Dance of the Sugar Plum Dairy (beef)
Would you spend £15 on takeaway steak and chips from a food van?
This was my dilemma as I loitered around the extortionate street food stalls in the courtyard of Blenheim Palace earlier this week. It was the last night of the Christmas at Blenheim celebrations. If you’ve never been, and you’re a sucker for Christmas spirit, this event will blow your mind. I defy even the Scroogiest person to not feel the magic. Picture your most Christmassy memory and multiply it by twelve Nutcrackers, an enchanted forest and a partridge in a pear tree. I felt like the kid in Miracle on 34th Street.
We take a spin on the hobby horses, whizz down the helter skelter and spend all our fairground tokens. Next up – food. We wander over to see what’s cooking. That’s when I see the prices.
£10 for a chicken pitta? £10 for halloumi fries? £15 for steak and chips in a cardboard box? Baby Jesus!
“We can’t justify spending this much,” I say to my boyfriend Alex.
“Oh come on, it’s my treat. Our last Christmas blow out!”
I stroll over to the steak frites van – run by an independent restaurant from Oxford. I need to know more about their beef before I buy it.
“Hi there! Where is your beef from please?”
“Ooh, I’ll hand you over to the chef for that one,” says the woman serving behind the hatch.
A man turns around from the grill, steel spatula in hand, and starts talking about a national breeding programme, which I can’t quite hear over all over the fairground music.
“It’s British right?”
“What breed is it?” I shout.
“A Friesian cross-breed.”
“So it’s dairy beef?”
I can’t lie – I’m a bit shocked. As the daughter of a suckler beef farmer I’ve been raised to look down my nose a bit at dairy beef (I’m sorry, but I have!) I’ve always been told it’s ‘the cheap stuff’ and lower quality. I’ve certainly never considered paying top whack for it.
Alex is looking impatient, and hungry, so I decide to go for it. I choose medium rare with peppercorn sauce and a drizzle of salsa verde. We hand over £30. I wince.
As we step aside to wait for our meal, I watch the queue of customers with interest.
“Steak and chips please.”
They freely hand over their cash but no one asks a single question about the beef.
When it’s quiet, I approach the hatch again.
“Excuse me – I’m just interested – how many people ask you about how your beef is sourced?”
“Lots do,” says the woman, “but they mainly want to know if it’s local. We can’t source all local because we can’t get the volume we need, but it’s always British, high quality, good welfare, Red Tractor and all that.”
She hands us our dinner. It looks and smells delicious.
We eat at a little outdoor table in the dark. I turn on my phone’s torch to get a good look at my grub: the beef is moist, pink and tender. The sauces are colourful and packed with flavour. The fries are skinny, tasty but overly salted for my taste. This is a good quality dish.
The dairy beef is good, very good. I take back my prejudice. And, as Welsh farmer Sam Kenyon rightly pointed out to me, it’s great to see so much value is being added to animals, very possibly dairy bull calves, that were once unwanted, and even wasted.
But I still can’t get my head around paying £15 for it. From a van. In a box.
Maybe there was a bit Scrooge at Blenheim after all.