EXCLUSIVE ROBERT HARDMAN: My carnivorous lunch with the steak-mad Earl intent on saving rare Sussex cattle… by serving them up in his own pub!
While most of his schoolboy contemporaries had dreams of becoming an engine driver or an explorer, William Sackville, 11th Earl De La Warr, had a different plan. He always wanted to own a restaurant. Then, in later life, he had another ambition: to create the perfect sausage.
Now aged 75, Lord De La Warr (pronounced ‘Delaware’, like the U.S. state named after the family) is in buoyant mood over lunch. After all, we are sitting at his favourite table in the restaurant of his own pub eating that very sausage before tucking into his latest gastronomic adventure: home-grown beef.
And not just any beef. For these steaks have a pedigree much like that of the Earl himself, since they come from a rare breed which has been occupying this corner of Sussex for as long as the Sackville/De La Warr clan themselves.
And the Earl has concluded the only way to protect this bovine noble line from extinction is to eat it. So having spent years building up his own herd, he has now reached the point where his beef can play a viable part in the local food chain. And I am here at The Dorset Arms in Withyham, East Sussex, to sample it.
The family settled in the county after the Norman Conquest and have lived at the Buckhurst Park estate, pretty much ever since (many may know it as the home of Winnie-the-Pooh’s ‘100-Aker’ Wood).
RAISE A GLASS: Now aged 75, Lord De La Warr (left) is in buoyant mood over lunch. After all, we are sitting at his favourite table in the restaurant of his own pub eating that very sausage before tucking into his latest gastronomic adventure: home-grown beef
Having subjugated the Anglo-Saxons at Hastings, the Norman invaders soon grew attached to the indigenous breed of cattle they discovered in the vicinity. These sturdy, dark-red oxen were particularly suited to the thick clay and marshy terrain of the High Weald, as this part of the South-East later became known.
Sussex cattle would prove excellent draught animals, heaving carts, ploughs and timber in all weathers. Since the advent of the tractor, however, they have been crossed with other breeds to improve their meat yield. Many herds all over the world lay claim to ‘Sussex’ heritage.
However, numbers of the original breed, says Lord De La Warr, were getting so low that it was in danger of disappearing. ‘If you get down to below 100 breeding cows, then that qualifies as ‘critical’ and that’s where things were heading,’ he says. So he decided to turn over his ancient Sussex estate to saving what was left of the ancient Sussex ox.
Out went the resident herd of Friesians which he inherited from his father, along with a steady milking income. The Earl then set about tracking down pure-bred Sussex specimens, using DNA testing to check each.
He has also helped establish a new body, the Traditional Sussex Breeders’ Club, to keep a firm grasp on bloodlines. And things have progressed to the point where numbers are high enough for the peer to start promoting this pure-bred Sussex meat to customers at his pub and also online at buckhurstpark.co.uk.
Which is why I am sitting in The Dorset Arms, a handsome country inn by the main gate to the estate.
It is a rainy midweek lunchtime and yet I find the place doing a busy trade. With good reason, it transpires. There are photographs and paintings of various family members dotted around the walls, along with their coat of arms and motto: ‘Jour De Ma Vie’ (literally ‘day of my life’).
‘I like to translate it as: ‘Eat, drink and be merry’,’ says Lord De La Warr, as we tuck into a starter of Buckhurst Park sausages.
Some years ago, driven by a yearning to rediscover the favourite sausage of his youth, he teamed up with a family butcher in nearby Royal Tunbridge Wells to create the Buckhurst Park sausage. It proved such a hit that Waitrose started stocking it. Mail on Sunday food critic Tom Parker Bowles has called it ‘a proper British banger’ with ‘an elegant herby tang’.
‘I’ve always loved sausages,’ says the Earl. ‘I think I once listed my profession in Who’s Who as ‘sausage fancier’.’
We follow with some of his Traditional Sussex beef. Dishes include the Buckhurst Park burger (the menu is so rigorously Sussex-centric that the cheeseburger is topped with either Brighton Blue or Olde Sussex cheese).
I opt for a whopping Buckhurst Park ribeye steak, while Lord De La Warr goes for the more abstemious 8oz Buckhurst bavette.
Done rare to medium rare, my beef is easy on the knife with serious depth of colour and flavour.
‘The secret, we have discovered, is to hang it and then freeze it. They’ve done research at Kansas University and freezing really does improve the molecular structure,’ he explains with enthusiasm.
A few months ago, celebrity chef Marcus Wareing dropped in with his crew from BBC TV’s Tales From a Kitchen Garden and was bowled over by the calibre of the Buckhurst beef. Me, too, although there is no conceivable room left for Sussex cheese, marmalade bread and butter pudding or anything else.
The Earl’s Traditional Sussex Beef dishes include the Buckhurst Park burger. I opt for the ribeye steak
William De La Warr is no glutton, though it would be fair to call him a foodie (even though he hates the word). Trim and enjoying work at an age when many of his contemporaries have retired, he juggles twin careers as a stockbroker in London for half the week and a farmer the rest of the time.
His foray into Traditional Sussex beef is just one of many schemes to keep a very ancient estate holding its head above water without recourse to the dreaded last resort: flogging off land for development.
Currently spread over 2,000 acres, the Buckhurst Park estate is a fraction of what it was in the days of his great-grandfather Gilbert, the 8th Earl. ‘He was much too fond of fast women and slow horses,’ says his descendant. ‘When I really want to upset myself, I take a look at some of his achievements, like selling off 10,000 acres at 10p an acre in 1910.’
Buckhurst Park is a handsome and imposing 17th-century pile. There are glorious views over the gardens, park and lake, variously created by three of the most celebrated names in landscape design — Humphry Repton, Gertrude Jekyll and Sir Edwin Lutyens.
Here and there I spot the Shetland ponies which turn out to have a pedigree to rival the cattle. They are the oldest registered herd of Shetlands in existence with a stud book going all the way back to the Shetland Islands. So what on earth are they doing here in East Sussex?
It turns out that Lord De La Warr’s wife, Anne, inherited them from a Scottish relative.
Since succeeding to the earldom in 1988, he has embarked on numerous schemes to boost the estate’s finances, ranging from film locations (they shot an episode of Doctor Who here) and weddings to an unsuccessful scheme to resurrect Winnie-the-Pooh’s bridge.
The author, A.A. Milne, and his family lived nearby. ‘My father knew Christopher Robin — and his famous teddy bear. They would play Pooh sticks and run around in the woods and there really was a donkey called Eeyore,’ he says.
A much happier venture has been his quest to buy back The Dorset Arms. The pub had been in family hands for centuries until his father sold it to the local brewery in the 1980s. Lord De La Warr used the contents of his pension fund to buy it back ten years ago and has been building it up ever since. He hopes the pub and the beef will help support each other.
It is merely the latest chapter in a very varied family history going all the way back to William the Conqueror.
However, the Earl has a confession to make. ‘I’m afraid that we don’t go back to 1066,’ he tells me. ‘When William invaded England, he asked the Sauquevilles — which was the family name then — to stay behind and keep an eye on Normandy. So we were late. We didn’t arrive until 1067.’
The Sackvilles, as they became known, came down one line of the family while the De La Warrs, another Norman family, came down another.
One ancestor, Roger De La Warr, helped capture the French King, John II, at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. Another De La Warr set sail across the Atlantic and played a key part in securing the first English foothold in America at Jamestown. He gave his name to the state Delaware and later introduced Pocahontas, daughter of a powerful Native American chief, to English society.
Somewhere along the way, they also acquired one of the most exotic titles in the entire peerage: Viscount Cantelupe.
Trim and enjoying work at an age when many of his contemporaries have retired, William De La Warr juggles twin careers as a stockbroker in London for half the week and a farmer the rest of the time
The Sackvilles, meanwhile, rose to the top of the aristocratic tree in the reign of George I when they were upgraded from earls to a dukedom and became the Dukes of Dorset (hence the name of the pub). When the 4th Duke died childless, his sister, Lady Elizabeth Sackville, married Earl De La Warr and the two families joined forces in a union which endures to this day.
It is one which will no doubt continue through Lord De La Warr’s son and heir, also William, 43, known as Lord Buckhurst, and his descendants.
In the meantime, the Earl is not sitting idle. ‘I am still trying working on our latest menu,’ he says, producing a sheaf of menus acquired during a tour of the gastropubs of the Cotswolds.
Perhaps he might also consider sending the President of the United States an open invitation to lunch when next he is in the UK, given the historic connection?
Joe Biden is, after all, not just the former Senator for Delaware but the longest-serving senator in the history of the state. At which point, Earl De La Warr has a further confession to make. ‘I am afraid to say,’ he whispers, ‘that I have never actually been to Delaware.’
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