THE French used to refer to the English as “les rosbif” – a reference to our national predilection for roast beef. It remains true that Britain – including Scotland and Northern Ireland – produces some of the world’s finest beef.
But the French have some excellent beef cattle, and one of the finest breeds is Aubrac, the native cattle of the Massif Central and Aveyron regions, rocky outcrops, criss-crossed by streams, where these handsome golden fawn cattle are a familiar sight.
Thanks to one of this country’s greatest conductors, Dorset-born organic farmer Sir John Eliot Gardiner, there is a rare opportunity to buy Aubrac beef, direct from his farm just south of Shaftesbury.
There have been Aubracs on John Eliot’s farm for nearly 30 years – walkers and motorists on the C13 Shaftesbury to Blandford road may have spotted the handsome cattle grazing in the fields overlooking the Blackmore Vale.
He learned about the breed more than 30 years ago, when he was music director of the Opéra National de Lyon. A friend told him: “You have to experience la France profonde.” The area is the heart of ancient Gaul, and in the Second World War was the base for many members of the Maquis (the French Resistance).
He drove up to the bleak wind-swept Massif Central and immediately fell in love with the cattle. A few years later he imported the first of what is now a 200-strong herd to Gore Farm.
Aubracs are dual-purpose cattle, reared to suckle their calves – they are excellent mothers and their surplus milk makes an outstanding French regional cheese (Laguiole) – and for their meat which is renowned for its succulence and marbling. Top French chefs regularly feature Aubrac beef on their menus.
The breed is at least 150 years old. The cattle are gentle and hardy. They not only thrive in their original mountainous environment in the Auvergne, at altitudes up to 3,000 feet, but are equally able to survive in the lush wetness of Ireland, the cold of the Arctic or the heat of North Africa.
When John Eliot first brought the Aubracs to North Dorset, their arrival was marked with a celebration for which the French farmers and cooks prepared Aligot, a traditional dish made with the rich Laguiole cheese cooked slowly with potatoes. One (English language) recipe for this ancient dish warns: “Once you try aligot, it may be hard to go back to traditional mashed potato.”
Anyone interested in buying Aubrac beef should contact Gore Farm. You can also buy some of the farm’s new apple juice, made from traditional local apple varieties, and hand-pressed by Nigel Spring. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org
Sir John Eliot Gardiner with one of his Aubracs at Gore Farm, photograph by Ed Bersey; in their homeland, Aubrac cattle usually retain their elegant horns.