Friday, February 23, 2007

1,000 Breeds of Cattle (!)

This book sounds amazing so I ordered it up. Written by Marleen Felius, a Dutch author and illustrator, it has over 800 pages with information, photographs, and illustrations covering more than 1,000 breeds of cattle.

15 months back, when I began my quest for the perfect organic steak, I knew the name of a single breed of beef cattle, Angus, and two dairy cattle, Holstein and Jersey. I do remember driving by some cows near my mom's home that looked suspiciously like Oreo cookies. But I never paused to wonder why it might matter that these funny looking creatures were out there munching blithely on Napa Valley grass. (This is a photo of one that we spotted in December in Palo Alto, CA - turns out they're called Belted Galloways.)

Attend a single day of an agricultural fair and you'll find out that breed matters quite a bit; indeed, breeders are absolutely passionate about why theirs is best. Some breeds have more docile temperaments, adjust better to certain climates or terrain, have stronger maternal instincts, produce smaller calves, are genetically pre-disposed to intra-muscular marbling or have bigger bones and muscles with which to pull a plow. Some breeds are very small (Dexters, originally from southwestern Ireland), medium (Herefords, from England), or large (Charolais, from France).

Better yet, ask a beef rancher how his or her breed tastes compared to others, especially the well-known Angus, and you will spark a most interesting discussion. You see, today's ranchers aren't rewarded by how good their beef tastes. Instead, they're rewarded based on how well the beef pays out at the slaughterhouse, e.g. how much meat you get vs. fat, or "yield."

Now breed alone does not determine taste and tenderness. Probably more important is what the cattle ate, and not just grass or grain but what kind of grass or grain, the specific genetics of each cattle, and how it was raised (see previous entries).

But next time you buy a steak or roast or burger, see if the butcher or retailer can tell you what the breed is and how it will taste compared to other types of beef. Then, please do come tell me the answer, along with whether you like the taste and why. I've tried this and it's not only fun sport, it's illuminating.

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