The thing is, most of us are more than happy to eat goat’s cheese, but goat meat?
“People think it’s ‘too goaty’,” says James Whetlor, author of new book Goat: Cooking and Eating, with a shake of his head, “or too tough – but we’ve got teeth for a reason.”
Over a bowl of Whetlor’s homemade goat chilli, bejewelled with sweetcorn and slivers of red chilli pepper, I learn that ‘tough’ is definitively the wrong word. Chunks of kid meat flake muscularly – it’s got chew and heft, but also depth and flavour, and no, my jaw isn’t left aching. In fact, if I hadn’t known, I’d have assumed it was lamb.
I’m in Axminster, Dorset, to spend a day with the chef turned goat meat aficionado and businessman, whose mission is simple: To get “more billy goats in the food system”.
Whetlor grew up in nearby Lyme Regis, “washing pots and peeling onions” as a teen, and then spent 12 years cheffing in London, before returning to his roots and nabbing a job at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Kitchen & Deli in Axminster centre.
Around five years ago he was offered a piece of overgrown land with a paddock attached and had the idea to fill it with pigs. But, after being asked to avoid pigs by neighbours trying to sell their house, “we thought, ‘Well, goats are good at clearing stuff’.”
Whetlor swapped numbers with new farmers Will and Caroline Atkinson, of Stawley Goat’s Cheese, who were fully into the swing of running their own dairy business, before realising: What about the billy goats? “That is how well the billy goat problem is hidden in the industry,” says Whetlor.
The “problem” in question is that, in goat farming, milk is the economic driver, so once born, billy goats are considered surplus to requirement. It’s costly to keep them alive on replacement milk powder (as the mother’s milk is automatically redirected for dairy), so it’s standard practice to simply euthanise them.
But how did we get to this point? Whetlor explains that it’s all down to the rise of the UK wool trade – historically, if you had land, you put sheep on it, and as a result, goats were side-lined and, as those with sheep prospered, became the reserve of the peasantry.
“The entire farming industry was built up around sheep, and goats got pushed down and pushed down,” says Whetlor, and the effects are still being felt 900 years later. “You grow up in a culture with no goat in it, and here we are.”
Whetlor started taking on the Atkinson’s billy goats, eventually cooked one for a birthday party and put the rest on the River Cottage menu. “They sold really well,” he says, and the idea for his goat meat company, Cabrito, was born. Within two years he’d quit cheffing and now sells goat direct from farm to restaurant.
The book is a way to encourage more awareness and to tackle the two things people always say to Whetlor: “One, how do you cook it? Two, ‘Mmm, I love goat curry’.” Because there’s much more to goat than curry (Neil Rankin’s goat tacos and Yotam Ottolenghi’s goat shawarma recipes in Whetlor’s new book are particularly intriguing).
We head to one of Whetlor’s billy goat suppliers’ farms, and it’s hard not to fall in love with the animals, with their velveteen heads, narrow, curious faces, and nubbly horns. They skitter and bound about their pens as we walk in, are incessantly inquisitive and seemingly unafraid. At one point I have two gnawing the cuffs of my jacket, their rubbery mouths pulling on the fabric, while another chomps gently on my hand in search of food.
As Whetlor slings one into his arms for a cuddle, he explains that goat farming offers a sustainable, as well as ethical source of meat, partly because there just aren’t the number of animals available for it to become heavily industrialised.
“If we kept alive all the billy goats and females not needed for milking, produced a year in the UK, and put them into the meat system (around 80,000 animals), there would still be less than a week’s worth of sheep (more than 100,000),” he notes.
It’s the ethics argument that really gets to him though. “At a real fundamental level, I found it difficult to accept that there was no value attached to billy goats,” says Whetlor. “We shouldn’t be knocking these animals on the head and chucking them in the bin. In today’s world of dwindling resources, that’s absolutely ridiculous.”
So go forth, order kid, and be as inquisitive as Whetlor’s lovely – and tasty – goats.