How one Laikipia family is making it their mission to raise the quality of Kenya’s beef and lamb
The door opens onto a white room with a high ceiling and rays of sun streaming through a pair of wall size windows. The late morning light in this barn turned slaughterhouse casts a warm glow on a busy tableaux of butchers as they expertly carve a large haunch of beef down to size. In the foreground stands Jack Dyer—chef, turned butcher, turned slaughterhouse owner, as he carefully slices through a shoulder of lamb. Fifteen or so bresaolas (oblong cuts of cured beef) hang wrapped in cloth from an airing rack that stands in the corner: an “experiment” in the making. In the air the smell of rosemary mingles with a rich meat-laden scent which excites the senses and awakens the taste buds.
“The other day a vegetarian friend of mine came to visit,” smiles Jack, who recently turned 27, as he looks up from his carving. “She told me she honestly believed that if this is how we treat our cows in life and death, then ours are truly happy beasts”. This humane ethos is the cornerstone of the Well Hung Butcher (WHB) meat mantra: an ode to meat that starts in the green Borana pastures that are owned by Jack’s family and extends to every facet of his operation. Occasionally as he works, Jack looks up, surveys the hive of activity that surrounds him and a small flush of pride spreads across his face.
Jack Dyer is a fourth generation Kenyan whose great grandfather, one of eleven children and the son of a vicar, was given a parcel of land after the first World War as part of the soldier resettlement scheme. William Powys came from a humble background and dedicated his life to making something out of the land he’d been given; his descendants have expanded on his legacy and Michael Dyer, Jack’s father, runs the Borana conservancy through a system of holistic rangeland management, owns the Borana eco lodge (which serves almost exclusively products that were made on or around the conservancy) and sits, amongst other things, on the Council of Elders of the Kenyan Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT). While Dyer Senior has dedicated his life to shoring up the conservancy, breeding high quality Boran cattle and finding ways for the wildlife, the livestock and the local communities to live in harmony, his son Llewellyn (Jack’s brother) is passionate about scaling up permaculture in Kenya and Jack is on a mission to revolutionise the way Kenyans butcher and buy their meat. No small feat in a country where meat is more often than not sold and distributed by brokers with little concern for quality, hygiene and above all the wellbeing of livestock.
The WHB opened for business in March this year. Its ethos is to strive to work in harmony with the environment at every stage of the livestock breeding, butchering and ageing process. Plans for a biogas digester, which will be fed by the blood and guts of animals to create energy for the slaughterhouse, are already underway. From the butchery’s refrigerated room comes a beef that has been aged from 21 to 48 days and a lamb that is aged for up to 15 days. On the plate, both meats are tender beyond belief, bursting with a complexity of flavour that deftly eludes so much of the meat butchered, sold and eaten in under 24 hours across Kenya.
“If you treat cattle in a humane way right until the end and don’t put it under any undue stress—like for example seeing another animal slaughtered in front of it,” Jack explains, “stress hormones don’t enter the meat which means it doesn’t tense up and remains soft and supple”. Combine this with the fact that the Boran cattle that the Dyers breed on their ranch has been crossed with a Simmental breed from Europe and we have the recipe for some truly world class cuts of meat.
Before launching himself into producing quality beef and lamb for the discerning Kenyan market, Jack did a course at the world-renowned Ballymaloe cookery school in Ireland. Following that, he headed to Berlin where he spent three years working in the highly-charged fine dining restaurant circuit. “When I got back to Kenya I tried to run the restaurant at our lodge but the quality of the meat we were sourcing just wasn’t up to my standards and I found that the only things I would ever serve was the lamb we’d hang ourselves” explains Jack. “I could see there was a niche for good meat that needed to be filled not only at the lodge but for Kenyans in Nairobi and beyond”.
Judging by the sheer volume of orders that are scrawled out in a whiteboard marker across a chart that has been drawn on the wall of the slaughterhouse office, Jack’s predictions were on the mark. So far the WHB is selling on a small scale wholesale and retail level and beyond sourcing meat for the newly reopened River Cafe, they are shying away from distributing to restaurants because, as Jack points out, restaurants request a disproportionate amount of fillet beef while shunning other perfectly good cuts. For now, if you want to try out some of the produce of this booming new venture, head down to the Purdy Arms organic food market on a Saturday and look out for their stall. With a name like that, you can’t miss it!