Where's The Beef From?

Boutique meats raised on family farms are gaining followers among safety-conscious diners

Remember when you would go to any restaurant and just order a beef, pork, or lamb dish? Here's what's on the menu at the Five Lakes Grill in Milford, Mich.: "Crispy Niman Ranch pork-belly confit on braised apple red cabbage." Savoy in New York features "Catalan-style Conservation Beef grilled ribeye with red wine Pernod braise." And Charlie Trotter's in Chicago serves only grass-fed lamb from Jamison Farm.

This is what the designer craze in this country has come to: Even our meats come with a label. Not to be flip, though: There are good reasons restaurants serve -- and you might want to eat -- so-called boutique meats raised on family farms.

HERITAGE BREEDS. The first has to do with health. With public concern about mad cow disease, E. coli, listeria, and other food safety issues, it's reassuring to know that the meat comes from a small farm with organic growing methods and tight controls on handling and processing. Boutique cattle are raised principally on grass and rotate among pastures, while the pigs are old-line heritage breeds fed grains, vegetables, and fruits in enclosed areas in fields and woods. Unlike animals raised under industrial methods, they are not fattened up with corn, animal byproducts, hormones, and antibiotics.

Grass-fed beef is lower in calories and fat than corn-fed beef, according to Eat Wild, an organization devoted to pasture-based farming (eatwild.com). It has higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid, which is a cancer-prevention agent, and more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally raised beef.

Proponents of boutique meat also appreciate the farmers' humane treatment of the animals and concern for the environment. Flying Pigs Farms in Shushan, N.Y., for example, gives its animals room to roam in large outdoor paddocks instead of crowding them into indoor, artificially-lit steel pens, the way commercial producers do. Boutique ranches also rotate pastures to ensure that the land will remain healthy.

When it comes to flavor and texture, meat from animals that eat grass exclusively can be inconsistent. So Bill Niman, owner of Niman Ranch in Oakland, Calif., raises his cows on the pasture for the first 16 to 18 months of their lives before feeding them a combination of barley, corn, wheat, soymeal, cane molasses, and hay in the finishing feedlots. Conservation Beef in Helena, Mont., augments the grass its cows eat with wheat and alfalfa. Both entities then age their meat in a drying room for 21 days.

NOT SO JUICY. Niman Ranch beef tastes very similar to the prime, dry-aged meat you can buy at high-end butchers. Conservation Beef steaks, while quite tasty, lack the marbling that corn promotes in beef, and as a result they aren't as juicy. Boutique pork tastes much better than standard pig because, among other things, heritage pigs have much more fat. As the pork industry has promoted "the other white meat," its pigs have become leaner and less flavorful. A pork roast from Flying Pigs is a revelation. It has a wonderful, rich flavor and satiny, buttery texture.

Be ready to pay up for boutique meat. It's generally about 50% more expensive than similar generic cuts you'd buy in a store. For example, Conservation Beef sells four 10-to-12-ounce dry-aged New York strip steaks for $78, not including shipping. A supermarket equivalent might cost about $50. But once you try it, you may wind up eating less and enjoying it more.

By Ed Levine

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