Dexter Beef Cheek & Smoked Oyster Pie
Towards the end of the 1990s I blagged my first serious chef job at the Michelin starred Hambleton Hall Hotel in Rutland, as a slightly terrified and ‘out of my depth’ commis chef.
Every week or so, Jan McCourt, a bespectacled country gent type in Hunter wellies and a Barbour body warmer, would come in through the swing doors at the back entrance to the kitchen with a quarter of a Dexter cow over his shoulder from nearby Northfield Farm. The ‘bigger boys’ in the kitchen hierarchy then descended on the butchery counter to break down the carcass whilst I carried on burning vegetables and otherwise continuing my daily torment, tightrope walking the ‘knife edge of terror’ towards being ready, or not, for the start of service.
I remember the first time Aaron, Hambleton’s longstanding head chef, gave me some of Jan’s Dexter to try, tossing a rare slice of sirloin onto my chopping board like an unexpected treat for a mongrel that had been begging at the dinner table for scraps. Perhaps the experience was enhanced by the contrast to my daily diet at the time, mostly consisting of raw asparagus stalks and whatever else I could graze on without leaving my section which I definitely didn’t have time to do, but I do remember it was the best damn beef I’d ever tasted.
In the 20 years since my personal carnivore epiphany there has been a boom in the popularity of our country’s heritage breeds largely thanks to small scale cattle farmers and organisations like the Rare Breed Survival Trust. Pioneers like Jan, who in the 90s traded in his high flying city Job for those Hunter wellies and rare breed manure, have paved the way for many other career/lifestyle changers to follow suit.
No longer the preserve of fancy fine dining joints, Dexter and other native breeds have found their way onto the menus of forward thinking neighbourhood restaurants and country pubs all over the UK as the ‘farm gate to kitchen’ model has become more common place.
Eating less but ‘better’ meat has also become a legitimate lifestyle choice for socially conscious UK consumers in much the same way as vegetarianism/veganism. The nastiness of the intensive farming methods, engineered to feed the global trend for consuming way more meat than we nutritionally need, is becoming more and more transparent and harder to ignore.
Dexter Cattle have ridden this wave of interest in locally sourced, high welfare beef like bovine pro surfers; being tiny little creatures, (they carry Dwarfism in their genes) they not only look pretty cute, but their diminutive stature, in comparison to say - a snorting, foot scraping 3 tonne Angus bull, make them ideal entry level livestock for first time farmers (getting trampled to death by a herd of Dexters would be a pretty embarrassing way to go). They also tend to calve easily and are hardy as hell, originally bred to thrive on the windswept hills of South West Ireland.
Our family farm in Dalby Forest has had a small but steadily growing herd of Dexter living a near idyllic wildflower meadow in a remote valley enclosed by pine forest. Originally supplying my former restaurants in Leicester with amazing home grown beef, we now deliver whole carcasses directly to Flat Iron restaurants in London too. Each carcass is dry aged for a minimum of 28 days, but the offal, including the cheeks, heart, skirt and oxtail, is removed at the time of slaughter meaning I’m fortunate to have a ready supply of these often overlooked cuts. The cheeks are awesome for braising whole due to the seam of sinew running through each one readily breaking down into gelatine whilst cooking to creating a naturally sticky and rich gravy. Check out this simple pie recipe below!
Dexter Beef Cheek & Smoked Oyster Pie
(Makes 4, 13cm diameter pies using individual non-stick cake/pie tins, alternatively you could make one larger pie)
4 Dexter beef cheeks
1 85 g tin of smoked oysters
300g Shallots, peeled and halved lengthways
500ml Fresh Beef stock
375ml red wine
2 Bay leaves
50ml vegetable oil
Salt & Black pepper
1kg Short crust pastry
1 Egg, beaten
In a heavy based casserole pan heat the oil over a high heat and colour the beef cheeks, turning occasionally with tongs. Remove from the pan and immediately add the shallots, stir until well coloured and softened.
Add the beef cheeks back to the pan with the wine, stock, bay leaves, salt & pepper
Bring to a simmer and cover with a lid before placing in the oven (Preheated to 130C) and cook for 4 hours.
Skim off any surface fat with a ladle. If the braising liquor isn’t quite sticky & reduced, strain into a separate pan and reduce over a high heat and pour back over the beef cheeks & shallots, add the drained smoked oysters and mix well, roughly pulling apart the beef cheeks at the same time (these should be falling apart nicely)
Leave to cool whilst you prepare the pies for filling.
Divide the pastry into 4 pieces and roll out to around 4ml in thickness. Line each of the cake tins, allowing the excess to fall over the edges before trimming off with paring knife.
Combine all the excess pastry and again divide into 4 balls before rolling each out into circular lids just wider than the diameter of the tins.
Fill each pie with the braised beef mix leaving a 1cm gap below the rim of the pie. Using a pastry brush, coat the exposed rim of pastry with the beaten egg before carefully placing on each lid, crimping the pastry lid to the pastry around the pie using your fingers.
Finally brush the lid of each pie with beaten egg and prick a few times with the tines of fork before placing in an oven preheated to 180C for 20 minutes.Pies are great from the oven, but for some reason, I reckon, like homemade chilli, curries & casseroles – they’re even better a day later!