'Until August 1997, Tessa McCourt and her husband Jan lived an untroubled life. Tessa looked after their three children while Jan worked in the City, living in London during the week and returning to their farm near Oakham, Rutland, at weekends. "We kept a lot of horses," he says, "but if you graze them too intensively on a small plot, the grass gets 'horse sick'. The only way to keep the grass in good condition is to graze sheep and cattle with them."
In 1995, their quest for suitable cattle began. "I sat down with a book about farming written at the turn of the century," says Jan. "The breed that stood out was the Dexter, a very small Irish cow." When their first steer was slaughtered, the McCourts had so much meat, they phoned up everyone they knew and gave the stuff away. Whatever cut of beef people got, they loved it. "The Dexter puts down a lot of fat," Jan explains, "which gives you better marbling through the meat - and that's what gives it flavour."
By the summer of 1997, the McCourts had 100 head of cattle. Then without warning Jan was made redundant. "We were suddenly down to zero income," he says, "but we still had massive outgoings. On the train back to Oakham I thought, 'I'm going to open a farm shop and really make a go of it.'"
On the day the farm shop opened, beef on the bone was officially banned. Despite this omen, the McCourts carried on selling beef from Dexters and other traditionally reared rare breeds. "Alongside our Dexters, we raise White Park, Longhorn and Shetland ," says Jan. "On the pig front, we have Gloucester Old Spots, Tamworths, some Berkshires, and we're even hoping to raise some Middlewhites - wonderful beasts with a squashed nose."
When Jan first took his Dexter beef to Hambleton Hall, the Michelin-starred restaurant in Oakham, head chef Aaron Patterson actually started crying. It became his signature dish. "We did good business after that," says Jan, showing me his chiller packed with joints, sausages, burgers and ready-cooked meals in takeaway cartons. "What we're doing seems revolutionary, but it's not. It's just back to basics - total common sense."'
Northfield Farm Limited, Whissendine Lane, Cold Overton, nr Oakham, Rutland LE15 7ER. Tel 01664 474271.