Since the advent of massive feedlots and the implementation of the USDA grading process, really good steak has all but disappeared from America in favour of intensively reared, heavily corn- or grain-fed animals. If you've read this column before, you'll have surmised I'm not a fan.
There is, however, a small band of visionary ranchers rearing 100% grass-fed beef in the American West. In July I was lucky enough to join author and steak guru Mark Schatzker, plus Will Beckett of Hawksmoor, on a road trip where we met just such visionaries: at the Alderspring Ranch in the Salmon River mountain range in Idaho.
The cattle at Alderspring never see a feedlot, and are the true definition of free-range. Alderspring beef is certified organic, and the ranch is properly family-owned and operated. Glenn and Caryl Elzinga rear their cattle with help from their clan: Melanie, Abigail, Linnaea and Ethan. Oh, and Konrad the border collie – an integral part of the herding team.
We drove up into the mountains for a couple of hours through some of the most stunning scenery I've seen outside of television, until mid-afternoon, when we passed several cowgirls herding cattle down a lush green mountainside. Upon reaching camp, we pitched tents before meeting our respective steeds. Mine was called George, making our new double act a surreal echo of the London butcher's shop James George and I run, Turner & George. And, after a crash course in horsemanship (neither Will nor myself knowing one end of a horse from t'other), we saddled up and rode out onto the range to meet the ranchers and the cattle; animals that are strictly fed and finished on nothing but green grass and hay.
This is very close to the British way of doing things, which is majority grass-fed, the difference being that we 'finish' our cattle with a small amount of feed, for a period of roughly around five weeks.
There's a small band of visionary ranchers rearing 100% grass-fed beef in the American West
The Elzingas believe Idaho to be the best beef-producing area in America, and they may be right. The cold summer nights and high soil mineral levels of the Salmon River Mountains grow grass like nowhere else, and the result is a flavour unlike any I've ever tasted. And because they only sell beef that's from their ranch, they know each animal's history; every single cut is labelled and traceable to an individual steer.
Their cattle are healthy, and none are treated with chemicals of any kind; no antibiotics, hormone growth promoters or pour-on insecticides, and of course no intensive feed. Alderspring is small enough to provide intimate care of the land and livestock, but large enough for the Elzingas to have been growing their 100% grass-fed beef for 15 years – over which time they've perfected their methods. Their careful husbandry results in unmatched tenderness and flavour.
Thankfully this method of cattle rearing is now growing in popularity, as more Americans are asking where their steak comes from, what impact it has upon their environment, and, ultimately, what impact it has on their own health. We live in hope.
The horses turned out to be talented in the art of making soft fat city boys look like masters of equestrianism. George skipped gaily across the tops of sheer drop ravines and crossed turbulent rivers with no sign of fear. By the end I fancied myself a bit Lee Van Cleef and I think Will was trying for Clint Eastwood.
Truth is, at no point was I in charge. It was very much George and Turner – much like things back home…