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MEET THE ETHICAL SUPPLIER: JAMES WHETLOR FROM CABRITO

Meet James Whetlor – the man putting up an impressive fight to add value to a previously wasted resource. This chef turned ethical ‘kid’ goat meat supplier has made it his life’s work to educate people about the senseless waste of billy goats in the UK dairy industry, and get this delicious meat on our plates.

We caught up with James and had a chat about what inspired him to start Cabrito, the plight of the billy goats, and why he thinks Britain doesn’t have much of a goat-eating culture…

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ABOUT BEING A SUPPLIER

Tell us about yourself – who you are, what you do…

My names James Wheltor and I own and run Cabrito Goat Meat.  Cabrito is a meat distribution business that sells goat meat nationwide.

I grew up in Devon, where I now live but I lived and worked in London for 12 years.  I was a chef, cooking in some decent places.  I was in the gastropub end of the market, not the fine dining end.  I did try it but I didn’t have the discipline to cook in Michelin-starred kitchens!

What are your background, what inspired you to the start Cabrito, and can you expand a little further on the plight of the billy goats in the dairy industry?

Cabrito got started after we had moved back to Devon and acquired a little piece of land to grow some veg on.  It was a little overgrown so we thought we’d get some goats to trim it back.  I could then cook the goats, or even put them on the menu at River Cottage, where I was working.  They did indeed end up on the River Cottage menu, and they sold really well.

While we had the goats I’d become good friends with Will, the goat farmer that I had bought the goats from and learnt more about the dairy industry and the ‘problem’ with the billies.  The fact they are a by-product and usually end up being disposed of shortly after birth.

Somewhere in all that I had a light bulb moment.  With my cheffing background and the knowledge of the London food scene, coupled to the access I had to this huge unused resource, perhaps I could start selling kid goat meat and do something about the ridiculous waste that is knocking these billies on the head.

The motivation to start a business is in my case multi-layered.  As a chef it’s hard to keep working 70 hour weeks and never being at home.  Especially when you have a family so I suppose I was looking for something else but in the end it was the waste.  I just couldn’t get my head round the craziness of knocking these billies on the head a few minutes after they are born.

From a farming point of view I completely understand why the billies are euthanized.  They are expensive to rear because they need to be fed an expensive milk powder until weaned (the milk is the dairy’s product after all), and there has never really been a market for the meat.  You can’t realistically expect a farmer to rear an animal if it doesn’t have a market for it.  However, for the nanny’s to continue to produce milk, they need to be pregnant every year, nature dictates a 50/50 split between males and females.  The females go back into the herd but the males aren’t required.

Remember, the same resources have gone into the nannys whether they have a male or a female.  And if it’s a male, not only is the billy wasted, but all those recourses (food, manpower, electricity etc) that have gone into keeping the nanny alive during pregnancy are wasted too.  It’s such an inefficient system.  How on earth did we end up here? It still amazes me now.

So that’s how the idea came about but that’s not really enough to get it off the ground.  I started driving up to London twice a week sometimes with a few goats in the van sometimes without, going from restaurant to restaurant trying to persuade chefs to put it on their menus.  I knew a few restaurants that would take it and hoped that would be enough for us to get a toehold, enough of a base to make it worthwhile and have it trickle out into the wider market.  And fortunately that’s what has (slowly) happened!

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What does a typical week involve?

I still drive to London twice a week at least, delivering and having the odd meeting, and I still going from restaurant to restaurant trying to get them to buy kid. Then there is all the social media stuff.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that we would be no where without twitter.  The direct access it gave us to chefs at the beginning was invaluable. Chefs tweeting and instragraming pictures of the dishes has helped massively too.  They all follow each other so word spreads.

Any triumphs or hurdles to note?

As for triumphs and hurdles; well we did win the observer food award and that was great and really helped put up at the front of the line when it comes to goat suppliers but the biggest thrill for me is the chefs’ dishes.

Neil Rankin’s tacos that are a staple of the Smokehouse menus for example: knowing the path it’s taken from farm to kitchen, everything that’s involved from setting up the farm, transporting kids, bottle feeding, slaughter, the whole system and all the work that’s gone to getting someone like Neil to buy the kid in the first place. The thousand of miles driven and days of banging away at it, then on top of that actual the skill and knowledge of the chef applied to your product and knowing that if we hadn’t have done all of this, the goat would have just been wasted.

Sitting down and eating one of them is worth any number of awards.  It’s just fantastic!

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ABOUT THE FARMERS YOU WORK WITH

Tell us about the network of farmers who work with – how many goats are currently being raised by these farmers, are you looking for more farmers to work with?

We have 8 farms across the country.  Some are actual dairies that milk on site but most dairies aren’t set up to raise livestock beyond what they need so most are contract rearers.  They take the kids are a few weeks old and keep them on milk for the first 8 weeks.  Once they’re weaned they are on a rolled feed similar to a pig nut.

We have about 5000 in the system right now with a view to increasing to 10,000 by the end of next year.  This is of course customer driven, if everything we have planned comes off this won’t be enough!  So I’m always looking to make contact with dairies.  We might not need the kids now but I’m absolutely certain we will in the next few years.

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ABOUT THE KID GOAT MEAT

Why do you think Britain doesn’t have much of a goat-eating culture?

The question as to why Britain doesn’t have much of goat eating culture is an interesting one.  Historically we have always had sheep in the UK.  Britain’s wealth is built on the wool trade so it would always have made more sense to a medieval peasant farmer to have a sheep rather than goat because the fleece was so valuable.

The geography of the UK is also much more suited to sheep.  The pastoral land lends itself to grazers rather than browsers, like goats.  Famers settled the land in the UK rather than being nomadic which again suits sheep, pigs and cows, rather than goats.  So it never really got started here.

Immigrant populations have bought goat dishes with them but the British have always adapted them to lamb.  Furthermore, the dishes tend to use the older nanny goats, essentially the mutton version of goat (in many cultures the word mutton is interchangeable between goat and sheep) and these can be of varying quality.

In the 3 years I’ve been doing this I have come to the conclusion that there has never been the demand for goat meat because there has never been the supply, and there has never been the supply because there has never been the demand.   As a supplier, I need to have a consistent, high-quality supply in order to build a market and supply more and more restaurants and distributors but there is no point in having that supply without anyone to sell it to.  We have been lucky that we have grown at a pace that’s allowed us to bring on farms and grow demand at about the same rate.

How do people react when they taste kid goat meat for the first time?

I think when people try the kid for the first time they are expecting a much stronger flavour, so when they get the mild, subtle muskiness come through it’s a surprise.  Everybody gets the story though.  The moment people understand the waste element eating it makes total sense.  That’s said, all the ethics bonus points in the world wouldn’t matter if it didn’t taste delicious.

Can you explain the health benefits of goat meat and what should people look for when buying goat meat?

Goat meat is very good for you.  It has half the fat of skinned chicken and is high in iron and protein.  If you are buying goat meat you should probably apply the same principles you do all meat buying.  Look for a supply you can trust that is raising animals in the best possible environment.

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Describe some of the ways you sell your goat meat…

The majority of our clients are still restaurants but we do supply and number of national catering butchers as well as high street ones.  Your best bet at the moment is to look online for it to be courier delivered, but we are hopeful that this won’t be the case for much longer.

Favourite goat meat recipe?

The Raw Kibbeh we shot for the recipe video is my favourite.  It’s just so far from what people perceive goat to be; raw kid, fresh and punchy with the lemon and herbs.  Absolutely delicious.  That said the shoulders cooked for hours have a depth of flavour and  stickiness that is hard to beat!

What’s next for Cabrito?

Cabrito has some exciting time coming up, much of which I can’t talk about yet!  But suffice to say we are working with some big companies to get kid goat meat out into the mainstream. Hopefully, if it takes off in a few years time the problem of euthanizing the billies will be over as demand will outstrip supply!

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