,” says John, “especially to take down to central England where Muslim families like to eat mutton to celebrate the end of Ramadan.” This year’s long winter has meant that Montalt Farm is running slightly behind its annual routine but, as with everything, it all balances out in the end. With the recent good weather things are catching up and with the sun on their backs, the lambs are really starting to grow. The Ritchies have just finished shearing and are now starting to make hay, which they will do while the sun shines, as the saying goes. Will they continue to make hay and keep Montalt as a family-run farm in the future? “I’ve got two daughters,” says John, “so I don’t know how keen they’ll be! Upland farming is still very family-orientated and there’s still quite a community of family farms around here, so we’re just going to keep going and see how things go in the future.”
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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 22nd August 2013

On the farm with the Ritchie family, suppliers of quality assured Scotch Lamb