Och, laddie! That is one fine steak
Highland cattle are chock full of Omega-3 fatty acids, protein and iron.
There are days when, driving through the hills of Mulmur in the deep cold of winter, it seems that no living thing could possibly survive if left to the elements.
But travel north from Honeywood to the very top of the township, to the flat and windswept land at the brow of the Niagara Escarpment, and chances are you’ll see some very impressive animals that are surviving just fine.
That’s where Paul Mills has established a herd (or a fold, as they say in the old country) of an ancient breed of cattle, one that has turned its majestic horns into the wind, rain and snow of the Scottish Highlands since the sixth century, whose auburn shag kept it warm when the Vikings first brought it over sea to the land of the Scots, and that originated on the northern steppes of Mongolia, in far bleaker conditions than this, more than 6,000 years ago.
It’s also the breed that, as Paul was once told and has now come to believe, produces the purest, leanest, most flavourful and – this is the kicker – healthiest steak of all.
Paul didn’t always raise Highland cattle. This is, in fact, one of those “What should I do now that I’m retired?” things. Three years after he established the herd, he became the mayor of Mulmur Township, which is another one of those things, but that’s another story. This story is about how Paul was looking for a more natural way of farming, after a career that had him caught up in the more industrial way.
“I owned and operated a dairy cattle exporting and consulting business,” explained Mills on an early spring day, sitting with Linda, his wife of 42 years, in their cozy den. Outside the window, the Highlanders braved the elements. “I flew cattle – it was literally me and the cattle on the planes – to Europe, Mexico, South America, Central America, Mexico and the United States. I flew cattle everywhere.”
Back then, trends in dairy cattle farming would come and go. For years the cows were pastured, eating grass as they had evolved to do. Then, for a while, they were fed grain and corn, for which they hadn’t. Then pasturing was in vogue again. Then all of a sudden, farmers were feeding their cows corn and grain again, this time indoors, on concrete slabs. Nowadays, many cattle on big dairy operations never see the light of day.
“Back then, nobody thought anything of it,” said Paul. “I really didn’t, either.”
But as his career wound down and he started to think about something pastoral to do on his own 40 acres (dubbed Quiet Pine Farm) in the Mulmur hills, his son Wade came to him with a bit of research he’d done on the Highland breed. Originally brought to North America by cattlemen in North and South Dakota in response to the cold and harsh weather there, Highland cattle were first imported to Canada from Scotland in the 1880s, and have been a “closed herd” (meaning only purebreds can be registered) since 1964.
With a significantly thicker hide than other breeds, and not one but two coats (one downy and close to the skin and one long, thick and well oiled to shed rain and snow), the breed can withstand blizzard conditions and temperatures as low as -40ºC. Highlanders are also extremely efficient foragers and will browse happily on vegetation that other breeds would spurn, making them well suited to pasturing. As do their wide, sharp horns and long hair which have traditionally excluded them from the feedlot, unlike almost all beef steers today, which are force-fed corn in close quarters as a fattening up measure to get them to the supermarket quickly.
All this, Wade told his father, makes for a steak like no other. Because Highland cattle get most of their warmth from their hide and coat instead of fatty deposits, and because steers that are started and finished on pasture take longer to mature and are brought to market at a lighter weight than their corn-fed counterparts, their meat is amazingly lean, and chock full of Omega-3 fatty acids, protein and iron.
After hearing all this, Paul made the leap in 2007, buying seven head that year and eight more the next. His first bull was named Muldonoch; the second, a Reserve Grand Champion at the Royal Winter Fair, was named Thunder (“must have been born in a thunderstorm,” guessed Paul). As billed, the cattle were independent and gentle, and thrived in a small herd. As a rule, Paul has them out in the pasture about 90 per cent of the time and feeds them nothing but grass and hay in the winter. He also makes sure to have them in the fields closest to the road on weekends, as their rugged and unusual appearance makes for good advertising.
The first two steers he brought to Metheral Meats, a family-owned, farm-based processing plant in Dunedin, were 22 and 24 months old, and weighed in at just over 1,000 pounds. By contrast, steers finished in feedlots are slaughtered at 15 months, by which time their diet of corn (and antibiotics, necessary because cattle’s rumens are not built to digest corn and because cattle living in close quarters tend to get sick) has brought them up to 1,500 pounds or more.
The steaks from those steers, as well as the roasts, ground chuck and stewing beef, were sold at the 100 Mile Store in Creemore and at the Mills’ farm gate starting in the spring of 2009.
“They were good, real good,” said Paul, describing the steaks in the understated way that farmers tend to speak around here. Customers agreed, and the beef flew off the shelves. Jackie Durnford, co-owner of the 100 Mile Store, is amazed at how people rave about them. “We have other grass-fed beef,” she said, “but Paul’s tastes different. There’s something really special about it.”
Linda was another quick convert, and has since become the leading authority on how to cook her husband’s product. “Sear it fast, and cook it low and slow,” she says with a glint in her eye. “This beef has turned me into a rare-meat eater.”
At the start of this year, Paul had 37 head of Highland cattle and six ready to go to market, the most he’s had available since he started operating. The meat is currently available at three places – his farm, the 100 Mile Store, and the Creemore Farmers’ Market, where Paul and Linda opened a booth in 2010.
Now that the couple are official members of the local “foodie” movement, they’ve been giving a lot more thought to the differences between the pastoral way they’re raising their livestock and the industrial way that’s dominated the agricultural industry since the rise of fertilizer and the spread of corn across the land, a tale well-told in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. That book, written by Michael Pollan in 2006, was at the vanguard of the recent flood of food-related literature.
An avid reader, Paul read The Omnivore’s Dilemma soon after he established his herd, and marvelled at the way the author drew a straight line from fertilizers, created using hydrogen from natural gas, to North America’s vast surplus of cheap corn, to cattle being crammed into vast industrial feedlots and fed corn and antibiotics, to humans, evolutionally designed to be omnivores and instead eating a diet dominated by corn (seeing as it’s also fed to chicken and pigs, and elements of it show up in the contents of all processed foods).
“For my money, grass is nature’s great free lunch,” the author also pointed out in an interview about the book on Salon.com. “When you eat animals at the end of a grass-based food chain, you’re eating food that comes straight from the sun and not from fossil fuel.”
Paul was even more pleased when he came across Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Beef, a book that came out last year by Globe and Mail columnist and steak-lover Mark Schatzker. The author is told near the start of the book the “perfect steak” no longer exists, and after travelling all over the world, tasting Kobe beef in Japan, grass-fed Argentinean beef, Limousin beef in France and many others, he’s ready to agree. That is, until he visits a farmer named Angus McKay in the Highlands of Scotland, and sits down to a rib-eye that’s, admittedly, cooked in aged pan fat.
“Minutes later,” writes Schatzker, “the three of us sat there in the satisfied quiet that follows bouts of extreme physical pleasure. PJ leaned back in his chair and sipped his wine. Charlotte lit a cigarette. After a time, I broke the silence and made a pronouncement that [I had been told] was impossible.
“‘That steak,’ I said, ‘was an A-plus.’”
Where to buy local beef
|Broadway Farms Market
12506 Heart Lake Rd, Caledon
|Howard The Butcher
15980 Airport Rd
|Creemore 100 Mile Store
176 Mill St, Creemore
Amaranth and East Garafraxa
|Dave’s Butcher Shop
75 Alder St, Unit 4,
|In A Field Farms
2904 Rainbow Valley Rd W
|Quiet Pine Farm
598702 2nd Line West Mulmur
RR 3, Shelburne
|Harmony Whole Foods
163 First St, Orangeville
|Peace Valley Ranch Ltd.
638135 Prince of Wales Rd., RR#3 Shelburne,
|Heatherlea Farm Market
17049 Winston Churchill Blvd
|Speers Farms Amaranth
245199 5 Sdrd Amaranth
|Twelve Farms Butcher Shop
352 Warrington Rd, Stayner
If you are a beef producer in the headwaters region who sells at the farm gate, let us know and we will add you to the list above.
How to cook Highland beef
- Because it is so lean, Highland beef should be seared first in a little olive oil and then roasted at a low temperature for a longer time than regular beef. “I usually roast it at 175ºF until the meat is cooked to the desired internal temperature,” says Linda Mills. Sometimes she wraps the seared roast in foil first which keeps it moist and yields lots of “jus” for serving. “Always take the meat out of the oven a little before it has finished roasting and allow it to rest for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.”
- Steaks, she says, should be patted dry, brushed with a little oil and seared on both sides over very hot coals. Once they’re seared, she lowers the heat way down. “Low and slow is the best way to cook such lean meat.”
- Linda uses the touch method to test for doneness. “I started out using my index finger, touching the soft area between my thumb and finger to see what rare should feel like; the pad below my thumb for medium; the tip of my nose for well done.”
- For steaks or pot roasts, treat Highland beef as you would any other type of beef.
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For consumers, improved meat safety sounds encouraging – but the transition to a more strictly regulated system has not been without casualties.