James’ career in food began in professional kitchens and, as a young chef, his goal was to have his own restaurant – exactly as you might imagine. Instead, though, he turned goat rearer, and became founder of the award-wining Devon-based producer
Cabrito Goat Meat
. So, er, what happened there?
James explains by first taking me back to the very beginnings of his career. “I started out washing dishes, and cooking fish and chips, in Lyme Regis,” he says. “Then, when I got to London and became more serious, it was a time when everything was Italian and Spanish, and that stuck with me; I’m still in love with Italian food. As for my ethos, that was cemented by my time cooking at The Eagle in Farringdon, the first gastropub. The motto there, handed down from David Eyre, is ‘buy the best produce you can, and don’t f*** with it!’”
James’ strong culinary ethics saw him eventually make the move back to his home county of Devon, where he ran the kitchen at River Cottage. It was when he was working here that he first got his mitts on the patch of ground which would ultimately end up changing the course of his career.
“Some friends of ours had a little bit of land they didn’t have time to look after, so offered it to us,” he says. “We jumped at the chance, but the little paddock was completely overrun with years of untamed growth. Goats have a reputation for being good scrub clearers, so they seemed the obvious choice – once pigs had been vetoed. Really, it was a complete accident we ended up with goats.
“Once they had done their job, I put them on the menu at River Cottage, and they sold really well. Then I had a light bulb moment, thinking I could use my knowledge of the London restaurant market to sell a few goats – and here we are, six years later!
“I soon started to learn about the ‘billy problem’, though. The dairies have no use for the males – you can’t milk a billy goat, and I suggest you don’t try! – so up until we came along they were euthanised at birth. That just seemed crazy to me, and I thought I could do something about it. It is, in my mind, completely unacceptable to euthanise these perfectly healthy animals, rather than rear them up for meat, but all the right ethical messages in the world wouldn’t make any difference if it didn’t taste any good. Fortunately, goat meat is delicious!”
Goat isn’t just full of flavour, though; it’s actually got plenty of health benefits, and makes an easy case for itself against comparable meats like lamb and beef. (“My girlfriend is always telling me I don’t talk about the health benefits of goat enough!” says James.) It’s low in fat, and rich in protein and iron. But one of the biggest reasons James loves goat meat is – perhaps unsurprisingly, given his background – the joy of putting it to work in the kitchen.
“For me, it’s mostly about the cooking; goat is a staple of cuisines the world over. And it’s a great way of expanding your cooking horizons.”
So, let’s get this straight: it’s ethical, delicious, good for you, in decent enough supply,
super popular all over the world – but is far from a regular in kitchens on these here isles. Forgive us for asking the obvious, but why exactly is that?
“There are a lot of reasons. Firstly, historically, there just weren’t the animals around to eat – the UK didn’t have a sophisticated goat dairy system until the early ’90s. Before that, they mainly existed in smallholdings or with artisan cheese makers. Even today there are only around 70,000 billy kids born in the UK every year (that’s compared to the 116,000 lambs we kill a week for consumption). Perhaps more importantly, though, there’s the cultural question; we have no history of eating goat in the UK. There is no farming structure that exists for goats, and it’s not embedded in our cuisine in the way lamb, beef and pork are. These are big forces keeping goat out!”
A changing food culture over the last 25-30 years, which James puts down to cheap flights (giving people the opportunity to experience new cuisines and cultures), the ever-growing ranks of food TV shows, and the blossoming of the UK restaurant scene, means that the public has become more open to new foods, however.
But even though we’re all more adventurous these days, we’re also savvy shoppers, and it’s no secret that goat meat ain’t cheap. If it’s ultimately surplus from the dairy industry, why
“Once the kids are born, the nannies go back onto the milking parlour, so the kids need to be fed a milk powder replacement – and that’s expensive,” explains James. “It can be around 60p a day for the first six weeks of its life. That is an expense lambs don’t have, because lambs stay with the ewes; the goat farming system is driven towards the production of milk, whereas with sheep it’s the lambs that are the product.”
The price isn’t the only thing slowing down the uptake on this meat, though, reckons James.
“Goat has a wholly undeserved reputation for being tough, overpoweringly strong and hard to cook. It’s none of those things. There is also a certain conservativeness in cooking; you need to have a bit of confidence to try something new. We have had to earn that confidence, and it’s because people are now seeing it on high-end restaurant menus that we’ve managed to do it.
“Anything you can do with a lamb, you see, you can also do with a goat – which I hate saying, because it begs the question, ‘Well, why don’t I just use lamb?’ The answer to that is that goat, in some dishes, is actually the more authentic ingredient: tagines, curries, samosas, you name it… But also, it’s simply a superior product, with a better flavour. It doesn’t have that overpowering fattiness lamb can have – but I would say that, wouldn’t I?
“Personally, I love kibbeh – raw chopped goat, a bit like a Middle Eastern version of steak tartare. It’s so far from people’s stereotyped idea of tough, strong flavoured meat. But I also love the necks slow cooked – there’s so much flavour in a ragu from a slow cooked neck. And the legs, just marinated in preserved lemon and grilled on a barbecue, are great too.”
So, where do we go from here? Well, the goat market is really starting to develop, and with a bit of luck James’ new book –
Goat: Cooking and Eating
– will help get the meat into people’s kitchens at home (Cabrito’s main customers right now are chefs in the restaurant trade). There is still a lot of work to be done, though, at least from this goat-fanatic’s point of view.
“Cabrito had a single line for a mission statement: put all the billy goats into the food system. That’s the goal. And it’s achievable in the next five years. It sounds ambitious, but think about the number of lambs killed: remember, it’s 116,000 every week versus 70,000-ish kids a
. When you look at it in those terms, it only needs one or two of the major multiple retailers – retailers that sell the goat milk products that cause the problem in the first place, I might add – to get involved and it’s done. You’d think they’d be keen to help, no?
“If everyone who consumes goat milk products (milk, cheese or butter) bought goat meat every once in a while, the problem would vanish. And the more normal it becomes, the more meat we, and others, will sell.
“It won’t happen overnight, but one thing is for sure: the days of us euthanising all the billies is over. The trend is only heading in one direction.”
James will be at Toppings in Bath on 19 April, talking about his new book,
Goat: Cooking and Eating
for tickets; photography by Mike Lusmore