The unspoilt natural beauty of the Wye Valley is captivating. It’s January, and probably the worst time of year to be driving across some of the most breathtaking geographical landscapes in Britain; it is here where England meets Wales. Across the peaks and troughs of varying shades of green lies Huntsham Farm, dedicated to the preservation of rare breeding from Longhorn cattle to Ryeland sheep and, as is the reason for my visit, the Middle White pig. The farm has been in the Vaughan family for over 400 years and supplies produce to many of the finest restaurants in the country. This preservation not only protects breeds from extinction but also preserves their existence for future generations.
As I turned the corner, and weaved my way through the winding country roads, the sky was the colour of greyish lavender, dissipating after a heavy rainfall. Perhaps I was a little too captivated as before I knew it I’d hit a dirt road, driving half a mile in the opposite direction before a kind local took pity on me. He knew the farm, most people do around here, and with his guidance I was back on track, rolling up the gravelled driveway protected by a giant ironwork of a stag’s head standing majestically above the entrance gates. I was greeted by Richard Vaughan, his wife Rosamund and their small but committed team who tend to the animals and farmland. I changed into a sturdier pair of shoes and downed a stiff cup of coffee before setting out to explore the farm. I marvelled in the natural smell of the farmland, filled with an honesty reminiscent of the origins of our food. The realisation of what efforts have been made, far beyond the plate. Under a large sky it’s a far cry from the industrial nature of commercial farming. Raved by the likes of Michel Roux and Heston Blumenthal, these animals have been preserved from extinction through Richard and his teams tireless efforts. I followed him outside and across the courtyard as he talked me through the careful consideration for their housing; a row of outhouses lined up like a small street of terraced houses.
Richard has been breeding Middle White’s for over 30 years. Bred from crossing the Small White, a breed of pig now extinct, and the Large White, the Middle White is considered an endangered breed. To gain some perspective, it’s now rarer than the Giant Panda. Distinctive through its short nose, in the 1930’s it became known as ‘The London Porker’, due to its high popularity in London restaurants. It is a pig heralded both nationally and far beyond these shores, so adored by the Emperor of Japan that he reportedly commissioned a statue in its honour. But due to the aftermath of the Second World War where focus was placed on affordability rather than quality, and with the introduction of meat rationing, their numbers rapidly began to decline. Within modern society, which favours the mass-production of cheaper factory meat farming, the Middle White does not cater to such a widespread market. They require a more careful and dedicated breeding approach. It is here where Richard’s passion is securing the breed’s future. He calls it the ‘pursuit of excellence’.
‘Food production is commonly driven by economics,’ Richard tells me. ‘The main concern is often how one can make something cheaper, rather than better.’ Meat consumption and the environment is a topic of extreme relevance in today’s society, and one that dominates a large part of the conversation. This is demonstrative of a careful consideration for the cultivation and sustainability of a breed rooted in three main principles: how they are looked after, the conditions in which they are housed and the quality of diet which they are fed. Such careful attention to their environment is paramount to Richard, who believes that ‘an outstanding life gives outstanding meat.’ As I observed first hand from across the field, the pigs are either eating or sleeping. The straw is clean, scattered with food, a hearty diet of wheat and soy, emulating the way acorns might drop onto the undergrowth in the wild. For Richard it is the ‘modern understanding of how pigs operate that guarantees the best of the herd.’ The aim is to ‘de-stress’ the animal, something which has developed through years of study and attention. Here, great lengths are taken to ensure the optimum environment for breeding.
‘Society is so divorced from where our food is coming from,’ Richard says. ‘People don’t often consider the life of the animal or its environment when dining.’ One can often find themselves trawling rows of supermarkets and restaurant menus with little consideration for the origins of the produce, of the lengths the breeder has taken to retain such quality. In times of global uncertainty and change, this ability to play a role in preservation is reinforced by our connection to the land, the vast open space I find myself standing in, supporting the day to day lives of those actively preserving it. An endangered breed is one that is threatened by extinction, the sense of finality in the most simplistic terms that once it has gone, we can never get it back. As I consider this, Richard leads me back up to the house where lunch has been prepared. As I filled myself with warm crusty bread and a cheeseboard so satisfying that I indulge myself with two helpings, I asked Richard about the characteristics of the Middle White. ‘Through understanding nature, one is understanding the animal,’ Richard explained. ‘Different breeds come in all forms. The Middle White will never be mainstream, it’s not one of those breeds that are churned out for commercial consumption.’ The financial impact of breeding in this way swiftly returns to the question of economics. Globally, these are challenging financial times, but despite this it seems that society is happy to pay a premium price for other produce, such as wines. If we take the grape, there is often so much more interest paid to the land, the terroirs, and the year in which the fruit has been harvested. Aside this, very little is known about the heritage of an animal, the environment it has been bred in, or the nature and quality of the rearing.
At Huntsham Farm, Richard owns over half of the entirety of UK stock. The overall objective is to measure the optimum breeding capacity that for an endangered breed, is vital. To see these environments first hand, Edward, one of the workers on the farm, guided me through the large outhouses. It quickly became apparent that he shares Richard’s passion for quality. On the way to see the Middle Whites, we stopped off to visit the Longhorn cows. Under Richard’s guidance, and with a rave review from famed chef Heston Blumenfeld, these species have gone from a ‘rare breed’ to a ‘minority breed’, all through careful breeding and recognition. I followed Richard back across the yard and on to where the Middle Whites are housed. At Huntsham Farm, Richard has retained all of the bloodline, both boar and sow in an astute protection of the breed. As Richard notes, ‘quality of breeding is essential and although there are ancestors of this species elsewhere in the world, often these bloodlines become quite far removed in terms of retaining quality.’ To maximise interest between the sexes, the wooden outhouses are built on the opposite sides of the yard from one another; one side for boars and one side for sows’. As with all good breeding, it is this protection of the bloodline that is vital for the protection of the breed, for its very survival.
The farmland of the Wye Valley offers a rather philosophical backdrop to such a conversation. With the winter sun setting remarkably early behind us, we made our way back up the gravelled pathway to the house. As the natural sunlight melted away into the clouds behind me, I found myself reflecting on Richard’s endeavour, his ‘pursuit of excellence’. It’s easy to ignore the attention to detail, the careful consideration of the environment and the perseverance it takes to get there. It’s also tempting to look beyond the hard work and focus on the final achievement. But it was the glimpse into the commitment behind the scenes that I found most admirable. It is this dedication that has prevented the Middle White from extinction. As I contemplated our role in preserving this species, I found it to be a pursuit of something greater than excellence, it is the pursuit of the conservation of its future.
Richard’s Huntsham Court Farm website www.huntsham.com
Louise Leverett is a writer and novelist currently living in London. She has recently completed a diploma in ‘Advanced Gastronomy’ at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.