Believe it or not it is just over a year ago that many of us were gathered in this very room to launch my mutton renaissance campaign and I am so pleased to see you here again and many new faces as well.
We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to The Ritz first of all and in particular Stephen Boxall, John Williams and their teams for making tonight possible. But I wouldn't want members of the Mutton Renaissance Club, which we are launching tonight, to have the idea that this is their regular meeting place!
However, I am particularly glad to be here because it allows me to congratulate The Ritz on reaching its centenary. Over one hundred years, The Ritz has become a by-word for style, excellence of service and good taste and I do congratulate everyone involved for managing to retain these important traditions.
And, if I might say so, I cannot think of a more appropriate place for tonight's event. A great British dish belongs in a great British institution.
I don't want to rehearse why I started this mutton renaissance campaign - many of you have heard it all before - but it is part of my determination to do everything I can to support our family farmers, particularly those in the uplands. And I cannot stress too strongly how vital these family farms are to the whole remaining delicate fabric of the countryside; to what is left of its culture and communities and to the continuation of our great island story.
There are many enterprising farmers throughout this country who are responding marvellously to the challenges which face the entire agricultural community at the moment, and some of them are in this room tonight, but there are many others who are not coping so well. Many of these are sheep farmers in some of the most beautiful parts of the country – the Yorkshire Dales, the moors of County Durham and Dartmoor, the Fells of Cumbria and the uplands of Wales and Scotland, to name but a few. And it was to create a new market of real value, which would boost their incomes, that I started this campaign.
I also wanted to reintroduce mutton because it is such a wonderful dish. Having had such fond childhood memories of it, to me it was a tragedy that it had disappeared from the culinary experience of most people.
So in all my efforts over the last two years I have been joined by some remarkably enthusiastic partners. The Academy of Culinary Arts, of which I am patron, has been astonishing in its support and I owe a huge debt to Brian Turner, John Williams and, above all, Sara Jayne Stanes, who has done the bulk of the work with Matt Exley. John Thorley, of the National Sheep Association, who I am so delighted was rewarded for all his efforts on behalf of farming in the New Years Honours, has been the invaluable second leg of this stool. And, finally, I do want to thank those who have funded the work so far and made it all possible: EBLEX and HCC and DEFRA. Together we have formed a special alliance, which I hope is beginning to bear fruit (or, should I say mutton!).
It is worth reflecting on the last year to see what we have achieved. The first thing to say is that we have managed to agree on a specification for Renaissance Mutton – no mean feat, let me tell you! We have created a website and a telephone information line. And, today, a booklet is being published with DEFRA called “A Taste for Marketing Mutton”, aimed at the entire mutton supply chain from farm to table.
I have been trying to do my part too, however small, serving mutton regularly at my various dinners I give here and there. And I can report that seldom a morsel is left on the plates – which is always the ultimate test!
We now have 170 businesses registered, which includes 88 farms, 35 abattoirs and butchers and 55 restaurants. To each and every one of them – and many are in this room – I do want to say a particularly heartfelt “thank you”. You are the pioneers – leading the way where I hope others will follow.
We took a conscious decision right at the beginning to focus on the restaurants and chefs because this seemed not only more manageable, but also the best way to create real interest. I have been delighted by some of the positive media coverage which we have seen over the last year proving there is a real taste for mutton. I am also learning something of the extraordinary power that chefs and restaurateurs exert over the population…Let me just tell you, Ladies and Gentlemen, that what Brian Turner says, counts!
Some farmers are beginning to do well from the campaign and those in this room will, I hope, attest to this. But the numbers are too small. We must extend our reach so that more can benefit. And we need to involve more butchers, particularly the remaining independent firms who often serve a more discerning clientele, and more abattoirs and processors. It is to achieve all this that we are launching the Mutton Renaissance Club.
We know from the research that Sara and her team have done that links in the mutton supply chain are weak. If we are to make a real impact both John Thorley and Sara agree we need a permanent forum to share information, ideas and expertize and in which people can work together to develop the market. And that is what the Mutton Renaissance Club aims to do. My patronage of the venture seems to have become of almost biblical proportions – after all, it is written in The Book of Hebrews - “Strong meat belongeth to them that are full of age”!
Ladies and gentlemen, I know that most of you have come a long way to be here tonight and the dinner has been arranged so that the whole supply chain is represented. I hope that by talking to each other and sharing information you will realize that you are not isolated or part of a fragmented chain, but of something exciting. So, to continue the biblical theme of this venture, I pray you will “go forth and multiply” the mutton outlets and the marketing of this mouth-watering of meat….!
I want to hand over now to two people who can tell you more about the Club and best represent the two ends of the mutton supply chain – John Thorley from the National Sheep Association and Brian Turner from The Academy of Culinary Arts.
But before I do, I hope you will forgive me if I just remind you again why this campaign matters so much. This remarkable country in which we live is blessed with some of the most beautiful countryside in the world which people love to visit.
I can't say this too often, that countryside didn't happen by magic – a some how people think it did. It has been tended and managed from one generation to another. The most stunning scenery is often the hardest to farm and that is why it is often best suited to sheep. The lives of these farmers are tough, and getting tougher by the day – that is the problem – a we heard only this week that farm incomes fell by eleven per cent last year. They are out in all weathers caring for their stock. They are highly skilled and, quite rightly, they are proud of what they do. They have families, whose children go to the village school, if it's still there and hasn't been shut. They use the village shop if it hasn't been shut and post office if it hasn't been shut and perhaps spend the odd evening at the village pub. Their wives often run the farm business and most of the village activities.
These are the people who make our countryside utterly unique. And these are the people for whom I will do all in my power to help. And that is why we are here tonight. A renaissance of mutton won't change the world, but it just might make the difference between survival and disappearance and that, ladies and gentlemen, is enough for me.