A chat with Bill and Sue French
(Bill French) “I’ve been on the land since I could walk. I’m from a family of sheep and cropping farmers. It’s in the blood, I couldn’t do anything else.
“Sue is Auckland born and bred, from Greenbay. Her first posting as a school dental nurse was in Fielding. She married me, a poor farmer, not a rich one! And now her life is in Invercargill. But she seems to like it.
“She brings a business perspective to our business, and she’s a fantastic cook. She’s changed my eating habits, that’s for sure, making couscous, curries, tagines, all sorts of things that I wasn’t brought up on. Her cooking has opened my eyes about food. I struck it lucky there! Our 3 daughters have always supported us in the business, though none of them or their husbands wants to go into farming. They all have professional careers, and they love good food and that brings us all together.
“The 80s was exciting. We purchased our first land in 1981 in partnership, then early 2000 we dissolved the partnership and went on our own. Our first farm lay in the lee of the Takitimu Mountains so we called our farming business Leelands. We sold that farm but kept the name. In the mid 90s the sheep industry was in the doldrums and everyone converted to dairy for better returns, but being passionate about sheep drove us to stay in the business. There were 72 million sheep in New Zealand when we bought the first land, but it’s now down to 25-28 mill.“During this time we were frustrated at the low returns we were receiving for our produce. It was export-quality meat but we wanted it to be available for New Zealanders. We toyed with the idea of going direct to the consumer, and in the end that’s what we did, in 2007.
(Sue French) “We filled a chillybin with a selection of our prime cuts and headed off to the Mediterranean Market in Queenstown (now known as Raeward Fresh Queenstown). This first experience was a success and showed that there was an opportunity to deal direct to the end consumer. It’s a long step from there to where we are today though, working with top chefs all around the country, and dealing direct with customers through our website and at selected retailers. Raeward Fresh is a loyal supporter to this day,” she says.
(BF) “It’s only in the last 4-5 years that we’ve got serious about marketing. We wanted to add value to our business, but there was never any time for marketing. We had to rethink our strategy, so we downsized our farming area to free up time. We wanted to add a seamless service to our customers. While I’m the farmer/ grower, I’m also doing the marketing. This creates a significant point of difference to our story, as it’s the grower shaking hands with and talking directly with our customers.
“As custodians of our land we are passionate about our wonderful fertile alluvial-based Southland plains, with fresh sea breezes filtering the air from the Southern Ocean. We now have several blocks we cultivate and we re-grass old unproductive paddocks into high producing nutritious pasture using natural rock fertilisers, high energy grasses and herbs. Sustainability is foremost in our thinking.
“Once we have established productive nutritious pastures, animal nutrition and welfare is foremost. We drench to prevent worm burdens but it’s only used when necessary. Our aim is to produce ‘happy’ well-nourished animals. A lot of stock can spend several hours being transported to processing plants and be off feed for 24 hours and longer. We are very fortunate in that the abattoirs are only ten minutes’ from our yards, eliminating much pre-slaughter stress. While pre-slaughter stress doesn’t affect sheep meat as dramatically as it does in beef, we are able to minimize and manage it. It’s crucial to achieve tenderness.
“A key point of difference is the aging process. We hang the carcasses in the chiller for 5 days prior to cutting up and packaging as opposed to accelerated aging and conditioning (known as AC&A). This allows for aging to occur naturally. We are trying to emulate the tenderness and flavour of home kill meat but through approved licensed facilities.
“And another big difference in our lamb is how we manage the ‘smelly’ lamb syndrome. We work with spring lambs of both gender, but there comes a change around March when the testosterone comes on in the males. That’s what makes lamb smell unpleasant. It taints the meat and gives off a smell like urine when the meat cooks. You don’t want that. We use only ewe lamb or castrated males after this point. That way you can guarantee the lamb is going to smell good and not be tainted, and that it is going to taste the best it can, fresh and sweet. It’s a huge difference.
“Once we set our goals we needed to look at what cuts we could produce. We discovered a point of difference in the market where we could add more value by creating convenience cuts, for example, mini roasts serving 4-6 people, or a cut of meat that you could cook in 10-15 minutes, instead of a 2-hour leg roast, and one that is easy to carve, succulent and tender and has no wastage.
“Creating smaller and convenient cuts created the need for further markets so we asked chefs what their requirements where and we got some innovative results. Pete Gawron from Saffron restaurant in Arrowtown and Paul and his team at Huka Lodge in Taupo have created some stunning dishes using our added value products.
“We are passionate about the growing of our lambs, but seeing chefs continue that passion and transforming our lamb into some amazing and exquisite dishes gives us a huge thrill.
Our customers are interested in the story behind their purchase. They want to know more about where the lamb comes from and how it is has been treated from pasture to plate. Traceability, sustainability and animal welfare are our cornerstone beliefs. Add to that natural aging, and you have Leelands Lamb – top end quality lamb.
“Our lambs and lamb cuts are traceable, right back to our Southland pastures. That’s something we are proud of. We are able to produce export-quality lamb through sustainable farming practices and animal welfare is foremost. We avoid entire male sheep after they start producing testosterone. We are mindful of the slaughtering process. The carcasses are aged naturally for 5 days, and the result is tender, succulent meat and delicious flavour,” says Bill French proudly.
Leelands Lamb has a great following around the country. “Farro Fresh, our latest outlet, now stock Leelands Lamb. We’ll be at the Grey Lynn store on Saturday 19th August, so come up and say hi and have a sample. We’ll be happy to answer any questions you have about our products,“ says Bill.
*Leelands are running a ‘special’ for Shared Kitchen followers. You’ll find details of that, and more lamb recipes, on their site http://www.leelands.co.nz
You’ll most likely find Leelands lamb on menus in the following restaurants and selected retail outlets:
O’Connell Street Bistro http://www.oconnellstbistro.com
Coco’s Cantina https://www.cocoscantina.co.nz
Gemmayze Street https://www.facebook.com/gemmayzest/
Orphans Kitchen http://orphanskitchen.co.nz
Remuera New World
Casita Miro https://www.casitamiro.co.nz
Oyster Inn http://www.theoysterinn.co.nz
Huka Lodge http://www.hukalodge.co.nz
Somerset Cottage https://www.somersetcottage.co.nz
In Hawke’s Bay (solid lamb country!)
Elephant Hill http://www.elephanthill.co.nz
Craggy Range https://www.craggyrange.com
Ten Twenty Four http://www.tentwentyfour.org
Mission Estate http://www.missionestate.co.nz
The Featherston Tavern http://thefeatherston.nz
Nikau Café http://nikaucafe.co.nz
Bolten Hotel https://www.boltonhotel.co.nz
Thorndon New World
Poms Pub http://pomspub.co.nz
The George Hotel https://www.thegeorge.com
Raeward Fresh Harewood http://raewardfresh.co.nz
Blanket Bay http://www.blanketbay.com
Raeward Fresh http://raewardfresh.co.nz
Industry Café https://www.industrycafe.nz