The Meat of the Matter

The 'back to the pasture' movement lets carnivores feel good about themselves again


Vegan, locavore, vegetarian, omnivore—politics makes strange dining partners of us all. And now, in ways unforeseeable just a decade ago, politics is helping to create a new renaissance in, of all things, meat eating.

Not for any single, or simple, reason. Perhaps it hasn’t yet become politically correct to eat meat, but it has become a lot less politically incorrect. And for that we can thank pioneers like Bill Niman, as well as new “back to the pasture” ranchers like Jim Dunlop of Watsonville’s TLC Ranch and David Evans of Marin Sun Farms.

A quick rewind might help set the table. About 10,000 years ago, when agriculture sprang up across the globe, gregarious animals found that they could survive better in the company of humans. The grain grown on small family farms became feed for domesticated cows, chickens, donkeys, goats, sheep, camels and pigs, a classic win-win situation that helped put milk, cheese and, yes, meat on the table.

So the human diet expanded to include accessible flesh, as well as foraged nuts and berries and cultivated crops like maize, barley, beets and cabbages.

Full bellies fueled the expansion of human populations, who in turn began moving their herds to new grazing lands. The price of beef, pork, chicken and lamb went up. Soon, even with the mechanization of husbandry (i.e., factory farming) made possible by the 19th-century industrial boom, fewer people could afford the end product. Meat became a special-occasion food, and most of the week, the working classes ate grains, breads and legumes. That “chicken in every pot” usually showed up only on Sundays. Or only for the rich.

After World War II, First World lifestyles and incomes supported and encouraged the consumption of meats. Inexpensive ground beef and roasts became everyday fare for the middle and upper-middle classes. And with those came high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity. Synergized by the publication of the animal-welfare manifesto Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, the 1970s the “back to the land” movement joined forces with warnings about animal fats and heart health, and suddenly the word “vegetarian” was on everyone’s lips. Avoiding meat became not only fashionable, it flattered the budgets of those without trust funds.

Can You Say ‘Mad Cow’?

Restaurants added meat-free entrées to their menus. Natural-foods stores refused to carry any meat or fish or poultry. Books for vegans looking for ways to pump flavor and nutrition into their diet did brisk sales. Just as vegetarians reached philosophical palate fatigue, new medical research came out with the astonishing news that eggs were not bad for us, that lean meats might not lead to heart attacks. Carbohydrates were in fact the evil empire.

Call it coincidence, but just as the discovery of mad cow disease and the unsavory details of factory farming and stockyard practices came to light, organic farmers began raising chickens not only for eggs, but also for their meat. Looking to the free-pastured practices of West Marin’s own Niman Ranch—not to mention the profitability of chops, steaks and roasts bearing the Niman brand—ranchers began putting pigs on their pastures, letting them roam and forage freely before taking them down to the road to be slaughtered, and then selling the all-natural, artisan-butchered cuts at farmers markets and small local restaurants. For top dollar. (Or small dollar. See “Meat the Makers” sidebar, p18.)

All of this expands the possible solutions to the “omnivore’s dilemma,” a term coined by psychologist Paul Rozin and popularized in the book of the same name by Michael Pollan. Centering on the issue of choosing what to eat when you can eat everything and anything, the dilemma seems to have eased, thanks to the growth of traditionally raised, naturally fed and humanely treated animals.

These Little Piggies

“Niman is true to its mission,” asserts Niman Ranch CEO Jeff Swain, en route to a meeting in New York. “There are a lot of ‘natural meats’ out there using the ‘never ever’ mantra—that means no added hormones, no antibiotics, no animal products in feed, ever.”

But Swain contends that Niman still leads the production pack in significant ways. “We also grow our animals on individually owned family farms. Other brands can still be ‘natural’ and still be factory farms. Niman means open-range, traditionally pastured animals who are unconfined, grown on traditional family farms.”

In the 30 years since Bill Niman first pampered steers on a small Bolinas ranch, the brand has networked into 650 family farms raising beef, lambs and hogs in a sustainable way. “We move the hogs from one pasture to another, so that their fertilizer improves the soil. It’s a closed circle of sustainability,” Swain says.

Also easing the consciences of growing numbers of take-back-the-steak carnivores is the notion of provenance. “We have complete traceability of our animals,” Swain says. “We know their parent’s stock and in some cases, even their grandparents’ pedigree.” Growing animals on small farms means that the cycle of waste, soil enhancement and pasture health is maintained. The messy infrastructure of intensive, large-scale ranching is avoided.

Politics aside, the superior flavor of these hand-raised meats has gained Niman meats access to top menus, including Chez Panisse, the Ahwahnee Lodge, Spago, Post Ranch, Robert Mondavi Winery and the Zuni Cafe. Even the Chipotle fast-food chain, with its huge market, has helped drive Niman’s growth.

Following the money as much as the ethics of Niman Ranch, farmers interested in creating artisan specialties for discerning chefs are turning to traditional husbandry techniques. And purists looking to lower their environmental footprint by eating locally as much as possible are looking for sources closer to home than Niman’s pork farms.

Which often means grass-fed meat. According to the business research group Organic Monitor, the grass-fed-meat movement is growing, with over a thousand U.S. ranchers switching to an all-grass diet in the past five years. This helps small farms stay in the game and compete with large stockyard operations.

Greener Pastures

Niman paved the way for ranchers like David Evans, whose Marin Sun Farms networks with a small group of Marin and Sonoma family-owned ranches to raise grass-fed animals. Here, the livestock graze out on the open range and travel a short distance to their final destination on Bay Area tables and kitchens. Evans, a fifth-generation California farmer, not only raises his beef, pigs and sheep on sustainable farms, he refuses to ship his products out of the state. Locally grown meat shows up on local tables.

The results of doing without antibiotics or hormones, of allowing for long, natural growth and providing grass foraging means that there may not be the consistency found in mass-produced products. And prices will almost certainly be higher for steaks and roasts that have taken months longer to mature. Steaks finished without the addition of hormones and water will weigh less and cost more—often twice as much as conventional steaks.

Chefs don’t seem to mind.

“It makes such a huge difference,” says chef Ben Sims of the well-beloved Santa Cruz institution Ristorante Avanti. He’s breaking down a quarter of a pig delivered the day before from TLC Ranch, raised just 15 miles south of his restaurant. TLC hogs eat pretty much anything in sight on the Watsonville acres they share with a few cows, some sheep and hundreds of heritage breed chickens. Allowed to grow to their full 350&–400 pound maturity, the hogs are taken to a family-run slaughterhouse, dispatched as humanely as they were raised and then sold to restaurants eager to pass along to consumers the superior flavor and culinary ethics.

Like restaurateur and author Jesse Ziff Cool, Sims also uses Poulet Rouge Fermier du Piedmont, a heritage chicken breed from North Carolina. “They’re more like a wild breed,” he explains. “More muscle development. The meat is incredible, even though it can be tougher and not as uniform as commercially raised chicken.”

Cool calls the pasture-raised heritage chickens “delicious.” Her restaurant also serves beef and lamb from Marin Sun Farms and Niman pork because of her longstanding relationship with Paul Willis, Niman’s pork guru, and his work with small family pork farms. A 30-year veteran of local, sustainable and organic foods, Cool is finding “greater access to these meats, and increased local production, which is so exciting.”

A Steak in the Future

Given the increasing availability of small-farm-pastured, sustainably produced meat, are former vegetarians turning into omnivores?

“For sure,” says TLC Ranch’s Jim Dunlop, himself a vegetarian for a dozen years. “I was in the same boat when I was in school and did homework on factory farms and saw the suffering, the incredible stress that these animals undergo. But I started eating meat again once I began raising my pigs.”

Chef Sims doesn’t keep statistics, but he does have the kind of anecdotal evidence that confirms Dunlop’s hunch. “Once I started putting Niman Ranch, humanely raised meat on our menu a year ago,” says Sims, “two friends of mine, both vegetarians for over 17 years, started eating meat again at our restaurant.”

For the CEO of Niman Ranch, the numbers support a resurgence of thoughtful meat eating. “Our company grew 26 percent last year,” Swain says, pointedly adding, “and not just in the Bay Area.”

Au Juice

Drinkin’ with eatin’

Those with red wine allergies are all but out of luck. Only Champagne makes sense as a white wine pairing with red meat. In general, big flavors demand big wines. Wine consultant John Locke admits that one could successfully join an earthy blanc de noir bubbly with lamb, where the stone fruit and cassis flavors of a blush Champagne bring a great deal to the table.

And, he adds, “White burgundy is a good choice as well for duck or chicken—even pork. A dry Riesling might be wonderful with these lighter meats, especially an Alsatian, drier-style Riesling. And of course you could try a rosé.”With beef, Locke still likes Syrah. “Or a big, juicy Spanish Garnacha, even a Barbera, where the acidity is generally a good match with beef.” Another great red wine with beef, according to Locke, is the much-maligned Valpolicella. “There are wonderful Valpolicellas out there,” he assures.

Winemaker Randall Grahm “would want to go with something that has a fair bit of tannin, perhaps, something Cabernet-based, though a proper Madiran would not be out of bounds. For elegance, I would elect a mature Bordeaux over a California Cab. You do need some acidity, after all, but would definitely wish to steer clear from the flamboyantly slutty international style, pace Mr. Parker.”

Deciding that bigger is better, I tried my own combination at home. We were taste-testing two rib-eyes: one, a grain-fed natural prime from Kansas’ Creekstone Farms; and the other, an organic, 100 percent grass-fed steak from Sommers Organic, an Illinois-based meat marketer that works on the same principles of networked organic family farms as do Niman and Marin Sun. The grass-fed steak was more buttery, leaner, unevenly marbled with fat, supple and deep-red. It was delicious in a way that could be called “wild.” The grain-fed beef had an even, tight grain—the marbling was consistent all the way through. It was more tender, the flavor more of a deep baritone. With the beef, we drank a Châteauneuf-du-Pape powered by Grenache and Syrah into a voluptuous Rhône classic. A winning combination.


Potatoes, Please

Potatoes, members of the nightshade family and therefore related to tomatoes and tobacco, were first cultivated in the Andes thousands of years ago. Until the recent revival of heirloom varieties, the best-known potatoes were russets for french fries, the Red Pontiac and the Désirée for boiled potatoes.

Thanks to enterprising seed collectors and entrepreneurs, farm markets, home gardeners and restaurants alike began harvesting potatoes with names like Yukon Gold, French fingerling, Highland Burgundy, Golden Wonder, Peruvian blue and Sharpes Express. Chefs loved their unusual shapes and colors. Diners craved their earthy, sweet or nutty flavors.

Heirloom or not, the lowly potato is always a love match for meats. No Parisian steak would dare be plated without its crisp pommes frites. And Americans like them creamy. See for yourself with this classic recipe.

Gratin Dauphinois

(adapted from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking)

2 pounds boiling potatoes (Yukon Gold or Yellow Finn)

ovenproof baking dish

1/2 clove garlic

4 tbsp. butter

1 tsp. salt

1/8 tsp. pepper

1 c. grated Gruyère cheese

1 c. boiling milk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Peel and slice potatoes; place in cold water. Rub the baking dish with cut garlic and with 1 tbsp. of the butter. Drain the potatoes and pat dry. Arrange half the potatoes in the bottom of the dish. Sprinkle half the salt, pepper, cheese and butter over them.

Arrange remaining potatoes over the first layer and season them. Sprinkle on the remaining cheese and butter. Pour on boiling milk.

Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender, the milk absorbed and the top nicely browned.


Meat the Makers

Sonoma Meat Buying Club goes directly to the ranch

As with fruit and vegetables, the trend in meat is toward sustainable, locally raised and organic. But unlike with plants, there has so far been no CSA system in which growers provide their products direct from farm to consumers. That’s all changing with the Sonoma County Meat Buying Club. The brainchild of Sonoma Direct president Marissa Guggiana and supported with administrative help from UC Davis Ag Extension, the Meat Buying Club made its first delivery on Feb. 19.

Here’s how it works: club members sign up for three months of food at a time, designating whether they want seven, 15 or 25 pounds of meat per month. Each month, a different provider is highlighted and the packages feature a mix of beef, pork and lamb in prime and unusual cuts. Members receive a handmade designer bag to pack their products in, as well as special sauces and butters to accompany the food, rancher bios to better learn where it came from and laminated recipe cards from UC Davis that tell how to prepare the stuff.

“It comes out to $7 or less a pound,” Guggiana says, “and if you shop at Whole Foods, that’s not expensive at all. You’ll get some amazing prime cuts that would be $30 a pound and other, less familiar cuts, such as a shoulder chop that you might not otherwise buy and now you’ll know how to prepare. Chef Roger of La Gare is our chef of the month [for February], and he made herb butters and a Bourgogne sauce. We’re trying to bring in all the people on the food chain, and that’s been really fun.”

Guggiana, a co-leader of the Slow Food Russian River group, got the idea when she was discussing the lack of slaughterhouses with staff at Davis’ Ag Extension. Her Sonoma Direct is a meat-processing plant that also markets local, sustainable meats. (“We’re knives for hire,” she laughs.) The only model for those wishing to buy meat directly from ranchers has been for folks to pool their funds and purchase an entire steer. That generally requires an extra freezer and an immense amount of up-front cash. “That’s a burden for a lot of people in a lot of ways,” Guggiana says, “and it’s not necessarily sustainable with our lifestyles. Sonoma Direct is taking on that responsibility.” Her company purchased all of the meat for the first three months themselves, hoping to attract some 40 club members. At press time, 52 had signed up.

“Everything is raised in Sonoma County, every animal is humanely treated and everything is totally organic,” Guggiana says before sighing happily. “It’s just so cool.”

For information on joining the Sonoma County Meat Buying Club, go to

—Gretchen Giles

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