In many ways, not much has changed in Abermule in the years since Ifor Humphries began his career in farming. The village, with its population of roughly 900 people, sits between Welshpool and Newtown in the stunning and historic rural county of Powys, a region defined by mountainous terrain and remote hamlets with the lowest population density in Wales.
It feels a million miles away from Ancoats, the central Manchester district that has risen from derelict post-industrial no man’s land to renowned hipster haunt littered with fashionable bars and incredibly flavoursome restaurants. A corner of town that has overcome its blighted history to provide a home for many of our favourite eateries, not least Elnecot, which has strong ties to the Humphries smallholding, Upper Bryntalch Farm, thanks to the exceptional British wagyu beef the latter produces.
“Black wagyu originated in Japan, the cows were used to pull ploughs — they didn’t really eat meat in Japan until about 100 years ago,” Humphries replies when we ask for clarification on what wagyu beef actually means: the process involved in rearing livestock, like massaging cows and quenching their thirst with beer — both of which Ifor does, barrels brought in from nearby Monty’s Brewery — or the actual breed? “Because they were used in the field for ploughing and working they developed this characteristic marbling. Once they found this, they continued to breed for it.
“In comparison, in the UK and Europe we’ve bred for meat yield, not flavour, for the past 100 years. So the marbling we find in British breeds has always been there but it’s not been bred for that, and it’s not consistent. In wagyu it is, and that’s what gives it the flavour,” he continues. “During the last 100 years people have travelled to Japan and discovered the beef. At some point in the 1970s some live animals were exported to America and Australia with a view to replicating what was happening in Japan. It’s not until the last five years, I’d say, that it has become quite popular here.”
With the first order of Ifor’s Welsh Wagyu beef delivered to customers around 2010, it doesn’t take A-level maths to figure out that, based on the Welsh producer’s timeline, his business predates wagyu embedding itself in the common conscious of UK meat eaters. We ask if the decision to focus on this specialist, comparatively low yield offering was a risk at the time an initial investment was made, with embryos and semen first imported from Australia in 2006.
“It was definitely a risk. In the early days, when I spoke to chefs and potential customers they asked how much I could produce and what it was going to cost them. I said ‘I haven’t got a clue, I don’t know.’ It’s been a step-by-step learning curve for me, and I’ve been lucky to team up with Alternative Meats, a fantastic butcher, that connects us to restaurants and other customers,” Humphries replies, explaining that, even today, Upper Bryntalch Farm is home to just 20 wagyu cows, and many of the methods used are “pretty old fashioned” and not much different from those when he first took on the farm back in 1983.
“I think of myself as a stockman rather than a machinery man,” he explains, laughing, before we ask if taking the plunge into wagyu has proved worth it. “You’ve got to taste it to find out. All I would say is the number of chefs and butchers that have tried it and like it and come back for more speaks for itself. It’s the taste, and the provenance, which gives it the place in the market.”
When Finest headed out to Ifor’s place high standards were immediately apparent, with care and consideration behind everything on-site, which even includes a graveyard where people are buried in bio-coffins, the all natural materials helping cultivate the best quality hay which is then fed to the animals. As the farmer himself puts it, this is about creating “a virtuous circle, not a vicious cycle.”
Michael Clay certainly agrees. As Chef Patron at Elnecot, the business is responsible for bringing Ifor’s Welsh Wagyu to Manchester, hence him joining us for the jaunt. Marking five years in the trade next month, the combination of specialised, domestically and locally sourced produce with innovative menu ideas has helped establish his restaurant as one of the most popular dining spots in Ancoats, its reputation growing in tandem with the quality — and competitiveness — of our hometown’s food and drink scene.
“I’d been in Melbourne, where I had a restaurant, and there was such a great food and drinks scene, lots of independents, great local producers, certainly in the Victoria area. And, you know, all the customers were really keen and knowledgeable, which came from the staff and the restaurants and the owners wanting to do a good job of things. I just really enjoyed it. So I guess when I came back to England and Elnecot became an idea it was sort of based around doing something like that,” Clay says of how the Manchester restaurant came to be. “Back then there were some nice places to eat in Manchester. But, you know, it’s certainly a lot brighter now than it was about five years ago. Some incredible restaurants are here now, and most of them weren’t around when we opened. I think the Manchester food scene has come on loads in that time.
“We’ve always referred to Elnecot as a British restaurant, even though if you look at the menu it seems anything but. But we consider it British by virtue of the fact we try our absolute best to go and find British producers or suppliers or growers in the country. I think one of the main things that we wanted to do was really affordable, fun food, without needing to be in a formal restaurant. Things that didn’t necessarily have to be plated up with a pair of tweezers, but always using the absolute best available ingredients,” he continues. “There’s always been a sense of playfulness, but just trying to make things that are really tasty, using interesting cuts or bits we can find from suppliers, turning them into dishes and keeping it fresh.”
We ask for some examples and, much like Elenecot’s guests, find ourselves spoilt for choice. From formative era dishes using offal, to Exmoor Caviar, Wiltshire Truffles and Chalk Stream Trout, Clay and his team have made it their mission to seek out those at the vanguard of UK food production, and establish strong relationships, with Greater Manchester itself delivering a good proportion of the stock. “We use the Manchester Smoke House for our smoked salmon, the pickles and ferments are always from Cinderwood, and we were one of the first people to use the Crafty Cheese Man when that first set up.
“As the Manchester food scene has got better, more producers have appeared because there’s more of a demand for it, if customers are going to these places, and they’re seeing these things that are maybe being sourced from elsewhere then all of a sudden you’ve got a local guy doing it, and it sort of self fulfils,” Clay explains. “I think restaurants sort of lead the way and then, you know, hopefully that sparks ideas among people who go into producing.”
Elnecot’s dry-aged Welsh Wagyu topside is £18, served every Sunday with roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, stuffing, roasted carrots & parsnips, sautéed greens, cauliflower cheese and a rich gravy.