Cows and grasslands co-evolved. Herds of ancient Aurochs, the originator of the modern cow, roamed Eurasia from two million years ago. They ate their way across the continent and helped build the shape of the landscape.
Modern humans have been eating Aurochs since there were modern humans; the cave paintings at Lascaux have Aurochs in them.
[photo courtesy Prof saxx from wikipedia]
You might think these ancient cows would have died out thousands of years ago but the last Aurochs was shot in the wilds of Poland in 1627. As sad as that is, their modern cattle descendants live on. Heifer 24 below might be a fine Salers cow but go back far enough in her ancestry and she’s an Aurochs with ear tags.
Cows are a species that has spent two million years eating grass out in the wild in large herds. The grass has evolved along with it. The success of the cow goes hand in hand with the success of the grass, each helping the other. This pattern continues on our farm today. Are these cows improving our pasture or is the pasture nourishing the cows? Both.
There’s nothing mysterious about cows eating grass. What was a little unexpected to find is that the real flavour of beef comes from the grass itself.
While digging in to the sources of beef flavour we came across Mark Schatzker, a journalist who spent years trying to find the perfect steak. Schatzker has done a lot of the heavy research work onto steak flavour, so much so that he wrote the book about it.
Schatzker found a British scientist called Don Mottram who figured out where beef flavour came from. Mottram is an interesting professor who used to be head of flavour research at the University of Reading. He worked with Heston Blumenthal on his restaurant, which is a positive sign given Heston’s standards with steak.
Schatzker wrote about Mottram’s work in The Atlantic.
In 1982, a British food scientist named Don Mottram undertook an interesting experiment. He set out to find exactly what fat had to do with flavor. So he performed an experiment where he removed different kinds of fat from beef, and then cooked and assessed the result.
Mottram ran a whole lot of human and machine tests to assess flavour and smell. When he removed the trim and the marbling and the flavour didn’t change. He figured it was something else.
Then Mottram removed a different kind of fat called phospholipids. This fat is invisible. It resides in cell walls and, compared to marbling fat, it tends to be less saturated. When Mottram cooked this phospholipidless beef, he found it didn’t taste like beef at all.
OK, so flavour is in the cell structure, not the marbling. But what puts the flavour in there?
The other important aspect to flavor is the organic substances that steep into an animal’s flesh as it gets older. […] In the case of cows, they originate in the forage an animal eats, and they are what make beef a food that varies according to its terroir.
Forage and terroir! For us regular cattlemen this means grasses and soils.
When wine folk talk about terroir they mean the lay of the land, the geology of the soils and the sun and the rain all working together to give the grapes a characteristic flavour. When you drink single malt whisky you get the terroir showing up in the grains they use for the malt and the water used in dilution. And with beef the flavour comes from the eaten grass, and the grass’s characteristics come from the quality of the soils and rocks underneath.
Our farm is lucky to have soils formed from the limestone remnants of an ancient sea. This is an area of France with a terroir famous for its Armagnac. The earth is rich in the essential minerals that plants need. Our soils are naturally neutral without any need to lime so we can grow abundant lucerne to give the herd quality nourishment throughout the summer and amazing winter hay. We also work to build up richer and thicker natural pastures with a diverse range of species to give the herd a huge range of menu options.
This is how we test flavour down on the farm: with a pan and a couple of t-bone steaks.