Riven Rock 2
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Country Roads

Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.
Life is old there, older than the trees…

(John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”)

Last week my wife Erin, daughter Analise, and I traveled to West Virginia and–from there–to northern Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains. These forested mountains rose and fell with the reds, yellows, and greens of autumn’s colors, just then beginning to peak.  A more idyllic setting can hardly be imagined for Riven Rock Farms, home of the heritage Belted Galloway cattle which spread out to pasture on more than 700 acres of shaded farmland.

These cattle, with a distinctive white “belt” around their middle section, graze on the shaded pastures and drink the fresh mountain waters. Chuck and Lou Ann Neely oversee the operations at Riven Rock and, in addition to raising “Belties” (as the breed is affectionately called), they raise lamb and pastured heritage pork. Their hogs have access to seven acres of forested grasslands where the oaks let drop their acorns for the animals to gobble up. It’s a diet that harkens back to the earliest days of pork production, in ancient Roman times.

From the Virginias, we drove east towards Connecticut, stopping to hike in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreational Area. After a couple of days in Avon, Connecticut, in the Farmington Valley of Hartford, we took a train into Brooklyn, New York, to spend some time with Patrick Martins, founder of Heritage Foods USA and the Heritage Radio Network. Times Square, Rockefeller Center, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral (currently under renovation) rounded out our visit to the Big Apple.

Our return home took us through the rolling hills of New York State and Pennsylvania until we spent one final night on Lake Erie–perhaps the last warm night of the year–listening to the trees, blowing in the breeze.

grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side1
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Sometimes the Grass is Greener

About a half an hour south of Notre Dame, Indiana, is Grass is Greener Farm, a husband and wife operation on the plains of the Hoosier State that raises heritage livestock and poultry: beef, lamb, pork, goose, chicken, and turkey.  The farm’s name plays on the idiom which observes that, from the outside, we humans are tempted to view others’ lives through “rose-colored glasses” but, really, things aren’t as rosy as they seem. It’s a clever name for the farm since the assertion being made is that, actually, things are better here.

Hearing good things about the farm from more than one breed association, I was excited to meet John and Toni Rowe–the farm’s owners–with whom I spent the better part of a warm, breezy afternoon a couple weeks back. When I arrived at Grass is Greener, John was grilling sausage. Forsaking lunch for the time being, he, his wife, their daughter Hannah, and I jumped into a utility vehicle and began moving from one part of the farm to the next.

We began with their herd of Red Poll cattle, which were just recently put out to pasture after a bitterly cold and long winter. In a moment of blissful silence, one could hear only the sounds of the warm wind and the cattle ripping and crunching on the lush pasture grasses. The Rowes use rotational grazing and give their herd a 100% grass-fed diet. Their veterinarian, who visits numerous farms, marvels at the health and vitality of their herd, a testament to the quality of the beef they raise.

Their chickens are raised on the same pasture as the cattle, using a system made popular by Joel Salatin. In this system, the birds are sequestered to a specific area of the field–chicken coop and all–by large, portable containment units that act as screens. This allows chickens to graze on pasture in the open air while they are kept safe from outside predators (and from flying away). When they’ve sufficiently picked through an area of the field, the unit (and chickens) are transported to another part of the farmland.

The hogs are fed a diet of GMO-free corn (grown by the Rowes themselves), a salad of pasture-grasses, and whey. The Rowes and I pulled handfuls of herbage from a dense pasture area–buckets-full–and tossed the nutrient-dense greens to the swine. After more than an hour in the fields, it was time for the Rowes to return to their lunch and for me to say goodbye. Before leaving, I purchased some ground of Red Poll beef, ribeye steaks of the same, and Red Wattle pork chops–along with ground pork.

While I could hardly wait to get home to try the samples of Grass is Greener heritage meats, I also couldn’t resist a rendezvous with an old priest-friend of mine in Notre Dame, through which I would pass on my way back home. The University in the summer has all the feel of a well-manicured garden or even a private golf course for those of noble parentage; it is lush and serene. My host, Fr. Michael, and I dined at the newly renovated Morris Inn, a sort of clubhouse for Notre Dame alumni. Dinner was a Reuben sandwich washed down with a tumbler of Scotch. Leaving the Inn, we enjoyed the waning hours of the day on the shores of St. Joseph’s lake, gazing across the water at the Golden Dome which glowed softly in the pinkish-gray light of the evening sky. For the outsider looking in, you’d see two good friends catching up over Havana cigars with rye whiskey at the ready. You might be tempted to think, “Boy, that’s the life.” And you’d be right.

Golden Dome

Idiot's Guide

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Great Beef

After two years into an on-going quest for the country’s best beef–involving research, field-work, and numerous tastings–we’ve been able to distill our findings into five key factors that produce the highest-quality beef.

 

Pasture

Grain-fed conventional beef yields beef with uniformly bland flavor. If grain-fed beef were beer, it would be Budweiser: very predictable but fairly uninteresting when compared to craft beer. Grass-fed beef, by contrast, yields meat with expressive flavor, full of complexity–every bit as unique as the land on which it was raised. Like wine, pasture-raised beef has terroir: the ability to taste the geography in food (and drink).

From the first bite, my palate sang praises…The delicate crunch of the caramelized exterior was perfectly balanced with the lightly earthy flavors of the rarer meat beneath…distinctive notes of black walnut and warm oak leaves, a bouquet of orchard grass on a sunlit day (Forrest Pritchard in Gaining Ground with a forward by Joel Salatin, on tasting his first grass-fed beef)

MaturityA 12-year old Scotch is good. But a 15 or 20-year Scotch is even better. The maturity of a steer or cow at harvest affects the quality of its beef, for as the adage goes, “Age imparts flavor.” This is why Mr. Mark Schatzker, author of Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef, makes this recommendation:

 The most important question to ask is age at slaughter. For flavor reasons, be wary of steak from a cow younger than 20 months.” (“Having a Cow About Steak Quality”, The Wall Street Journal)

Heritage breeds have maturity built into their genetics–they grow slowly, which gives them an unfair flavor advantage.

BreedAfter millennia, farmers have distinguished certain cattle breeds as producing exceptional beef. These farmers have also played a role in developing the beef breeds. For the past 100 years, however, the conventional beef industry has selected breeds on their ability to yield more beef, quickly. They have further enhanced that yield through the use of growth hormones, this, to the detriment of quality and flavor. Focus on those cattle breeds that history has shown to provide beef of the highest caliber, breeds like the Highland, Red Poll, Shorthorn, and others.

‘Quantity and quality are two opposing goals,’ [Temple] Grandin pronounced, neatly diagnosing the central problem of today’s meat industry. It didn’t matter how quantity was cranked up—hormones, genetics, drugs—there was always a price to be paid in quality.” (As Quoted in Steak: One Man’s Search for the Tastiest Piece of Beef, Schatzker)

Craft
Raising beef on pasture is really an art-form requiring an expertise that comes with time. Look for seasoned farmers who have been at it for years, whose expertise of land and livestock consistently translates into exceptional beef. Look for newer farmers who stand on the shoulders of giants, employing time-honored traditional farming practices that have consistently yielded superior results.
Dry-Aging The country’s finest steak houses dry-age their beef. Why? Dry-aging tenderizes meat while concentrating and enhancing its flavor. A week to 14 days of dry-aging is good, but if you can get it look for beef dry-aged at 21 days: a rare find, indeed!

Scotch Beef

On the second story of the home of one of the country’s premiere breeders of Highland cattle, I was brought back into the mythical space created in the antechambers of the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, CO. On the walls of that historic hotel, as on the walls of the farmstead we were now in, artwork adorned them that transported one to another place and time: scenes of the West in that Colorado Hotel (of Native Americans, cowboys, and sandstone monoliths burning red in the setting sun); scenes from the Highlands in this wooden loft (of glens, gray peaks, cattle, and cattle drovers). Some were sketches on weathered paper, others oil or watercolor paintings. It’s true: there was a feeling of the West in both these spaces.

Permit me to make two connections, the first between the drovers of the Scottish Highlands, who were the precursors to the cowboys of the American West. Drovers: the name given to those who herded—or drove—Highland cattle from the North to the markets in the South. As the cowboys who who would follow their lead, these were men who lived among the cattle for weeks at a time, men shaped by the terrain and by the livestock who were their livelihood. I was reminded that day of the connection between these two cultural icons.

The second connection came as a sort of epiphany only recently, but had begun to distill during my first visit to that farm in Charlotte, Michigan. On that first visit, my hosts graciously sent me home with a couple pounds of ground of Highland beef, beef which sat in my freezer for a couple of months before it was cooked up and shared amongst the kitchen staff at a local brew pub. I’ve written about that experience before [please see “A Third Pillar in the Parthenon of Beef…”], which would be counted amongst the three best beef experiences of my life—quite astonishing, really, when one considers that another of those experiences took place at a remote ranch in a mountainous valley high in the Colorado Rockies (please see “Of Mountains, Beauty, Affliction, and the Steak Dinner”). In the aforementioned post, it was told of how the opportunity to buy a quarter of this highly prized beef was granted me, an opportunity at which I jumped. This beef, incidentally, will be available for sale this Spring through Duba & Company (look for Highland Beef from Charlotte, MI). Now, for the rest of the story…

Upon picking up the order, I plucked a pound of ground of Highland beef from inventory and cooked up a burger, greedy for the flavor experience of the month before. There was no doubt that this beef was of the same stock: I recognized a similarity in the flavor of the meat, but…it was not as deep, not as rich as its predecessor. I brought some in to the same chef that had tried its precursor. “Good,” he said, “but I liked the other better.” I agreed. I decided to do some digging and contacted the breeder. The breeder explained that the beef I had purchased came from an animal that was 29 months old, while my first sample came from an animal 36 to 48 months old (compare this, if you would, to the slaughtering of cattle in as little as five months in the commercial beef industry). Then was I reminded of the adage, “Age imparts flavor.”As an imperial stout is to stout, so a more fully mature animal’s beef is to younger beef. I think now of my conversation with Scottish chef Angus Campbell, a Master Chef, who suggested that I assemble a group of restauranteurs together to have them try beef from three different animals: one harvested at 18 months, one at 24 months, and one at 36 months (respectively). This would allow them a palpable, palatable experience of the development of flavor that the fullness of time provides.

And that is when the connection was made between Scotch beef and Scotch whisky. Some of the Highland beef that will be offered for purchase from Duba & Company this Spring comes from that farm in Charlotte, MI. It is, frankly, The Glenlivet 12 Year Scotch–a most excellent place to start. The first sample of beef from that premiere breeder, by comparison, was The Glenlivet 18 Year (how cruel!). As I write, I’m drinking Muscato and just glanced down at my glass (of course, I’m drinking out of The Glenlivet commemorative glass: a Christmas gift from one of my brothers-in-law). While this connection between Scotch beef and Scotch whisky took some time (I’m a little slow), all things exquisite do: whether ideas, or Scotch, or Highland beef.

An Offer I Couldn’t–or Could–Refuse (Part II)

The Godfather, Paramount Pictures, 1972

The Godfather, Paramount Pictures, 1972

As recounted in the previous post, there was before me the offer to purchase some really good beef  from a Red Poll-Hereford mixed breed animal that, despite being raised on grass-alone and according to the strictest standards, could not be sold as “heritage meat.” This forced, for the first time, the issue of what Duba & Company’s relationship would be with non-heritage meats, being “merchants of heritage meats”. Perhaps it was that scene in The Godfather: Part I where movie mogul Jack Woltz, after refusing Don Corleone’s godson a part in one of his films, wakes up the next morning with a severed horse’s head beneath his bed sheets–his prized, $250,000 horse–and how that horse’s head bears an uncanny resemblance to that of  the Red Poll steer (spoiler alert: his godson ends up getting the part). You’ll forgive me if  the intertwining of those two images couldn’t easily be put out of mind (click here for the set-up to that scene). Then there’s how the offer for said beef came on the day of my grandmother’s funeral and burial. Now, I had just listened to my cousin Julie deliver the quintessential eulogy (a mix of humor, wit, and sentimentality) in which mention was made of how Grandma Rose who, though she didn’t even drive a vehicle, nevertheless championed a woman going out there and making her mark in professions traditionally populated by men. She would, I thought, have liked the two farmers offering this beef, both of them women, both who had to navigate the “old boys’ club” of the farming community. Now, while I’m not reading into any of these happenstances as some diviner would search the entrails for a sign from the gods, they certainly do make for interesting anecdotes: they help to tell the story and to set the scene for the decision-making process that was about to unfold.

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An Offer I Couldn’t–or Could–Refuse (Part I)

Farmstead Imagery

When my buddy Ben first planted the seed of starting a blog, it was with the idea that it would chronicle a quest to find the best meat that was being raised. If you’ve been following this blog, you may be under the impression that what we’ve found is that Scottish Highland beef–and Highland beef alone–constitutes superior beef. Not so. While it’s true that the mythic appeal of Highland cattle is strong (even irresistible), there are other breeds of cattle that are stand-outs in the world of heritage meats. When Saveur Magazine released in the 2010 Chefs’ Edition a Top 100 list of chefs’ favorite food trends, books, tools, restaurants, etc., a heritage breed of cattle was counted among the ranks. That breed? The Red Poll. It was the search for Red Poll beef that led to us having to wrestle, for a second time, with questions regarding the core identity of this Company. Here is the first part of that story.

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Why I’m enamored of Microbrews, Heirloom Vegetables, and Heritage Meats

English Pub

Thank goodness for Budweiser, Miller, and Coors: it’s at least part of the reason underage drinking really wasn’t a problem for me in my undergraduate years at the University (I simply didn’t like the stuff). This was in the mid 1990s and before I was introduced to (or even heard of) microbrew beers. Although, my first experience with underage drinking (if you can call it that) was a shot of vodka the night before the first home football game of the season during my Freshman Year (and it was taken really and truly in hopes of warding off a head cold, and to this day I do believe it worked). Upon arrival in London in January of 1998 at the age of 20, I could legally drink. These circumstances accounted for a very modest 21st birthday abroad, where I was content with kidney pie and a few beers at a local pub with my flatmates: my “chums”. But it’s those beers enjoyed on a semester abroad in Great Britain that began for me a deep appreciation for small, craft beers (microbrews) and would make me woefully susceptible to an encounter with heirloom vegetables and, later, heritage meat (O Felix Culpa!).

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Two Schools of Tasting

Heublein Tower

This past Fall, on a trip to visit friends in Connecticut, I was afforded  some time to catch up on my hobby reading whereupon I discovered (and this is really cool) that there are two schools of thought for describing how something tastes (to think that humans think about how we think about taste is what’s so interesting). One originates in Europe and the other in America. In the older, European school of thought, food and drink–wine, for example–is given such descriptors as “bold, distinguished, robust, refined, brash, delicate”. In this mode of thinking, food and drink are personified. In the newer, American school of thought, efforts are made to describe the flavors that present themselves to the palate: “This white wine has hints of orange-blossom, lavender, and raspberry.” This, I understand, is a fairly recent way of talking about food and drink, a fact confirmed during our assent of the Heublein Tower in Avon, Connecticut. Read more

A Third Pillar in the Parthenon of Beef (Not Another Ice Brick in the Wall)

Parthenon

The freezer in our home kitchen is filled to the gills (so to speak) with beef right now to the point where you’re dogging bullets of frozen ground beef whenever you open the freezer door. These arctic scuds have all the precision of a heat-seeking missile whose target is the bare foot (either foot will do: it makes no matter), and when you start taking battle wounds in the form of bruises to the feet, you know it’s time to start cooking the stuff. Read more

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Charging the Fields of Michigan’s Highlands

My vehicle jig-jagged north through the misty morning fog toward the Mackinaw Bridge on a well-known route (well-known because this was the same route one would take to our Family’s get-away on the rocky shoreline of Drummond Island). I was en route to meet with an individual whose farm is within a stone’s throw of the international bridge in Saute Sainte Marie, Michigan. He’s a university professor and ornithologist who raises an ancient breed of cattle: the Scottish Highland breed. This rare foggy morning in November, reminiscent of the opening scenes from Brigadoon, set the stage for an encounter with with these stately, primordial beasts. The fog enshrouded the Mackinaw Bridge, with the bridge’s towers–obscured by the mists–seeming to descend from some infinite point on high. The fog broke as I crossed into the overlands of Michigan’s northern peninsula, which far enough west, you’ll find the highlands of Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains. Rolling up to the farmhouse, I was greeted by Tom, who invited me in for a hot cup of coffee around the kitchen table where we soon began ruminating about the fascinating herd that was grazing just outside. Read more