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Scotland’s Larder: Sophie Cumber, from The Butchery at Bowhouse

In our latest Scotland's Larder, Sophie Cumber tells us why rare breed Red Lincoln cattle taste so great, and how she ended up becoming a butcher.

Published: November 17, 2020

London's loss is the Kingdom of Fife's gain as butcher Sophie Cumber headed northwards to Bowhouse on the Balcaskie estate at the beginning of 2019.

She had reached a point where she wasn't sure what her next step would be, or whether she should hang up her butcher's apron for good.

Now she is 100 per cent glad she made the move northwards to the Neuk of Fife.

Sophie said: "I wanted to travel about the UK a little bit and see what people are up to on farms, so I thought I'll come up here and see what it is all about, obviously though, I'm not going to move to Scotland!

"I came up initially for six weeks but I was still thinking that I wouldn't move permanently. Actually, I'm so glad I did spend that time here because I would never have made my decision to move if it hadn't been for that."

In the end, Sophie said her main reason was that she: " had put so much love into the butchery plans, I couldn't bear to walk away."

cows cattle

One of the Balcaskie Estate herd of rare breed Red Lincoln cattle.

Balcaskie estate are in the process of changing their entire cattle herd to Lincoln Reds,  which Sophie says are: "a traditional breed, which hasn't been messed around with, so very true to the original form and they finish well on grass.

"It is good-natured, small and hardy, so a great choice for here."

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They are also using a sustainable grazing method where the cows move to new pasture every day and eat the top layer of grass only so that the roots and soil don't get disturbed.

Sophie enthuses: "the meat I'm working with here is fantastic. I get to see the animals in the field, and the farmer gets to come into the butchery to see what I'm looking for in the carcass, and we are all learning from the process. It has reconnected me to the reasons that I went into butchery in the first place."

Down on the farm

Sophie grew up on the family farm in the village of Abingdon, near Oxford, where her brother is now in charge.

Her childhood, she said: "was wonderful, but I wasn't particularly interested in the farm. I massively took it for granted, all the lovely countryside and animals, and lots of delicious meat."

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Pigs were her favourite beasts; "every birthday party was basically, go and see the pigs, " Sophie said.

However as a youngster, her passions lay elsewhere, "I really wanted to be an actress" she said.

Lincoln Red cows graze

The rare breed Lincoln Red cattle

Star of the show

Sophie starred in school and village theatre productions, but her parents always encouraged their children to do other things. Sophie said, "It was never expected that we would do anything farmy."

The reason perhaps is because farming is tough and Sophie said, "I think my mum and dad were aware of that, and that's why things were always changing on the farm. They looked for different ways of doing things and making life great for the animals.

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"We were the first organic dairy farm to have a robot milking machine, we would always have people coming on trips to see it. Maybe they hit the organic trend too early but it was something that was important to them."

Sophie studied a drama degree in Leeds where, she said,  "I probably had too much fun, and didn't work as hard as I could have."

She learned that it was quite a big leap from being one of the best actresses at school to being one of hundreds of other actors competing against each other.

She said, "I think that's when things started to change in my head a bit. Is this really what I want to go into?"

As a student, Sophie also learned "all meat and food were not equal. My mum was a great cook and we had incredible produce at home, I had always eaten well but I realised if I wanted to continue to eat in the manner I was accustomed to then I needed to learn to cook, and to think about what I was buying and where it was coming from."

Streets of London

After university, Sophie didn't pursue acting but instead moved to London and ended up working in a cheese shop, Paxton Whitfield.

"Oh my god, it was amazing. I couldn't work there now, because I'd spend most of my time scoffing cheese, which I could get away with in my early 20's," she said.

After a year, she found a real passion for cooking, and her mum enrolled her in a diploma cookery course at Leiths school of food and wine. Sophie said, "I really loved it, it was amazing."

The year-long course taught you how to cook everything perfectly, Sophie said, "It gave you an amazing grounding in all the basics."

A two-day butchery demonstration set her on a new career path, Sophie said, "I was absolutely transfixed and I said to my mates at the time, I think this is what I want to do.

"I was then determined to find a job, I literally sent out my cv to every butcher in London."

Despite having little practical experience, Barbecoa, (a Jamie Oliver steak restaurant with a butchery shop attached) offered her an interview.

Butcher Sophie Cumber

Sophie Cumber a cut above the rest.

Sophie was shocked when the manager said, get a coat on and we will get you started.

Sophie said, "I thought they wouldn't give me a job but I would just stay and learn as much as I could.

"I was shown stuff by this guy, Doug for four hours.

"I was thinking 'great - I've had a lovely day out and I've learned some stuff' but then the manager said to me, 'when can you start?'"

She learned later Doug didn't think she'd last.

But it was Christmas, they were short-staffed and the manager knew she'd worked in a shop before, and she could talk to people and she knew about cooking.

The manager was Marco Peerdeman, who has sadly passed.

Sophie said: "he was a loss to butchery, he was great at connecting people and he got me my next job at Turner and George, Clerkenwell.

"I never thought I'd be a butcher forever.

"I thought maybe a year but I kept learning new things and progressing and getting more into it.

"I was also a tomboy, I liked hanging out with the lads in the shop by day and my girl mates in the evening drinking cocktails."

Butchery is hard work, Sophie said, "there have been times when I thought, I'm not going to continue. I hurt my back five years ago, which was an absolute nightmare, but it is hard to walk away from what you know."

The work is physically demanding and Sophie said: "a busy day at the block is kind of a full workout, so I can get away with eating quite a lot, which I like."

Nose to Tail

On moving to Scotland, Sophie said "it has been nice moving up here, because I designed the space and there is a lot more room, so I have built my strength up, and now feel better than ever.

"I want to butcher in a way that supports good farming methods, and I believe that whole carcass butchery is the way to do that, so that the end product is treated with respect.

"I get in whole cows in at a time, so I have to use it all, nose to tail. I try and get as many steak cuts as I can; Denver steak, flat iron, bavette plus another couple of cuts you can get out of the shoulder. I'm trying to show people, there are more than just ribeye, sirloin, and fillet.

"It also means you are able to buy this fantastic meat which is not going to cost you as much."

On her block, you will find beef, lamb, as well as mutton from Balcaskie, plus pigs bought in from elsewhere while the estate's own organic Tamworths mature.

Her favourite cut of beef is a "perfectly aged and trimmed rump steak," she said, "because it has the most flavour."  Lincoln red's produce lovely tasting meat, which is ruby coloured with good internal marbling, which I then age well."

Chef James Ferguson from nearby Kinneuchar Inn, is a big supporter of the Bowhouse butchery, Sophie said, "we have a really nice relationship where we try and help each other out."

Sophie makes bacon and natural casing sausages which she said: "has a much nicer texture and bite."

Bowhouse also offers a Rare Lincoln Red beef box, which allows customers to sample a whole range of meat for £125.

Sophie explains the benefits:  "I know that the whole side of beef is used up and I can give a really good deal for the customers - who get loads of meat for their money."

Lincoln Red Beef selection of cuts

Lincoln Red Beef selection of cuts

Butchery at Bowhouse

Units 5&6, Bowhouse,
St Monans,
KY10 2RF

01333 406 410

• READ MORE: Scotland’s Larder: Rachel Morgan from Twelve Triangles Bakery

Scotland’s Larder: Rachel Morgan and Emily Cuddeford from Twelve Triangles Bakery









Catriona is a freelance writer based in the Scottish Borders, and a nominee for Food and Drink writer at this year's Scottish Press Awards.

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