Bycroft Artisan Meats
Words: Annie Studholme
Images: Annie Atudholme & Supplied
A North Canterbury couple with a passion for turning out home-grown lamb as close as possible to the way nature intended is behind a nationwide door-to-door service sharing the goodness of farm fresh produce with the masses.
WHEN CHRIS AND JACKIE Carthy sold up and moved from Auckland to a lifestyle block in North Canterbury’s Pyra-mid Valley looking to ride out the looming recession in 2007, thoughts of establishing a new business were far from their minds.
With already established careers in the film and advertising industries, they spent the first six months commuting to Auckland as work cropped up, but when Jackie discovered she was pregnant five weeks out from their wedding, everything changed.
“At the time we decided that, with technology and the internet, we were able to work smarter, live where we wanted to and be able to commute when we needed to,” says Jackie. “The decision to start the meat business was because of the financial downturn and the realisation that it was too risky for the two of us to work in the film industry - and that we would need to diversify.” And with a child on the way, they also decided it had to be something they could operate from home.
Surrounded by some of Canterbury’s prime lamb country, for Chris, the decision to retrofit the old dairy into a first-class home-butchery was a no-brainer, catapulting him back to his roots. Chris grew up in Christchurch and at age twelve started work as a clean-up boy at a local butcher’s shop. At the suggestion of his father, he continued in the trade, gaining an apprenticeship on leaving school. He learnt skills from some of the great old master butchers of the time both here and around the world, working alongside some of today’s leading butchers in Christchurch.
Since then, Chris has spent time as a jumps jockey before injury put paid to his stellar riding career, studied jazz percussion, set up his own surf clothing label, was a roadie in the music industry and worked extensively in the film industry. But throughout, butchery remained his first true love.
It had been a long time, but Chris not only had the necessary knowledge, he possessed the desire to provide his customers with the opportunity to buy premium quality meat raised as naturally as possible and delivered direct from the farm gate to their door. “The philosophy was simple - we wanted to supply healthy meat for the whole family,” says Jackie. And with that premise, Bycroft Artisan Meats was born.
From the outset, it was crucial for the Carthys to have total control of the product from beginning to end. “People are becoming increasingly wary of mass-produced or foreign imported products. We wanted our customers to know that, when they buy meat from us, we know where every animal has come from. Genuinely, from the day it was born to the day it died, we know that. We can offer that total traceability,” says Chris.
A firm believer that “everything is what it eats”, Chris is very conscious of what goes into their sheep and on the land because it will eventually be eaten by his family and customers. While he doesn’t go as far as to call them organic, his sheep are drug free and his farming practices are biodiverse, utilising the land’s diverse pastures which includes a mix of red and white clover, chicory and plantain. “Whatever they are eating shows up in the meat.”
Originally Chris established a close relationship with fourth-generation merino grower Duncan Calder as a direct source for lambs but, in time, he replaced merinos with his own homebred Suftex (Suffolk/Texel cross) and Suffolk lambs, and the business hasn’t looked back.
Crossing Suffolk and Texels wasn’t rocket science, he adds. “Our meat is very expensive and our customers expected that quality. The Suftex and Suffolk lambs are heavier and better value, but it was also about the flavour. They have a very distinct flavour which people love.”
Chris runs his own small, hand-selected breeding herd at their 30-acre Bycroft property near Waikari, and has also developed some wonderful relationships with other small growers that produce lambs meeting their strict requirements. Rams go out in February, with lambs born in early July. Rather than killing lambs straight off the mother, Chris prefers to leave them until 21-30 days post-weaning, giving them just the right amount of time to start finishing off naturally. Earlier, lighter lambs are ready in October, with the bulk of his lambs killed from November through February. Any lambs not born on the farm are finished on the property for a minimum of ten days, and all those not sold during the season are kept for a one-off hogget sale in April. Animals are killed and dressed at Harris Meats in Cheviot, before returning to Bycroft for aging, cutting, vacuum-packing, labelling and distribution.
“We only have a very small window of opportunity before you start getting subtle changes in the meat. At certain times of the year the stock tastes different. I can feel it with the knife, but then I am looking for it.”
Throughout the process, the utmost care and respect is given to the product, with lambs sold either by the side, or whole to avoid wastage. They are ordered online and all conveniently cut to the customer’s specific requirements, before being vacuum-packed, packaged in a polybox and shipped fresh and deep-chilled direct to their door.
Starting a small business from the back of beyond was fine in theory, but breaking into the online market was a steep learning curve in spite of their unparalleled advertising experience, Chris explains. Not only did they have the obligatory Ministry of Primary Industry (MPI) regulations and logistics to nut out, but they found themselves challenging the very way people traditionally buy their meat. “It’s not like going to your local butcher. People want to buy, but they can’t see it. That involves a lot of trust.”
As a youngster in the butchery trade, Chris made a point of knowing all his customers, their likes and dislikes. While that hasn’t changed, the arrival of the internet unleashed a completely new trade environment. “I still know all my customers. I don’t know their faces, but I know their families. I know what people like and I have the added benefit of having their whole purchase history at my fingertips.”
It took time for people to catch on though. As word spreads, Bycroft Artisan Meats has continued to grow. Nowadays their prized limited lamb carcasses are in hot demand by customers all over New Zealand, with happy clients from as far away as Bluff and Kaitaia.
Moving into the restaurant trade came more easily, with Bycroft’s big breaking coming when they became sole supplier to well-known Christchurch chef Jonny Schwass’ Restaurant Schwass, sparking a long-standing, mutually beneficial friendship.
It took courage for Chris to walk into Jonny’s restaurant, new baby in a pushchair, and stand there in front of some of New Zealand’s top chefs saying he had some of the best lamb in the country but, from his years in the industry, he knew he had the product to back it up. “If you believe in your product, that makes a difference. I back it 100 per cent and I backed myself.”
Chris grows a line of lambs especially for Jonny, as well as supplying a number of other restaurants including Giulio Sturla and Christy Martin’s Roots in Lyttelton but, for him, it’s more about supplying like-minded individuals that share his simple values, than simply increasing numbers.
In 2013, Chris built his own smokehouse at Bycroft and last year he started introducing a small-goods range which includes sausages, salamis, pancetta and bacon using locally sourced free-range animals. He also branched into local trade, requiring additional certification from MPI, attracting meat for specialist artisan processing from as far south as Omarama and as far north as Golden Bay.
It’s hasn’t always been plain-sailing though. “It’s been bloody hard work,” he laughs. For the past seven years, Chris has worked gruelling hours, up at 5am most days and, almost ironically, he spends half his time in the car. The ever-increasing workload has meant a dedicated driver as well as two additional staff are now needed in the butchery to manage at the height of the season.
“Lamb is our core business, but I am always playing with new cuts and new options. I’m really enjoying trialling new things,” says Chris. “It’s always morphing. The business is still gathering momentum, and I don’t think it will ever stop being like that, but we don’t want it to become really massive. We want it to stay a small boutique business.”
This season was their biggest to date, and it’s definitely not the last we’ve heard from Bycroft Artisan Meats. Watch this space.