Bacon, called by some “the gateway meat”, is often the animal flesh that rocks the strongest vegetarian resolve. Crazy as it sounds, my path to beef farming began with my attempts to be a vegetarian. Obviously, a not very good one.
For me, the irresistible wasn’t bacon. It was steak. A manly steak; New York Strip or rib eye, medium rare at most. A beautiful, one-and-a-half-inch thick piece of well-raised beef, sporting a perfectly browned crust and sitting well rested and alone on a generous plate…
I know, I’ve said this before, but it makes me sad that consistent has come to define good with regard to food in America. And that’s exactly and all commodity grain-fed beef has become: consistent. And now, being generations of Americans who have never tasted anything other, we believe tender = mushy, and flavor = rub, marinade and/or sauce when it comes to good beef. Steak as we know it has become the chef’s blank canvas rather than the farmer’s art.
I suppose that’s why a truly extraordinary steak is as rare, haunting and mythic as the Loch Ness Monster. It’s amazing how many people can tell you exactly where and when that nostalgic meal took place. And one man, Mark Schatzker, loves his steak so much, he took it on as a Quest. Capital Q, Quest, that is.
The book Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef is exactly what it claims to be: Mark Schatzker’s search around the world for the tastiest piece of beef. I’m a bit jealous, I admit, but he writes about it in such an entertaining and conversational way, I almost feel like I got to tag along. He starts in Texas (wow), heads to France (super-wow) where he finds a herd of ancient auroch, then Scotland, home of the esteemed Aberdeen Angus. After that, it’s Italy where I find the words to describe the thoughts I’ve had about my farm.
“There is a term that describes this [a distinctive taste for each distinctive region] phenomenon. It is a foreign word—from France—and one that is often bandied about by pretentious people who stifle the atmosphere at dinner parties. It is, nevertheless, a good word: terroir.”
It is a good word and Mark’s description is the perfect illustration of why I rarely use it. It makes me feel like a pompous ass. But, it is an important word here, since it describes everything I do. Mark’s Italian friend Tilda uses the term “pure savor” which may be even more descriptive to me:
A pure savor is “any food where you can taste the nature that produced it.”
So, “ A Podolica [a breed of cattle indigenous to Italy] steak raised on Monte Tresino is a pure savor, but a feedlot steak from Texas, fed Nebraskan corn, coated with Montreal steak rub and swimming in a puddle of canned broth produced in some unknown factory, is not.”
Now, don’t let me get stuck in Italy. Mark moves on to Japan (fascinating), Argentina (nothing’s sacred), back home to Canada where he raises his own cow, then returns to the Heartland to wrap it up with his American team of grass & beef experts. Each location contributes something unique, insightful and remarkably consistent about what makes the best beef. And, can I share a secret? Not that I recommend it, but:
“Start with good meat and it will be good even if you boil it.”
“The secret to great steak isn’t the thickness, or ultra-low heat or ultra-high heat. It isn’t dry aging, either, which is commendable but overrated— any rib eye that needs to be aged for sixty days isn’t a good rib eye to begin with. The secret to great steak isn’t salting the day before, marinating in olive oil, or any other lost technique from the old country. The secret to great steak is great steak.”
And, the USDA grading system isn’t even close to being comprehensive about what makes meat good. Tip: it’s not all about marbling. Put all your steak buying decisions in the hands of the USDA grading system and you’re pretty much guaranteed to miss out on that elusive, mythic experience of a pure, beefy savor.
Time and time again, the flavor dial tilts in favor of grass-fed. But, some of the worst steaks were also the grass-fed. Grain-fed feedlot beef is easy to make consistent. Rations are mixed to be the same, all you have to do is dump the bucket full of grain into the trough and watch the cows get fat.
Grass-fed beef on the other hand is more complex – it requires the farmer to demonstrate some thoughtfulness and skill. You need to orchestrate your grasses, birth and slaughter times and even deeper, become a master of enriching your soil. Because, it is true that two cows of the same age and breed can consume the same types and quantities of grass but live on different farms. You may expect them to taste the same, but no. They will taste different. The minerals in the soil of their different farms make their contribution to final flavor as does the level of contentment/stress the cows experience.
It takes more than simplified labels to identify good beef. A grass-fed label does not say anything about flavor, quality & texture. It just tells you that cow did not eat grain.
I worry because some of the beef I see being sold as grass-fed has not been finished at all. I know that the farmer simply did not feed his cow grain which means that while it may be healthier, it will not be enjoyable. And you are likely to blame your disappointment on the fact the cow was grass-fed instead of the fact that it was the beef “equivalent of bad home-made wine.” Mark has much to say about this:
“Grass isn’t so easy. Williams likens finishing cattle to playing guitar. ‘Feeding grain,’ he explained to me, ‘is like knowing a few chords and playing an easy song. Finishing on grass is like being a virtuoso.’ ”
“One snowy winter day, I visited a farm where the farmer was letting the wrong kind of cows eat the wrong kind of grass. The farmer and his wife were salt-of-the-earth types-three dogs, five kids-and lived in a hundred-year-old farmhouse. Most of their cows were fed corn, but a few of them ate grass and only grass, because growing numbers of precious foodie types down in the city had been clamoring for healthy, earth-friendly grass-fed beef. I drove back to the city with a grass-fed sirloin and grilled it that night. …While chewing it, I debated whether the meat would make a better sandal or boot.”
So, someone who values well—raised beef and its healthful benefits is in danger of spending good money and getting a disappointing hunk of shoe leather. And, ever after, believe the experience is proof that while grass-fed beef may be better for you, it is more health food than treat. Which is completely false and leaves you in danger of missing out on the best steak experience of your life.
I was pretty excited also to see my belief that old—fashioned unimproved breeds of cattle produce the most memorable beef was confirmed by experts. In particular, the old, un-“improved” British breeds are recognized as being superior in both flavor and texture and science is now beginning to demonstrate why.
Our Devons are as close to their original, smaller, slower growing British ancestors as can be. And their milk is high in butterfat, which, surprise surprise, is a significant indicator of good beef.
There is a documented relationship between cows producing milk with high butterfat content and superior marbling. And, a scientific reason the flavor and texture of the meat from smaller breeds who are slower to mature is so much finer.
So, you see, this book means a lot to me, especially since it reassures me that my farming decisions, exploratory and intuitive as they’ve been, are supported with data and the experience of farmers, experts and scientists I don’t get to chat with here in my small town.
Here, I’m the eccentric lady with the herd of “exotics” even though my “exotics” pre-date Roman times and the locally popular and hefty grain-fed Angus Hummers are evolutionary babies. I could go on and on and actually paraphrase the entire book for you, but I won’t torture you that way. I want you to read the book—it’s a four hooves up.
If you love beef but have felt it is somehow mysteriously lacking, you’ll gobble it up and learn something in spite of yourself. Makes me excited to get back to my work preserving and sharing something we are in real danger of losing. And it should make you want to go out and find yourself a great steak.
If you decide to take up the Quest yourself, Mark has a website featuring contacts for some of the farms featured in the book. Also, be sure to check out eatwild.com and localharvest.org to find farmers in your area raising breeds you won’t find in the grocery store.