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Ayrshire Farm Beef Tasting – Judge’s Panel

Jordan Wright
The Georgetowner/Downtowner
October 2009

Ayrshire Farm Manor House - photo credit Ayrshire Farm

Ayrshire Farm Manor House - photo credit Ayrshire Farm

I recently received an intriguing invitation to judge a beef tasting competition at the magnificent Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, VA. Participating would be the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Humane Animal Care, Slow Foods USA, Chefs Collaborative and dozens of cattle ranchers, who brought their heirloom beef for the tasting, would be in attendance. It was all to be held at Ayrshire Farm, a picture perfect farm that is a working model for the sustainable breeding and natural raising of farm animals.

Ayrshire Farm, which prides itself on raising rare and endangered breeds on 800 rolling acres that most pigs, cows, turkeys and chickens could only dream of, is owned by Sandy Lerner, the co-founder of Cisco Systems, the networking systems giant. They employ strict organic farming methods and their livestock and vegetables are raised without hormones, pesticides or antibiotics. In 2004 they became the first farm in Virginia to meet Certified Humane Raised and Handled standards.

Although the trip fell on the same days as our tenth anniversary plans, we hoped to combine the two events. We were invited to overnight in the manor house a country mile from the two spots we wanted to revisit…the church where we wed, and Welbourne, a neighboring estate where our wedding party had stayed and celebrated on that memorable weekend.

So on a sparkling fall day with a suitcase full of nuptial reveries and a palate for beef, we set off from Alexandria to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to experience Ayrshire Farm as guests in this private home and connoisseurs of beef.

On our first evening we were hosted at the Hunter’s Head tavern in the town of Upperville. The pub serves delicious organic steaks, pork and chicken from the farm and authentic British pub fare like “bangers and mash” and “bubble and squeak”, and a not-to-be-missed dessert called sticky toffee pudding. Executive Chef Rob Townsend oversees the tavern, the Home Farm Store in Middleburg, a posh catering division called Home Farm Catering, and the myriad of events hosted by Ayrshire Farm and Lerner herself.

Calico companions at Ayrshire Farm- photo credit Roy Wright

Calico companions at Ayrshire Farm- photo credit Roy Wright

We returned to the fieldstone manor under a starry sky and tumbled into an antique silk-draped bed with two affectionate calico cats as our companions…nuzzling and purring us to sleep. (The walls of the manor are covered with venerable American and English oil paintings of horses and other animals. A small hand crafted leather book placed bedside told the provenance of the charming feline portraiture in our bedroom.)

Heritage cattle at Ayrshire Farm

Heritage cattle at Ayrshire Farm

The following morning we toured the farm along with some of the ranchers and their spouses and viewed the pristine conditions under which the livestock are kept. We walked across fields where the endangered 13th century breed of Ancient White Park cattle and Scottish Highlands and Holsteins grazed contentedly, down lanes with hoop houses that held late-season tomatoes, past row upon row of newly planted winter vegetables, barns housing massive Shire horses and filled with antique carriages. The turkeys were as curious to see us as we them and they ratcheted up their barnyard cacophony as we went by. On another lane we saw mountains of rich, natural compost that any gardener would give their eyeteeth for, thirteen different breeds of chickens and some rare breed 19th century Gloucester Old Spot hogs with their suckling piglets. And a partridge in a pear…well, not really.

The judges deliberate - from left - Jordan Wright, Akiko Katayama and Nora Poullion - photo credit Roy Wright

The judges deliberate - from left - Jordan Wright, Akiko Katayama and Nora Poullion - photo credit Roy Wright

Back at the manor the tasting was set out and I met my fellow judges. Nora Poullion, a pioneer and champion of environmentally conscious cuisine in our area and who helped develop our area’s earliest farmers markets (In 1999 her eponymous Washington, DC, Restaurant Nora, became the first certified organic restaurant in America.) and Akiko Katayama, the pretty and petite judge from Food Network’s “Iron Chef America”. Katayama is a Japanese food writer and expert on the Japanese and American beef industries. She writes for 17 different outlets in her native Japan.

Selected New York strip steaks were prepared identically and small pieces were threaded onto skewers and placed in warming trays for the tasting. There was keen anticipation in the air as everyone filed into the grand dining hall. We judges went first, filling our plates with the secret numbered samples and retiring to the conservatory to deliberate on the beef’s merits or inadequacies based on flavor and texture. Most of the beef proffered was grass-fed, though Ayrshire Farm prefers to finish off the feeding cycle with grain for the last few months.

Some beef was too lean or earthy tasting, some chewy and some lacking tenderness. It was an interesting exercise but my hands down favorite was breed number three on my list of ten entrants. We returned with our findings to learn the name of the winner.

Ayrshire Farm heritage Bronze turkey - photo credit Ayrshire Farm

Ayrshire Farm heritage Bronze turkey - photo credit Ayrshire Farm

Visiting ranchers, who had sampled their own, as well as their competitors’ product, computed their findings. When the tally was in Ayrshire Farm’s Ancient White Park and Highland beef came out the over-all winners.

After a simple but lovely lunch beneath the portico and amidst late-flowering roses we enjoyed the fading light and conversation with our fellow guests. It was an uplifting experience to be in the company of these enlightened farmers who respect animals and how they are raised for our consumption. I met fellow concerned chefs who source local and organic food, humane butchers who sell only organically raised meats and poultry and founders and preservers of the sustainable food movement. And so it was with a renewed regard for the dedicated guardians of our food supply that we trotted down the road in celebration of our tenth year anniversary and our hope for the future of the American farm.

Ayrshire Farm has three breeds of heritage turkeys pre-brined and ready for Thanksgiving, Midget Whites, Bronzes and Bourbon Reds. You can pick them up at the Home Farm Store at the light in Middleburg or

online at the address below.

For Home Farm Catering contact: Rob Townsend

For questions or comments on this article contact Jordan Wright or visit

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