SOME people know from an early age what they want to do when they grow up. For Denise Walton of Peelham Farm, in the Borders, it was always going to be farming. Raised in west Africa and Ireland, she’s from farming stock and grew up around animals.
Her childhood in Zambia and Galway invested her with a love of wilderness that is met by the open spaces of her organic farm, close to the Berwickshire coast. “I wanted to farm since I was knee-high to a grasshopper because that’s what my family did and we always had animals, although my father was a doctor. I never imagined doing anything else. My childhood also gave me an abiding love of landscapes, and the freedom of the views on our farm gives me that.”
Walton went on to study ecology and landscape ecology at university, where she met Chris, who grew up around Northumbrian farms and has an accountancy background. With their skillset of land management and business, they jumped at the chance to buy a smallholding at Peelham in 1990, and now farm it along with their partner and fellow landowner Amanda Cayley. Their son Angus also helps out.
Not only do the Waltons have a love of open spaces, they were willing to take a risk when farming prices tumbled, deciding to set up the production of Scotland’s only ruby beef veal. “In 2004, beef prices were rock-bottom, seed prices were going up and we are a marginal farm. We still had BSE and foot and mouth casting a dark shadow, and I just said to Chris, ‘Why don’t we do something really different? Why don’t we do veal and see what it’s like?’” she says.
Around 300 cattle later, the result is Peelham’s ruby beef veal. Darker than dairy rose veal, it has a unique flavour that is the result of allowing calves to run free in the fields with their mothers until they are naturally weaned at around nine months. Compared to being shot at four days old, these beasts have a whole different lifecycle – resulting in a product that Walton is happy to point out is unique in Scotland. “It’s very calm and peaceful here, and that’s crucial to the product. If an animal is distressed, that is reflected in the meat. It’s slower and more labour-intensive but our veal is not more expensive than dairy – it is not an expensive product.
“We have done the breeding ourselves and the cattle are a mix of Luing, Aberdeen Angus and Simmental. It takes years but we are very happy now with it,” she says.
Not only are the Waltons very happy with their veal, so are Scotland’s top chefs, with such culinary luminaries as Jeff Bland at the Balmoral, Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles, Neil Forbes at Cafe St Honoré, Suzanne O’Connor at the Scottish Café & Restaurant and Geoff Smeddle of the Peat Inn all happy to get creative with Peelham veal. “The great thing about veal is you use the whole animal,” says Walton. “Calf liver and offal is a growing market, and if it’s organic it’s very ‘clean’. More and more people are buying calves’ liver because there’s evidence it boosts the immune system and it’s high in vitamins A and D.”
Peelham ruby beef veal is uniquely flavoured because calves are reared only on grass and by mothers who also only graze grass, producing milk rich in omega 3 for their offspring. This gives a fine lacing of intra-muscular fat to the meat, which is hung for up to three weeks to produce a robust, rich flavour.
Despite growing in popularity, veal is still contentious and earlier this year TV farmer Jimmy Doherty promoted a revival of rose veal to prevent “useless” male dairy calves being shot at birth. “I think our meat is a better product because of our methods, but that’s no reflection on the way veal is reared or the fact dairy farmers have bull calves they can’t keep because there’s no market,” says Walton.
“Our organic way of farming means we keep our bull calves and fatten them up for veal instead,” she says.
As for the future at Peelham, the Waltons are happy with the way things are going, recently carrying off a gold in the 2012 Great Taste Awards for their organic air-dried ham. “We’re very excited by what we’re doing, producing a premium product in a niche market. It’s not about getting bigger. It’s about getting better.”
• Peelham Farm (www.peelham.co.uk)