Telegraph - A meaty twist in the tale of Beatrix Potter

Telegraph - A meaty twist in the tale of Beatrix Potter

Mark Hughes-Morgan finds Herdwick and 'belties' on Peter Rabbit territory

Miss Potter, now in cinemas, follows the life of the writer Beatrix Potter before and during her time in the Lake District. And anyone who sees it will discover that the creator of Peter Rabbit bought a cottage called Hill Top in a village near Windermere.

What they won't know is that the Hill Top of the film is not the real one. The filmmakers chose instead to "makeover" a farm once owned by Miss Potter: Yew Tree Farm, close to Tarn Hows, one of the Lake District's most renowned beauty spots.

They painted it greeny white, built a real dry-stone wall at the front to enclose pigs, ducks and a fake vegetable patch, created by cutting the tops off vegetables and sticking them in the ground.

Beatrix Potter left Yew Tree to the National Trust and it is now tenanted by farmers Jon and Caroline Watson. While they cherish the memories of watching the actress Renée Zellweger wander around their garden in her tracksuit, with assistants erecting umbrellas to block paparazzi snapping her from the road, and their one pet sheep, Ollie, escaping from her pen with her triplets to invade a live shoot, they have long since had to return to the reality of making a living in this unforgiving environment.

"It's very beautiful," says Caroline, 30, who has farmed these 500 acres with Jon, 43, for four years, "but it is very hard." The grazing is poor, the sheep ticks are vicious, winter here lasts seven months, and this is not the time to try to make money out of livestock.

"You have to work with what you've got," says Caroline. So the Watsons have gone back to principles Miss Potter herself would approve of: creating niche businesses that fit the location.

They have reopened the tea room Potter had in the 1930s, they are renovating the bed and breakfast accommodation and they have rethought the farming by creating a premium business, Heritage Meats.

The cross-bred cattle were replaced with about 20 "belties": Belted Galloways from Scotland with tough hides and iron constitutions, which mean they can be kept out in the harsh weather. They also trample down the bracken and allow better grazing.

The sheep that graze the fell behind the farm are now Herdwicks, the breed Beatrix Potter championed: hardy, able to live off nothing, with tough fleeces on every part of their body. The resilience of the animals means that the Watsons use far fewer chemicals on the land and on the animals.

The couple decided to go into the bespoke meat business just over a year ago, building their own "white room" preparation area and selling cuts direct to local restaurants and by mail order nationwide.

"It means we see the meat all the way through the process," says Caroline. "We know the animal has had a stress-free life. We hand-pick it when it is at its best, slaughter it locally, hang the meat for the right length of time, and can prepare it any way you want."

The beef is killed at 30 months - the maximum age under BSE regulations - and then hung for a minimum of three weeks. Herdwicks take longer to fatten than ordinary sheep, which makes them lean, without the greasy fat you find on some lamb. The meat is marbled, more like beef.

The meat has different properties from everyday lamb, too. It has a stronger taste, similar to venison, and more Omega-3 fat, which is being touted as a contributor to heart health. One-year-old lamb is hung for seven days; two-year for double that.

Some of the boxes and hampers are made up of cuts that require more cooking know-how; some, like the Premium, of finer cuts requiring less expertise. "All meat goes out with advice on how to cook it," says Caroline.

"Lamb shoulders, for example, are something people don't often buy. But if you whack one in the oven on a really low heat - 140C for six to eight hours - it becomes caramelised and delicious. Or for a cheaper roasting joint that feeds eight, you could take a whole rolled shoulder off the bone and only pay £10-£12."

Caroline defies anyone who says they can't cook it. "I've made amazing dishes with braising steak, an onion, and a pint of Guinness in a low oven all day,'' she says.

The meat is sent anywhere in Britain in eco-friendly fleece-lined boxes. "It costs more than supermarket meat," says Caroline, "but it really is a premium product. You should eat less meat but better."

It is a sentiment the formidable Miss Potter would surely endorse.

Based in the heart of the Lake District

YEW TREE FARM, Coniston, Cumbria, LA21 8DP|Telephone: 015394 41433 | 07753 957150|Email: [email protected]