Category Archives: Meat

Cochon 555 Coming to Denver

Top Colorado chefs competing in cook-off featuring pork from heritage pigs & wines to go with them

This year's logo looks like last year's, except for the date.

Area foodies are already salivating over Cochon 555, a national 10-city “eporkurean” tour in Denver next weekend. Five top Colorado chefs — Alex Seidel (Fruition), Kelly Liken (Restaurant Kelly Liken), Frank Bonnano (Luca D’Italia, Osteria Marco and others), Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson (Frasca Food & Wine) and Jennifer Jasinksi (Euclid Hall, Rioja and Bistro Vendome) — compete in a nose-to-tail cooking match-up — the carcasses, not the competitors, being nose to tail of course.

The chefs won’t be doing their own butchering. Two top local butchers will cut the meat in their own competition that, according to Marczyk Fine Foods’ Barbara Macfarlane, will be equal parts speed/efficiency/yield; knife handling and dexterity of roast tying; presentation of oven-ready retail cuts; and creativity and presentation. One is Jimmy Cross from Marczyk’s, but I don’t know who the other will be. (Note: On March 30, Westword‘s Lori Midson, who will be one of the judges, reported that Chris Fuller of Sunnyside Meats in Durango will be the other contender in the butcher battle.)

Among the expected judges are Mark DeNittis (Il Mondo Vechio), Jorge de la Torre (Johnson & Wales University), Jon Emanuel (Project Angel Heart), Justin Fields (Ritz-Cartlon Denver), Lori Midson (Westword restaurant editor/reporter), Hosea Rosenberg (Top Chef winner and strEATchefs), and Brent Zimmerman (master sommelier, Boulder Wine Merchant). The public will also vote for a people’s choice for the “Prince or Princess of Porc.”

The event brings together five chefs, five pigs and five wine makers to promote sustainable farming of heritage breed pigs. I’m not clear on whether all the pork comes from the same breed or different heritage pigs. It gives local farmers the opportunity to connect with like-minded agriculturalists, renowned chefs and the pork-loving public. The broader goal is to help family
farmers sustain and expand their businesses, to give chefs access to heritage breeds and to encourage breed diversity — and hopefully, humane animal practices.

Cochon 555 in Denver

If you want to watch, learn, sip and taste, plan on being at the Ritz-Carlton Denver this Sunday, April 3, beginning at 3:30 p.m. for VIP ticket holders ($175) and 5 p.m. for general admission ($125). Click here for tickets.  And for a big of a preview, click here for a gallery of previous Cochon 555 events that have already taken place this year in New York, Boston, Washington, Napa Valley, Chicago and Seattle, with Los Angeles, New Orleans and San Francisco to come before the Grand Cochon finale at the Food and Wine Classic at Aspen on June 19, where the Denver winner will compete  against the other regional winners.

What is food without wine? Not much, so small vineyards will also be pouring. General admission ticket holders also sample wines from Domaine Serene, Scholium Project, Elk Cove Vineyards, Failla Wines and Chase Family Cellars. VIP ticket holders start the celebration early with artisan cheeses, caviar and oysters and have the opportunity to enjoy reserve wines from Domaine Serene, Dobbes Family Estate Winery, Elk Cove Vineyards, Chase Family Cellars, Cimarrossa, Chahalem, Ladera Vineyards and K Vintners.

A Bit of Background

Cochon 555 is billed as the country’s only heritage breed pig culinary competition, put on by The Taste Network Founder Brady Lowe  produces other high-end, publc and private events, primarily specialty pairings focused around wine, cheese and cuisine. The company said that it has donated over $30,000 to charity and put over $75,000 in incremental revenue in the hands of farmers.

Kobe Beef: Rampant Misperception in America

The lovely myth and the unlovely reality of Japan’s prized beef

Yesterday, I wrote about visiting an Angus ranch on Colorado’s eastern plains that is part of the network of ranching and meat-processing operations that bring Certified Angus Beef to the dinner table, in restaurants or at home.  I was impressed by the family that runs the Aristocrat Angus Ranch. They are no pie-in-the-sky dreamers about the romance of ranching but realists and pragmatists who care for their land, their livestock and the ultimate product. The Certified Black Angus brand — and it is indeed a brand — has considerable cachet in this country.

On my way home, I was ruminating about an article that I recently reread about Kobe Beef, another prestige beef brand. During my recent travels, I finally got around to finishing Best Food Writing 2008, an anthology containing a piece that I’d forgotten about. Barry Estabrook ‘s “Raising the Steaks” originally appeared in Gourmet addressed  the surprising, perhaps shocking, process by which black Wagyu cattle become Kobe Beef. Caution: Don’t read this right before mealtime.

He wrote about the perception of the way cattle are raised in Japan:

“Like many people, I am familiar with Kobe lore: These supremely pampered bovines pass their days in almost Zen-like bliss, getting regular massages and subsisting on all the grain they can eat, washed down with cold Kirin beer. “

Then, he wrote about the reality of Kobe Beef production, including conditions that I can’t imagine American ranchers tolerating. According to Estabrook, the Japanese industry doesn’t really want Westerners to see how they do things. First he quoted Raymond Blanc, co-owner of a Michelin two-star restaurant in England who managed to visit a Kobe beef  farm back in 1993:

“The animals were kept in some kind of crate, so there could be very little movement. They were very dirty from their own manure — and I know a dirty cow from a clean cow. It was disgusting, such a contradiction from what I’d read.”

Estabrook interviewed David Blackmore. who raises (or raised) Wagyu cattle in Australia. Blackmore confirmed that “traditional Japanese producers raise their 1,600-pound cattle in highly confined areas,” continuing,

“From the time they are a week old until they are three and a half years old, these steers are commonly kept in a lean-to behind someone’s house, where they get bored and go off their feed. Their gut stops working. The best way to start their gut working again is to give them a bottle of beer.

” ‘The steers have been lying around in their own manure. The farmers are proud of their cattle, and the first thing they do is grab a bit of straw and rub the manure off. That could be seen as being massaged. Wagyu can also get a lot of joint swelling. I can imagine that the farmers would be massaging the joints so they could get the animals off to market.”

This earthy description of the the high-priced authentic Kobe Beef is both gross and believable. If I can generalize, East Asians are not known for their kindness to animals. Wildlife, including rare and endangered species, are killed for the pelts or their aphrodisiac qualities. Live tanks and cages in Chinese markets and restaurants contain animals that we would see in a zoo or a pet store — or call the exterminator to eradicate.

Even if I am, someday, afforded the opportunity to try real Kobe Beef from Japan, I’ll pass as politely as I can. Other countries where Wagyu cattle are now raised include Australia, New Zealand, Chile, various European countris and the U.S. The American Wagyu Association website contains some history about the breed, but nothing  about the conditions under which the cattle are raised here. Similarly, while Kobe Beef America’s website does address the beer and massaging lore, it does not include information about whether the cattle roam or are confined, though there is an implication in one of the photos on the bottom of a web page that animals do graze in pastures:

“Beer is fed to the cattle during summer months when the interaction of fat cover, temperature and humidity depresses feed intake. Beer seems to stimulate their appetite. It’s merely part of the overall management program designed to keep the cattle on feed in the heat of the summer. The massaging is done to relieve stress and muscle stiffness. It’s believed that the eating quality of the meat is affected positively by keeping the cattle calm and content.

“Brushing cattle with sake is another practice that creates great interest. Some producers in Japan believe that hair-coat and softness of skin are related to meat quality. It’s believed brushing the hair-coat with sake improves the appearance and softness of the animal and is therefore of economic importance.”

Bottom line seems to go beyond the straightforward decision as to whether to eat meat or not, to the more complicated choice of what kind of meat to eat, including how the animal was raised and where it was raised. Selecting meats from cattle raised and processed within a reasonable distance supports an area’s economy and reduces the carbon footprint. Allowing animals to graze, with hay added winter when it is impossible for them to eat as much as they need in the pasture, and treating them humanely to the end, soothes the conscience about the ethics of eating meat. I know my decision. What’s yours?

Epiphany on the Ranch

Ranch visit a real eye opener on cattle ranching — and the product on the plate

With the growing popularity of farmers’ markets, it is easy for many of us to connect with people who raise some of our food, primarily produce, but also poultry, eggs, jams and  farmstead or artisanal cheese. Farmers bring their seasonal bounty to our communities, where we meet them and willingly pay a premium for natural (often certified organic)  local food. It is not so easy to connect with ranchers.

Yesterday I got a rare chance to do so. I was invited by the Certified Angus Beef marketing company to join a busload of chefs on an in-depth visit to Aristocrat Angus Ranch, an impressive family-owned cattle operation in Weld County, where coal-black cattle grazing on a windy pasture presented an archetypical Western scene. Three generations of Houstons were on hand to welcome the chefs and share their knowledge.

Three generations of Houstons and a couple of longtime employees who are like family.

I was a token journalistic presence who joined chefs, three from Colorado and the rest from a wide area stretching from Oregon to South Carolina, plus three from Mexico and one from Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. Living in Boulder, which I often describe as the Tofu Capital of America and where the Culinary School of the Rockies offers a class in cooking a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner, meat is not usually on the forefront of my food thoughts. Sure, I see cattle from the car all the time and I go through the livestock exhibits at the annual National Western Stock Show,  in wonderment but with little knowledge. A few hours on the ranch were an epiphany for me regarding the care and concern that go into raising quality beef. Here are a few things I learned:

  • More than 90 percent of the beef cattle raised in the US are grass-fed for most of their lives. The last 100 days or so are spent on a feedlot where they ingest a grain-based diet to marble the meat. We have all read about feedlots that add dead animal  parts to the feed, a practice that is appalling to most of us.  It is not surprising that when such “bad stuff” happens to cattle, it’s generally in feedlots where cattle are “finished” or slaughterhouses where they are “harvested.” Euphemisms notwithstanding, theses (hopefully) relatively rare abuses make headlines, while all the stages in the process that follow the cattle industry’s best practices never make news. The Certified Angus Beef folks emphasized that the company only partners with ranchers and companies that have made the best-practices commitment and monitors those.
A herd of Angus cows grazing on autumn-dry grass.
  • Cattle ranches practice birth control. Progesterone is briefly administered to dams (cows) so that they they calve roughly at the same time. Considering that an Angus cow can weigh 1 ,200 pounds, plus or minus, it takes a relatively small amount of the hormone to regulate the animal’s fertility. This is different, proportionally, from a human female who might take birth control pills from shortly after puberty until her mid-30s or beyond or an athlete who steroid-loads for better performance.
  • Most cows are artificially inseminated for valid reasons.  Ranchers are able to match characteristics from both biological parents to produce offspring with the most desirable traits, and since semen freezes well, the sire and dam do not have to be on the same ranch or even in the same state. A bull on the range can “service” up to 50 cows, but with AI, more cows can be impregnates. Some 60 to 70 percent of the time, the AI takes. When it does not, a “clean-up bull” is sent into the herd to do what comes naturally. His role is not unlike the clean-up hitter, who is usually the strongest, most consistent batter on a baseball team.
  • The life cycle is timed so that the entire herd comes into heat within 48 hours and calve at roughly the same time. This is important, so that calves born in January and February are weaned in March or April and then graze for most of the rest of their lives.
  •  Beef cattle are bred for particular characteristics, with 10 specific ones required for meat that meets Certified Angus Beef  standards of marbling, flavor, tenderness, consistency and appearance. Surprisingly to me, until I heard the reason, is that low birth weight and quick weight gain thereafter are desirable. Cattle on the range give birth without human presence, and a smaller calf is easier to deliver naturally. Heifers, who have not yet borne their first calf, are always artificially inseminated with semen from a bull with low birth-weight cows in his gene pool.
  • While dairy cows are handled every day for milking and therefore also monitored frequently for general health, Aristocrat’s cows are brought in every 21 days to be checked. Therefore, cattle on the range must be strong and resilient, especially in the West where winter weather challenges man (the ranchers and ranch hands) and beast (the cattle).
  • Ranchers treasure and are stewards of their land. Sustainability is a goal. One component of sustainability that is rarely mention is staying in business, and in my view, every ranch that remains operative is one less tedious subdivision. Remember line the Joni Mitchell song, “They paved paradise and put in a parking lot.”  
  • Spring is calving season. “January is spring for us,” says Skylar Houston (below) who runs Aristocrat Angus. If yesterday weren’t cold and windy enough, that observation sent shivers down the chefs’ spines, especially those who live in palm tree lands. In March and April, the calves are weaned, and the cows are ready to breed again.
Skylar Houston with his clipboard. Meticulous record-keeping is as much a part of ranching today as directly working cattle.
Skylar Houston who runs his family's Aristocrat Angus Ranch.
  • There is a PAP test in veterinary medicine, especially as practiced in the Rockies. PAP in the cattle world stands for pulminary arterial pressure, which can kill an animal. Dr. Tim Holt from Colorado State University explained that cattle cannot adapt to higher elevations the way that, say, elk or llamas do. Their lungs begin to shut down, so the heart pumps faster and can eventually lead to heart failure. Dr. Holt developed a test, adapted from cardiology in human medicine, in which he very quickly feeds a tube between the heart and lungs to assess the animal’s condition. A cardiologist once asked Dr. Holt what he charges for the procedure. “Oh, $20,” he said, to which the human doctor said, “We get$4,00 to $6,000.” Maybe we should all seek our medical care from vets. But I digress.
Dr. Tim Holt explaining the PAP test in veterinary medicine.
  • Growth hormones have a bad rap among advocates of natural food.  Certified Angus Beef  Natural meets those criteria: no hormones, no antibiotics and a vegetarian diet with no animal byproducts in their feed — ever. Certified Angus Beef  Natural can be mail-ordered.
  • The folks who know cattle point out that bringing an animal to market weight faster by using  supplemental grown promotants, as growth hormones are called in the cattle biz, do have a positive “environmental” aspect, requiring 15% less corn during the “finishing” process and therefore cutting down on the energy used to grow and deliver it.
  • Certified Angus Beef is a trademarked brand. All CAB is Angus, but not all Angus is CAB. The grading of beef as well as certifying that a carcass meets CAB standards is done by US Department of Agriculture inspectors, who are third-party to the process and presumably objective.
  • The proof is on the plate. The people involved in producing andmarketing Certified Angus Beef like to point out that the it has become a prestigious and recognized brand at steakhouses and other fine restaurants.

 Our tour finished with a chuckwagon dinner — mercifully in a heated tent, given the bitter winds and temps in the low 40s — that featured a perfectly grilled steak, seasoned and seared on the outside and pink on the inside. It was tasty and tender, just as promised.

Certified Angus Beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn-n-beans and a biscuit with butter.

I’ve always admired the hard work and dedication of the people who feed us — the farmers, the ranchers, the fishermen. What I took back to the Tofu Capital of America was a renewed regard for the cattle ranching part of the equation. Whether or not you eat meat, I would recommend a ranch visit if youever have the chance. Most would not be as in-depth as the chefs’ visit to Artistocrat Angus Ranch. Even if you don’t ever get a guided tour, pull over next time you see cattle grazing on a pasture, their place in the American food chain, contemplate the Western lifestyle they support and enjoy the wide open spaces without yet another cookie-cutter housing development, more big-box stores, more junkie restaurants and yet another manicured office park or golf course. I’m a typical Boulderite in that I consume a very modest amount of red meat, but I’d much rather see the Aristocrat Angus Ranch than Artistocrat Ranch Estates.