Damian Tumelty, partner Jackie Gibson and their team from Castlescreen Farm, based near Downpatrick, will be grilling hundreds of delicious Dexter burgers and beefy sausages for hungry visitors to the big Food NI Food Pavilion at Balmoral Park.
And they will be kept busy over the next three days feeding thousands of callers to their extensive ‘food-on-the-go’ stand that showcases their ‘big beef from wee cows’ from their herd of grass-fed dexter cows.
“Balmoral is always a hugely important show for us. It enables visitors to enjoy the distinctively rich flavour of our dexter beef,” Damian says.
“We are certainly kept very busy during the show every year. We’ll all be knackered at the end of the show because of the popularity of our stand and the quality of our burgers and other meats,” he adds.
The compelling aroma from freshly grilled dexter beef certainly draws the crowds.
“It’s really the best possible way to give people here the opportunity to taste the premium beef that we now butcher and hang on the farm from our own pedigree herd. It’s tasty grass-fed beef with heritage and total provenance,” he adds. “It’s totally natural, traceable and safe beef.”
In addition to burgers, the enterprising couple also cook beef sausages and the farm’s renowned vegetable roll, a traditional favourite with families here. Both Damian and Jackie enjoy the craic immensely with visitors.
As well as a range of premium quality dexter beef products, Castlescreen has expanded to include other meats, including pork, lamb and chicken, all readily available in the butchery, now a central part of the recently opened farm shop. There’s also honey from hives on the farm.
Damian and Jackie are also now well-known at markets across Northern Ireland, especially the immensely popular Inns at Saintfield Road and events in Downpatrick, Portaferry and Newcastle.
“These markets,” continues Damian, “are a great way to talk to shoppers about the distinctive characteristics and delicious taste of dexter beef,” he adds.
A Food NI member company, Castlescreen Farm is also now a supplier of beef to high-end restaurants such Ox in Belfast and the popular Avoca store in the city. Oakley Fayre Café and Deli in Downpatrick is a more recent customer.
Damian is among a small group of dexter breeders in Northern Ireland and has won a cluster of prestigious awards for the cattle, especially ‘Charlie’ a breed champion at Balmoral.
He opted to rear dexter cattle because they are much smaller than traditional beef cows. “They may be small cows but the meat they produce is naturally marbled with fat, giving it a distinct succulence and a much fuller flavour,” he explains.
“We took the decision to change our farming approach and to get away from big animals,” he says. “Research shows that dexter meat is one the best you can eat as it is naturally marbled which comes from grass feeding.” This is why he describes the business as specialising in “wee cows, big beef”.
Dexters are apparently gaining in popularity due to their size and quality of meat. “Since they’re smaller and live more lightly on the land, you can keep two and a half per acre compared to one per acre of the bigger and heavier breeds,” he continues.
The animals are small and very robust, able to survive outdoors in conditions in winter that would be impossible for bigger breeds of cows, he adds.
The flavour is strongly influenced by the diet the cattle enjoy. “It’s a very healthy diet of exclusively grass or silage. Our beef is then dry-aged for up to 35 days for an intense, real beefy flavour,” Damian says. “The beef is then prepared on-site by us.”
He currently rears a herd of around 100 beef and breeding cattle on the sprawling farm which has been in the Tumelty family for over 40 years.
Taking part in events like Balmoral and farmers’ markets around the country is designed to help increase awareness of dexter beef among consumers. While the beef can be a bit more expensive than products from other breeds, Damian says there’s no shrinkage in the meat and the steaks tend to be a darker colour.
“We can sell everything we currently produce and people can now call at our farm shop to buy our range of meat,” he adds. The shop also stocks a range of artisan food and drink from other local producers.
Damian hopes to increase his stock of breeding cows to around 50, confident this will allow him to continue producing enough beef to satisfy all needs of his customers.
The butchery operation also means he is able to cut to specific requirements of individual customers.
He adds: “We are pleased with the success we have enjoyed since deciding to breed dexter cattle. Our customers tell us they appreciate the quality of the beef, and there is a great deal of satisfaction taking our product from the field through to the plate. Dexter beef is a little bit more expensive, but the quality of the meat is second to none in my opinion.”
A native breed, Dexter’s origins are in the south-western counties of Ireland and date back to 1845. Their name comes from a ‘Mister Dexter’ who came to Ireland in the mid-1700s and settled in Tipperary.
He then developed the breed through careful selection. As an old mountain breed, Dexters are well-adapted to the harsh landscape of Ireland’s rocky fields.