When the winners of the National Restaurant Awards were announced in October, there were no staggering surprises. The Ledbury, a famous Michelin two-star Notting Hill restaurant, came top of the list of the UK's 100 best restaurants for the third year running. Celebrity chef Jason Atherton's Mayfair eatery, Pollen Street Social, came second. What might surprise many is that the same Cornish butcher supplies meat to both, and to a further eight in the prestigious list. No other business is thought to supply as many. They are, in fact, so popular in the capital that they have now stopped taking on any new restaurants there.
For Philip Warren Butchers of Launceston, everything goes back to the moors. Milder weather on Bodmin Moor – and throughout the grasslands of the Tamar Valley – give a longer grazing season, meaning the beef is truly grass fed and lambs go to pasture earlier. The weather system and the type of ground on the margins of the moor mean the cows there can live outside for most of the year, producing healthy, natural, tasty meats.
Philip Warren and his son Ian run what is thought to be the oldest farm shop in Cornwall, established in 1880 in Launceston. The business buys from 120 small farmers dotted around the moors and has worked hard to develop the market for the moorland meat, once frowned upon but now held in very high regard for its eating quality. This in turn keeps moorland farmers in Devon and Cornwall going, along with all the benefits they provide in terms of managing the landscape. The Warren family are craft butchers, but also farm and sell indigenous breeds of British cattle like Red Devons, Angus, Dexters, Herefords and Galloways. Philip explains: "We are butchers who farm, not farmers who butcher."
The start of their London venture came in 2009 when a friend, Matt Chatfield, set up a business supplying the best of Cornish produce to restaurants in the capital. Ian said: "He wanted to go for the top end of the market and we thought we'd give it a go. The first six months were very slow, there are a lot of people trying to supply them so getting the confidence of the chefs was massive.
"Our first customer was Chez Bruce, quite famous among chefs, and they kept us going. Gradually we picked up a few and now we have about 18 restaurants on board and are not taking on any more. We're now turning away quite a few, simply because we made a promise that we will maintain the quality they have been having and not go too big. That has gone down well with them; we have their confidence and belief now, so it is just about keeping it."
The Ledbury's head chef, Brett Graham, explains: "It is rare in this day and age to find a family owned-and-operated butchers that offers such a personalised service. Warrens are an absolute joy to work with and Ian is always looking for ways to improve and develop their products with us.
"Their short ribs and featherblades are just two of their products that are head and shoulders above the competition and we know because we have looked everywhere. They meet our very high standards on every order."
In addition to the top two on the list and Chez Bruce, the butchers supply Alyn Williams at the Westbury, Pitt Cue, The Square, Medlar, Upstairs at the Ten Bells, Hedone and Rick Stein's Seafood Restaurant, which came in at number 78.
Ian said one of the most positive things to come out of their success has been new opportunities and relationships within the Westcountry. "Going to London has opened doors for us back here in Cornwall," he said. "It sounds strange – whether people knew of us but didn't think we were geared up to do that sort of business I don't know. Now we supply Paul Ainsworth, Chris Eden at the Driftwood Restaurant, all of the Steins. It's been great."
He said they have maintained their relationships with original valued customers like the Arundell Arms in Lifton, but also now supply establishments including the St Moritz Hotel near Polzeath and Tanners in Plymouth.
Despite this momentum within the restaurant trade, Ian said they will never prioritise these clients over their everyday customers. "We haven't changed what we do," he said. "Obviously we do it on a slightly bigger scale, but we haven't changed what we do and what we sell.
"People might think 'well they sell all the best to the restaurants' but we don't. The shop is probably more important to us. The customers here are our bread and butter, they're loyal and we value them so highly. The quality is the same."
The business employs around 50 people across two sites in Launceston town centre and Pennygillam Industrial Estate, which is "very good" for space and access to the A30. "Our business is built on being very realistic on prices, keeping it affordable for everyone," said Philip. "We're very proud of the fact that our customer base is so varied. We'd hate to think we were a posh shop. We have a very broad spectrum; we're a farm shop but we specialise in meat. Most farm shops specialise in trying to get people to sit down and spend their money. The move has made us more accessible to more people. It's reinvigorated us."
The butchers say their aim is to get Bodmin Moor and the surrounding valleys the recognition they deserve for the quality of the meat grazed there, and ultimately sustain the tradition of moorland farming.
Philip added: "It fell out of popularity basically because it became uneconomical. It went out of fashion because it is a hard life. Most of the people we see in it are aged between 30 and 50 and they're saying they don't want their children doing it.
"We want them to see a future in it, and be their route to market. Circumstances are changing now and we're getting somewhere."
The Warrens say their future plans focus on providing a new level of service to customers both in the capital and at home. Philip said: "We want to deliver to private customers in London. Mail order can become inconvenient. It's an old-fashioned idea really. We're contemplating coming back to house-to-house deliveries here in Cornwall too, keeping our customers together, giving that extra bit of service.
"We do have a lot of older people and it is difficult for them. We think that so many services are being dropped, perhaps we should step into the breach. Now more than ever is the time to make sure our service is the best it can be."
To contact Philip Warren Butchers visit www.philipwarrenbutchers.co.uk or call 01566 772244.