Stanedge Grange Butchery
PUBLISHED: 10:56 19 May 2014
From farm to fork in the Peak District... Andrew Griffiths visits a local source of prize-winning produce
The bright February day seemed benign enough. Taking the A515 out of Buxton towards Ashbourne the landscape began to soften into its limestone bedrock and the grass was beginning to show some colour and promise that spring would come. It all contrasted rather splendidly with the big, blue sky which stretched all the way down to the horizon on the undulating road south.
Turning into Stanedge Grange Butchery, things still seemed as calm as when I had left my home town of New Mills less than an hour before. As I headed towards the cluster of farm buildings, to the right of the track I saw a bird of prey glide and land in a tree. A buzzard I wondered, but it looked too delta-shaped for that. Perhaps a sparrowhawk or a kite...
By now I had parked the car and the music and heater had died down. Then I heard the wind, a fraction of a second before I felt it as I opened the car door and the gale nearly took it off its hinges. Cars can be like that – they shield you from what is really going on out there. I had picked a bad day to wear a trenchcoat.
Mary Bunting came out to meet me. I was early. Mary, who has had a few years to acclimatise to Stanedge Grange, and a lifetime to acclimatise to living on a farm, looked at me with a countrywoman’s mix of puzzlement and amusement as I struggled to anchor myself down. Guy ropes would have been useful. But this was, Mary told me, just a normal day in these parts, rather pleasant actually, given the time of year. Of course it was. ‘Bracing,’ I think I said. ‘Great place, wrong coat,’ I thought, but kept that to myself.
I had arranged to interview Mary about her multi-award winning Stanedge Grange Butchery. That I was half an hour earlier than arranged was largely due to a townie’s tendency to calculate journey-time as a function of distance and nose-to-tail traffic. But it is not exactly gridlock on the A515 out of Buxton on a Wednesday afternoon.
As we chatted in the farmyard, Richard Bunting came down from the fields and rather than disrupt Mary from our agreed schedule, I persuaded him to introduce me to some of the livestock. I guessed that Mary probably had one or two other things to do, what with running a farm, a business, a shop, and bringing up two children and all.
So as Richard strode off out of the yard I followed him, struggling to hold down my flapping coat like a shy debutante and wondering if I should have brought my wellies.
Richard and Mary took on Stanedge Grange six years ago, with the farm and buildings in something of a dilapidated state. Since then they have renovated the farmhouse, and two years ago opened the Stanedge Grange Butchery. Farming is in both their blood: Richard was brought up in a local Derbyshire farming family, and Mary on a farm in Nottingham. Although Mary remembers her father selling produce from the farm gate when she was a child, neither really had retail experience on the scale of the farm shop they are running now.
‘It is something Mary always wanted to have a go at,’ Richard tells me, as we stand in the barn while he shows me the Dorset sheep which provide the lamb for which the butchery is becoming renowned. ‘Mary does the shop, but I get involved as much as I can.’
It must make a big difference, for a farmer, actually having a shop on the premises so to speak. Richard agrees. ‘You are seeing your customers,’ he says, ‘And as long as your customers are happy, which they seem to be, they will come up and say “that lamb was fantastic!” which is good!’
He thinks back to the farming he knew with his father: ‘We just took them to Bakewell and that was it – we never got that sort of feedback. It’s nice.’ It is fair to say though that there is a division of labour between Richard and Mary, and Richard is happiest out on the farm, looking after the practical side of things.
The final piece of the jigsaw required to make Richard and Mary’s dream a reality came in the shape of Master Butcher Mick Shirt. With the Dorset sheep left in the capable hands of Richard, Mary called me into the farmhouse kitchen to meet Mick. A ‘proper’ farmhouse kitchen with a stone slab floor, it’s vast, kept at a comfortable temperature by a Rayburn stove, and dominated by a table so enormous it could comfortably seat a harvest-full of farm workers. Just the three of us seemed rather lost sitting at it.
‘I’ve been farming and butchering for over 40 years,’ Mick told me. ‘It’s all I’ve ever done.’
Mick’s 40 years were spent just a good pitchfork’s toss away from where we were sitting, around Grindleford, Tideswell and Bakewell. Although he has been involved with Stanedge Grange in an advisory capacity from the start, he only joined officially in September 2012. His influence though has clearly been pivotal to the business success so far – not least because of the long list of awards Stanedge Grange Butchery has already won, of which more later.
Mary trained as an accountant with a specialist knowledge of farm accounts, having returned to manage the accounts for her parents at their farm in Nottingham. She also ran a livery yard with Richard, gaining retail experience selling equine clothing and tack. Butchery though represented something of a departure for her when they came to Stanedge Grange. Why butchery?
‘I don’t know. I love it. It is something I have always wanted to do,’ Mary tells me, explaining that the farm in Nottingham was only five miles from the city centre and didn’t feel like the right place for a farm shop. ‘But when we came up here,’ she continues, ‘it just seemed like the right time, the right place and the right opportunity.’
Mick though has butchery in his blood. ‘I started as a youngster, twelve years old,’ he remembers. ‘My grandfather and grandmother used to keep pigs and I used to help out, so I was quite handy by the time I left school. I got an insight into the job.’
It’s safe to say that Mary has had a good teacher, and Mick comments that in another 40 years she might just have finished her apprenticeship!
Shopping at Stanedge Grange Butchery is rather more of an embracing experience than stocking up at the meat counter of your local supermarket – it is a chance to drive out into the beautiful Derbyshire countryside and actually see where your food is produced. People are coming from nearby towns such as Buxton and Ashbourne, but they are starting to visit from further afield as well, making a day of it.
‘In a short space of time we have got a name for our products,’ says Mick. ‘It is like a pebble in a pond, it just ripples out.’
‘It’s all about quality of produce and consistency,’ adds Mary. ‘The awards Mick won before I even met him speak for themselves.’
Ah yes, those awards. First of all, British Sausage Week: ‘There were 350 entries and we came first,’ Mick proudly tells me. ‘We produce them in the old fashioned way, mixing by hand in a big bowl without using any fancy machinery to make traditional pork sausage.’
I ask about Bakewell Show 2013 and Mick and Mary exchange glances. ‘Last year we won virtually everything,’ says Mick. He checks with Mary. ‘How many awards did we win?’
‘Twenty,’ says Mary.
‘Gold award pork pie, Gold Award black pudding, Gold Award sausage.’ Mick begins to reel them off.
‘Haslet,’ Mary chips in. Mick nods.
‘Gold Award haslet, which got 100 points out of 100 – so you can’t get better than that, can you?’
‘Speciality pie,’ adds Mary.
‘Gold Award,’ Mick, nodding again.
‘Gold Award bacon. Best product in show,’ Mary again.
Enough already! Stop! But this was their second Bakewell Show. What about the first, Bakewell 2012? Mick and Mary look at each other again, laugh, then say in unison: ‘We got best pork pie and best black pudding!’
I ask Mary how it felt to have had so much success so early on in the business. She thinks back for a moment. ‘Surreal, I think the word is. I didn’t think I was on this planet. It was quite amazing.’
This year they have decided to spread their wings internationally and are entering a black pudding competition in France.
As for the future, Mary hopes to take on an apprentice so that Mick can pass on his butchering skills, which will be a rare and no doubt golden opportunity for someone. Other than this they want to keep building on their retail success. This will involve an increase in livestock, which the 220 acre farm can easily accommodate, but they are determined to keep to both the methods and the breeds that have got them this far – Dorset sheep and native cross-bred cattle.
‘As a traditional butcher we look at one thing first, the most important thing, which is eating quality. It might have a little bit less shape, but we need the eating quality,’ says Mick.
They are also beginning to experiment with offering visitors an ‘experience’ as well as the opportunity to buy from the shop. Last year their local primary school visited for a sausage-making workshop, which was a great success. Mick is also set to share some of his 40 plus years of ‘meaty’ wisdom by offering masterclasses in sausage and pork pie making, and basic butchery skills. I predict that these will be a bestseller for Father’s Day, because everybody knows that, like lighting barbecues and cooking outdoors, making meat pies is a man’s work!
Quite where that leaves Mary who is efficiently wielding her cleaver at the butcher’s block, I am not sure. It seems a long way from accountancy, but she has no regrets about leaving behind her spreadsheets and turning her hand to the sharp end of farming.
‘I love it. It is a challenge,’ she tells me. ‘It is something I have always been interested in, and something I am glad I’ve had the opportunity to do.’