Colourful Tales From The Grays

At a Hawke’s Bay farm where restaurant-quality lamb and beef are raised for Silver Fern Farms, lunch is served with lashings of laughter and stories. Just don’t ask for fish pie.

A family wedding brings much planning and excitement. The weekend before the MiNDFOOD team visited Leicester and Margy Gray on their Waipawa beef and sheep farm, in Hawke’s Bay, their daughter Rachael married Jeremy, a Yorkshireman. Hanging in the dining room is the bride’s dress, a full-length strapless gown with beading around the bodice, ready for dry-cleaning and storing away. Gardens, primped to perfection, offer views over flat, bright green pastures dotted with stock and in the distance the Ruahine Ranges. Getting married at home, as 140 guests partied on what was once a grass tennis court, the setting couldn’t have been more beautiful or romantic. “It was a wonderful day, just all being together – a lovely wedding,” says Margy.

Garden instory

A rogue rooster called Randolph strolls around the property, making sure we know who’s in charge. Wandering not far behind is an ancient and well-loved family dog, Boston. “He is very aged,” says Margy. “He goes house to house on his old pins.” And he enjoys a cuddle on arrival in each place. Everyone is welcome and, like most homes, the action happens around the kitchen table. Among those gathered today is Stuart Rogan, group executive chef from Botswana Butchery in Auckland, who won the Premier Master of Fine Cuisine at the Silver Fern Farms Premier Selection Awards. He’s visiting the Grays to see what goes in to producing restaurant-quality beef for Silver Fern Farms. For now, though, he’s happy to settle near the kitchen fireplace and listen to the stories that fly around.

Margy has baked and made breakfast, dinner and lunch in this kitchen every day for 48 years. Mind you, the first lunch she ever cooked – for Leicester and the farming team – as a new bride didn’t go according to plan. “You don’t have to tell that story,” says Leicester quickly, cringing behind his hands. Margy is undeterred. “I made an old-fashion fish pie: a can of fish, potato top – I thought it was lovely.” “I think I’ll leave now,” says Leicester, making no move. He stays to hear the tale retold, as it has been many times. The guys were digging a hole to put in the new clothesline for the newly married couple, when Leicester blurted out, “What is that? I hate fish pie!” He picked it up and threw it in the hole they had just dug for the new clothesline. “Don’t ever make fish pie again!” Margy has never made fish pie again. “Luckily, I thought it was funny,” adds Margy.

The stories of early married life continue with exploding jars of tomato sauce and spaghetti, an early experiment of Margy’s preserving. “There was a huge bang, and then another. Like geysers, the jars were exploding – they had fermented. I haven’t made that one again either!”

“Margy’s extremely good at preserving,” chips in Leicester, as they laugh at the memory. Then a pause. “This place would fall apart if Margy wasn’t here. She is the glue.”

A Close Family

Leicester’s family have been in Hawke’s Bay since 1875, when his great-grandfather arrived from England. Leicester’s grandfather, Ben, carted firewood to feed the boilers at the Hawke’s Bay rendering plant, earning enough money to buy land. “He bought about 150 acres,” says Leicester. “And then the 450 acre property across the road came up for sale in 1906.” Ben sold the smaller block to afford the larger block, so the family crossed the road until Leicester’s father, Gordon, bought the smaller block back in 1956, uniting the two parcels of land. Gordon, who was born in 1905, and his younger brother, Jim, combined forces and started Gray Brothers, gradually growing the property from 450 acres to 1100 (about 450 hectares).

I knew from day one I was going to go farming – that’s all I wanted to do.

Leicester joined the family farm straight from school, eventually taking over the reins and more than doubling the property to its present size of 1009 hectares. “I have three sisters, and my uncle had no children. I knew from day one I was going to go farming – that’s all I wanted to do. I remember at age 15 leaving Fielding Agricultural College, though Mum wasn’t too pleased.” Leicester’s mother suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and died while the children were still quite young. “It was all a bit of a shock. My sisters and I are very close, and protective of each other. We had a series of housekeepers, but Gordon kept firing them. No one lasted. The original – Mrs Ambrose – stayed for quite some years, but we were all scared of her,” recalls Leicester.

Margy was not from the land. Her early years were spent in Christchurch and her father served as a pilot in the Air Force for the duration of the war. He had a keen interest in cars, being one of the pit crew for NZ motor racer Pat Hoare. In 1945, he purchased a country garage at Hororata, an hour from Christchurch. “We were there for seven years until I kept getting pneumonia,” she says. “The doctor said the only way to fix this girl was to get her to a sunny clime. Dad found a garage in Waipawa, so we moved to the North Island.” 

Gordon was still drafting cattle on horse back as he approached his 80s – even his advancing blindness did not deter him. “I always remember him at docking time,” says Leicester. “The fire for heating the docking irons would be put to use at lunch time, cooking a few lamb tails. It’s a wonderful memory: Gordy at 82 sitting in the paddock eating lamb tails.” 

As farmers, brothers Gordon and Jim complemented each other. Gordon loved new things and he ran the business, was a great stockman and, according to Leicester, “his forte was beef”. Whereas Jim “adored his animals, was a true shepherd. His forte was sheep – that’s all he thought about.” Eventually Leicester put his mark on the business, introducing different sheep breeds and new ways of doing things. “I would jump out of bed, catch a horse and help Dad drive the stock into Waipawa. I had to persuade him to buy a stock truck and trailer. Up until then – the early 1960s – we drove the cattle to the Waipawa and Takapau railway yards for transporting, but with the increase in traffic and urban bylaws it became impractical.”

Now Leicester and Margy’s sons, Callum and Phillip, deploy their complementary skills on the farm alongside their father – one involved with the land and machinery and the other with crops and stock. Phillip completed an A grade mechanic certificate after school and then travelled overseas. He also holds a commercial pilot’s licence. Callum took to skiing at an early age, winning a freestyle competition for New Zealand, also instructing at Deer Valley in Utah for seven years, and still returning every year for a fortnight’s skiing. “Phillip and I look after the maintenance and the stock side of things, whereas Callum has control of all the cropping management,” Leicester explains how they work together.

Loyal Relationships

The long-standing loyal relationship with Silver Fern Farms and Max Speakman, the Silver Fern Farms livestock representative, has been “great from day one”, says Leicester. “The relationship over the years, and current strategy of plate to pasture, is an absolutely fantastic initiative for all concerned. The cuts they are creating are magnificent.” The Grays don’t breed their own stock, but they carefully control what they buy in. “We try to buy in reasonably quiet cattle. We predominantly buy privately,” says Leicester of their approach. “We then get a better understanding of the stock and, if we don’t like it, we can reject it. We have ongoing loyalty of supply with several properties.”

you are trying to produce a product that the world wants...it makes you feel proud to be part of it all.

Driving around the flat property, you can tell the quality of the stock. Their spotless coats look well cared for and they are very relaxed. The Grays take an extreme pride in what they are doing. “Feed the soil, stock is paramount,” says Leicester. “Silver Fern Farms’ whole system is beneficial to everyone: you are trying to produce a product that the world wants. It’s very exciting. We have been with Silver Fern Farms all the way through and the innovation is absolutely brilliant – it makes you feel proud to be part of it all.”

Restaurant Quality Product

Margy cooks every day with meat. “I cook every lunch time and feed all the boys and anyone else here – sometimes the grandchildren arrive in. I would cook for at least six most days for lunch,” she says. Today, of course, that number includes someone with a special interest in the Grays’ produce – though at least he can help with the cooking. Chef Stuart Rogan is visiting the farm as part of his prize for winning the Premier Selection Award, seeing first hand how much work goes into rearing the animals and meeting the consistently high standards Silver Fern Farms requires.

Quality is paramount for chefs, and Rogan is keen to learn more about the grading system Silver Fern Farms uses to ensure each carcass – whether it’s bound for restaurants or supermarkets – is of the same high calibre. Rogan says the reliability of Silver Fern Farms products was part of the success of his award-winning dish: Silver Fern Farms Reserve Beef Eye Fillet & Glazed Shortrib with parsley, mustard and horseradish crust, carrot puree, asparagus, whipped garlic and cep jus.

“The vision was not about winning, more about creating a dish that blew you away on all levels,” he says. “I wanted to showcase the two cuts and demonstrate how well they complement each other. My inspiration was derived from the challenge of
making the dish but also from a good quality and consistent product.” 

Stuart instory

Rogan is recreating his winning dish with Margy in her kitchen, and the pair work with concentration on each step. While Rogan’s recipe is precise, his main ingredients – restaurant-standard, New Zealand-grown, grass-fed Silver Fern Farms beef – can be used by home cooks with equally amazing results. But cooking with quality meat doesn’t have to be complex. “Usually, I do lamb leg cut or beef roast or another of the Silver Fern Farms cuts,” says Margy. “It’s so easy and then I just have to cook the vege. 

“When the English side of the family were here for the wedding, they just could not believe the quality of the meat,” she adds. “Family dinners were cooked here, with a lot of Silver Fern Farms Reserve Beef. Everyone was waxing lyrical about the quality.” 

A great experience for me is being able to meet and see the source. As a chef it gives you a better sense of the product and the people behind it.

Standing alongside the Grays on their Waipawa property, Rogan agrees. And he’s delighted to see where it all happens. He says, “A great experience for me is being able to meet and see the source. As a chef it gives you a better sense of the product and the people behind it.”

Watch our video:

Watch Margy Gray and Botswana Butchery group executive chef Stuart Rogan cook Stuart's award-winning dish - Silver Fern Farms Eye Fillet with Parsley & Mustard Crust, Carrot Puree, Whipped Garlic, Candied Onions & Baby Carrots.