The Terroir of Beef

In the Spring of 2000, having just moved to Denver from the small mountain hamlet of Cascade, CO, and thinking that I would be in Colorado another three to six months before moving back to Grand Rapids (I had been away from home for over four years now), I took my first job serving tables. The California Cafe was a fine dining restaurant that, besides wanting its applicants to have had two years of fine dining experience, desired for its servers to have an extensive knowledge of wine (they had a truly impressive cellar of California wines). Now, not only had I never served before but the extent of my wine knowledge included (1) that wine is made from grapes, and (2) that there were two types: white and red. And so the first thing I did after talking the general manager into giving me a job (which, two weeks later, she would end up regretting) was to head straight to Barnes & Nobel for my first primer on the subject: Wine for Dummies.

Among the first things I learned from the sage tome what that wines are oftern named (certainly in the United States) according to the grape variety used to make the wine; these are called varietals (examples of varietals include Chardonny, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Savignon). But I also quickly came across a term associated with wine culture (terroir) that is as difficult for me to pronounce as is the word rural. The idea behind terroir is that you can taste geography (e.g. climate, soil, herbage) in the food that originates from that geography. Now this was a really fascinating concept to me. The first time this concept actually became a reality was during a couple of Scotch tastings. In the Islay Scotchs one could literally taste the salt air in the stuff; Scotch from other regions tasted “peaty”: earthy, mossy. Pretty cool.

Could terroir apply in the same ways to beef as it does to wine and Scotch? You bet! While there is more than one factor that affects the “flavor profile” of beef, among the most important is the geography in which the cattle are raised. Right here a distinction needs to be made between “conventional beef” (grain-fed–usually corn-fed–cattle, finished by the tens of thousands in feedlots) and “grass-fed beef”, cattle whose diets are primarily forage-based (think wild grasses and herbs) and which are raised in small herds on family farms. While it may be presumed that conventional beef has a mild, mostly uniform “beefy” flavor due to the cattle’s homogenous diet of corn-flakes, where things get really interesting is in beef from grass-fed cattle. Thanks to the very small number of farmers returning to traditional ways of raising cattle on their native diets, we can now begin to speak of the terroir of beef–how the land on which cattle are raised gets translated into the flavor of the beef from that cattle. Of the beef that comes from that cattle, not only do we get more flavor, but more flavor diversity.

For starters we get to ask farmers, “On what unique forage does your cattle graze?” The answers could include any number of unique grasses, clover, nettle, dandelion, willow, etc. All that gets translated into the flavor profile of the beef that is provided by that cattle. Furthermore, we get to ask, “In what kind of soil does the forage grow on which the cattle graze?” This is another important question for that which is present in the soil gets translated into the foliage which grows in the soil which gets eaten by the cattle which gets translated into the flavors present in the beef.  Last week, in speaking with some farmers from Georgia, they suggested that meat from grass-fed cattle from the Eastern United States includes a distinct mineral flavor because of the high mineral content of the soil from the Appalachian Mountains. What all this means is that we can begin to speak of steak in a similar way that wine enthusiasts speak of wine or Scotch lovers speak of Scotch. We can be about the business of keeping journals of the beef we’ve tried–full of flavor, full of variety–in the same way that cigar aficionados do.

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