Tricks, fresh off the farm
Keith Gordon , July 8th, 2009
Feed-based flavour techniques are what produce the succulent dishes on your plate
You are what you eat. So are animals.
Fred de Martines, of Perth Pork Products in Sebringville, makes a delivery to Healthy Butcher on Eglinton Ave. W. He has experimented with a variety of feeds and finishes his wild boar and heritage swine on black walnuts.
Savvy artisanal farmers know that and use special feeds and finishing techniques that assure succulent, savoury and tender morsels on the fork. The tasty results can be found at many farmers' markets, quality butcher shops and fine restaurants.
Feed-based descriptions like "whey-fed," "pasture-raised," "vine-ripened," "nut-finished" or "beer-friendly" are part of ancient, time-honoured farming techniques – and keys that can unlock a world of dining pleasure.
Swine farmers, for example, often go nuts. Protein- and oil-rich nuts of many kinds produce a darker, more intensely flavoured pork. Since Roman times, Parma ham has come from swine finished on acorns. The Virginia swine destined to become Smithfield Ham enjoy the same diet.
Farmers on the coasts of France, Britain and Eastern Canada have long used the sea as a source of feed for lamb. Flocks grazed on seaweed that washed onto beaches. What was once a matter of economy is now the secret behind a valued specialty meat. The caper-iodine tang from the kelp adds unique aroma and flavour. Tuscan and Provençal lambs, meanwhile, graze on fields of lavender, absorbing herbal elements that pre-season the flesh.
When shopping locally, look for some of these special tricks of the trade:
- Some Ontario farmers get nutty by using black walnuts – the same secret weapon that tipped off Mennonite settlers to premium farmsteads because the trees require especially fertile soil. Fred de Martines, of Perth Pork Products in Sebringville, finishes his wild boar and heritage swine on them. He has explored a vast variety of feeds, including pairing chardonnay grapes and pressings with Tamworth pork to produce a perfect winery barbecue.
- Beer goes well with grilled pork, before and after cooking. Farmer Elsje den Boer of Pickle Patch Farm in Dalkeith, Ont., has teamed up with Beau's Brewery in Ottawa to feed her Tamworth swine with malt (barley used in brewing), hops and the odd bucket of beer. They thrive on the feed and make a popular pairing with Beau's locally brewed pints. Both suds and sausages have more robust flavours that complement each other.
- Whey, a by-product of cheese production, is also a favoured part of swine husbandry. Whey-fed pork is beautifully marbled, with a buttery, rich flavour; its firmer, whiter fat make it a standout on the grill and meltingly delicious when braised. Cumbrae's Steven Alexander works with the Upper Canada Cheese Co. to use their Guernsey herd's product. The result, Niagara Gold pork, is exceptional.
- Lamb fodder has a huge impact on taste. Soil conditions under the pasture are a primary influence. Prince Edward County, with its unique microclimate and sandy soil, is prized pasture, as are similar farmsteads in the Waterloo-Wellington area.
- Featherstone Winery in Vineland combines maintenance with superior lamb husbandry. Pruning lower leaf clusters to promote grape growth without mould or mildew problems is labour-intensive handwork. They've found that a small flock of South Downs lamb (a friendly, size-appropriate breed) will nibble the shoots while leaving the grapes unmolested. The result is a well-maintained (and fertilized) Riesling crop, and lamb that manager Louise Engell describes as "lighter, leaner and more aromatic." It teams well with Featherstone's Black Sheep Riesling and is eagerly anticipated at restaurants such as Canoe, Cowbell, and Steven Treadwell's Farm To Table Cuisine in Port Dalhousie.
Poultry farmers use a vast bag of tricks to produce tastier birds. Each has his own (closely guarded) recipe for the perfect mix of feed.
- Mustard flour encourages chicken to form a richer, golden fat and a more piquant flavour at Dennis Harrison's Dingo Farms in Bradford. Ontario hosts the world's largest and oldest commercial mustard mill near Hamilton. Neighbours enjoy the benefits.
- Hens pasture-raised on fields of clover or alfalfa are more active, benefiting from the added protein of field-dwelling insect life to develop denser flesh, with more savoury dark meat. David and Ellen Weber graze chickens and Cornish hens out on their fields near Paisley, Ont. with exemplary results.
- Ilderton's Everspring Farms raises geese and Muscovy ducks that eat kelp and chelated (more easily digested) mineral supplements from Bio-Ag of Wellesley, Ont. Farmer Dale Donaldson cites nutritional benefits, greater vitality in the birds, and duck eggs that boast darker, richer yolks for superlative omelettes, pastas, and baked goods. "A healthier bird tastes better ... better muscle, better eggs, whatever."
There are several schools of thought about beef flavour.
- Grass-fed beef eats just that – grass and hay, nothing else. Fans feel it has a more pure "beef" flavour. It is leaner, and thus prized by the cholesterol-conscious. On the down side, a winter diet of hay doesn't promote the richly marbled beef that steak-lovers find most tender and flavourful, so with grass-fed, the most desirable beef is found in late summer through fall, when lush grasslands provide the richest fodder.
- Grain-finished beef enjoys time in the pasture, too, and get supplemental grain mixes when nearing maturity. They gain more weight, tend to be more vigorous and healthy, and yield marbled, juicy and meltingly soft flesh. Beef cattle (Angus, for example) have been bred for generations to thrive on a grass/grain food mix. The prized AAA rating, assuring that premium cuts like N.Y. striploin and rib-eye will be at their succulent best, can only be attained with grain in the feed mix.
- Corn-fed beef comes from Ontario's "beef belt," centred around Kitchener, and from Alberta, of course. It is fatty and tender. AAA (Canada) and Prime (U.S.) designations were created by corn marketing boards after World War II to generate demand for their heavily subsidized harvests. The popular definition of "good beef" was changed to include a heavy amount of marbling not seen before. The cattle live on feedlots and don't have much fun in the process. Organic or "naturally raised," they are not. Darn tasty, though.
Any farmer will tell you that the right feed mix is crucial to farming superior food, especially when raising younger animals. Swine, poultry and lamb all come into their prime at an early age, and feed determines the ultimate health (and flavour) of the flock or herd. Pay attention to what your meat animals have been fed. After all, you are what they ate.
Keith Gordon slings meat at the Healthy Butcher.