With an established and impressive line of products and initiatives, Rhug Estate have now opened the country’s first farm drive thru. Barry Alston reports.
JUST as it seemed little else could be added to the already extensive range of farm to plate ventures at the North Wales-based Rhug Estate, two more have popped up.
A speciality deer unit now sits alongside the UK’s first ever drive-through takeaway on a farm.
Both initiatives mark significant follow-on investments on what is already a unique farming operation, renowned for its ground-breaking activities in the drive to provide an unforgettable eating experience.
No other farming unit has seen the development of such a diverse range of enterprises since Lord Newborough took over the 4,856- hectare (12,000 acre) estate from his late father, making the switch to organic farming back in 1998.
The farm not only supplies produce for some of the world’s greatest hotels and restaurants,
but also makes the most of its prime location on the busy A5, two miles west of Corwen.
Today, there are some 130 local employees specialising not only in producing beef, lamb and poultry, but processing an entire branded range for selling to both wholesale and retail customers, as well as a farm shop and restaurant providing a farm to plate drop-in meal service.
Now passers-by in a hurry can visit Rhug Drive Thru, which provides hot and cold food and drinks, sandwiches, paninis, pastries, toasties and cakes, without them having to get out of their vehicles.
Lord Newborough says: “In this busy world we live in, not everyone has the time to stop and enjoy a meal in our bistro or at the sit-down takeaway, so this new facility complements those we already have.
“It provides an easy solution to the hungry traveller who wants to get back on their journey without delay. We have had a lot of positive feedback from customers.”
Positioned at the farm entrance just off the A5, it is open from 7am to 8pm Monday to Saturday and 8am to 7pm on Sundays.
Needless to say, most of what is on offer across all of the food outlets is part of the award-winning Rhug organic product range which includes Aberdeen-Angus and Highland beef, Welsh lamb, salt marsh lamb, chicken and wild game, while at Christmas there are organic turkeys and geese.
Organic pork and wild venison are also available but, soon to be added to the home-produced range will be venison from Japanese Sika deer which are being kept in the parkland around the estate.
Rhug has already established significant sales of venison to some of the most important restaurants in the world by way of locally shot fallow and roe deer. So why add Japanese Sika?
“Demand for venison is growing year by year with its popularity due to fact that it is a very healthy meat to eat, being higher in Omega 3, essential vitamins, minerals and significantly lower in fat than other meats,” says Lord Newborough.
“I have sought the advice of many chefs, including Brett Graham of the famous Michelin- starred restaurant, The Ledbury, in London, who has his own Sika herd and is passionate about the quality of its meat.
“The tender light flavour of the marbled meat is said to be a chef’s ultimate dream.
“From a farming point of view, they are easy to manage and able to fend for themselves.
“They do not need the attention of sheep or cattle and will fit in very well with what we are doing. But that is not the only reason.
“Rhug is one of the biggest single producers of organic lamb in the UK at the moment, but anything could happen post-Brexit.
“I have concerns for the future of lamb production as markets may be more difficult to come by, so I want to develop Rhug’s reputation for producing top quality organic venison should we leave the EU.”
The farm shop and restaurant came along in 2002 as a roadside takeaway, but now the collection of portable cabins and vans have long gone, and purpose-built facilities offer something for everyone – with a butchery, a delicatessen and a range of more than 3,000 carefully selected products.
Centrepiece is the Bison Grill –introduced after Lord Newborough had the bright idea to start up what now is a 20-strong herd of bison.
“From our team of shepherds and herdsmen to our butchers and sales staff, we are dedicated to
providing the best quality meat to give customers an unrivalled eating experience,” he says.
“Rhug is one of the few remaining true field to plate operations in the country, with stock being bred on the farm, fed on feed grown on the farm and finished on the farm.
“Animals are slaughtered at a local abattoir on the edge of the estate and then returned to our state-of-the art cutting plant.
“Meat primals are dry aged on the bone with our Aberdeen-Angus beef being kept for 28 days as standard and lambs hung for seven days before being cut to consumer requirements by our own butchers.
“We have been wholesaling since 2004 and proud to be supplying some of the top hotels and restaurants in the country.
“We deliver to London three times a week in a refrigerated van, offer a UK-wide mail order service and export to Hong Kong, Macau, Dubai, Singapore, Croatia and the Maldives.
“Slow growing breeds have been chosen to ensure the end product has the best possible flavour – that, of course, being the ultimate goal. After all, what is the point of being organic and tasteless?
“There are no shortcuts in organic farming, but we cannot resist a challenge and the key is to start small, learn along the way and build on great quality produce.”
The Angus herd is based at the estate’s coastal farm near Caernarfon, with calves weaned at 10 months old and then transferred to Rhug for finishing.
The organic lambs are born, bred and reared at Rhug which, although the land rises from 500 to 1,500 feet, is ideally situated to growing lush grass. Pastures are sown with a selection of herbs
and grasses, including chicory, cocksfoot, Timothy and red and white clover, which all contribute to taste and flavour.
Both the lower and higher land flocks are North of England Mules, with the higher ground ewes lambing outdoors later in the season to provide an all-year-round lamb supply.
During the past couple of years, a flock of Swaledale ewes has been established to produce the
estate’s own Mule lambs and to capitalise on Glastir Advanced mountain grazing.
The salt marsh lamb comes from the coastal farm and its flock of North of England Mules, the breed chosen because of its hardiness, good mothering ability, prolificacy and suitability to that environment.
“The land there is washed by the sea in the winter and grows special grasses, such as sea
lavender, samphire, sorrel, thrift and other salt marsh species, all of which help supply a very special, sweet flavour to the meat,” says Lord Newborough.
“Our organic chickens are slow maturing birds which are free to range on organic clover rich pastures for 11 to 14 weeks, having been hand reared in a temperature-controlled environment for the first 21 days before turning out into huts.
“With each batch, the huts are moved on to fresh ground and that patch not returned to for two years in order to prevent a disease build-up.
“The chickens are finished in a stress-free environment where they are allowed to range freely, exercising all day in the clover-rich pastures and enjoying the freedom of outdoor life.
“They are fed on 30 per cent home grown organic oats with the highest strictly monitored welfare standards which results in flavoursome, firm textured meat.
“These are qualities our customers tell us they enjoy across all our meats. And we listen to them.”