Is older meat a cut above the rest? Well, it does offer more flavour than younger animals, according to Dan Austin, managing director of Lake District Farmers.
Demand is growing for older meat too as consumers and restaurants discover the difference. London’s Kitty Fisher’s has a rib eye of old Galician beef, with crispy potatoes, rainbow chard and smoked béarnaise on the menu. Over in the United States, Bazaar Meat by Jose Andres sources its cuts from Californian producer Mindful Meats.
Back in the UK, Chiltern Firehouse, Levanter in Manchester and Bellita in Bristol have also sold middle-aged steaks, from animals as seasoned as 17 – cows that would generally be deemed geriatric considering cattle is usually intensively farmed, fattened quickly and slaughtered as young as 18 months old.
But it’s not just the taste that is driving the appetite for older beef – the trend for sustainability is also enlarging its appeal.
What’s the beef?
In the US, Mindful Meats prides itself on sourcing dual-purpose animals. Its cows are raised as organic pasture dairy cows and at the end are turned into organic beef. And the figures reveal the benefits of this practice.
One dairy cow provides an average of over 80,000 pounds of food during her lifetime, including milk, cream, butter, cheese, ice cream and beef, as opposed to its counterpart, the beef beast that provides only about 600 pounds of beef. At Mindful Meats, a dairy cow lives an average of six years, while in the US a beef animal is generally allowed to live until two.
Here in the UK, dairy cows get an even longer life. The Lake District Farmers hand-pick their cows once they reach retirement age. There is then a 10-month process where they are put out to pasture (so to speak), given the time to relax and put on a finishing feed, says Austin.
This style of farming contributes to the popularity of the meat, he adds.
“Our [dairy cows] are typically between eight and 12 years old, and once they can’t produce a calf, obviously they can’t produce milk, and obviously they can’t produce anything for the farm,” he says.
“So now you can put them on a special rearing process and get a decent value at the end. It’s making dairy farming more sustainable and it produces something that is very important to this country.”
But setting sustainability aside, steak stalwarts are also being won over by the taste. Austin says five years ago, they weren’t selling any older beef, but now they can’t meet demand. Currently, they sell around 250 cows a year.
“The big thing is it delivers on the plate. We can talk about a million different things when it comes to food – we can talk about sustainability, cost, provenance, animal welfare – but it’s gaining in popularity as the meat naturally has a bigger flavour,” he says.
“The taste is hard to describe. It’s really different to native breed beef. The description I always use is it’s milky and creamy, it’s rich; there is more bite to it and it’s not as tender as younger meat, but it makes up for it with the flavour.”
Ben White, business manager at Coombe Farm Organic in Somerset, sells retired dairy beef direct to the public and agrees that the flavour is stronger and more apparent, as the meat has had longer to mature.
At Coombe Farm, the dairy cows are retired between five and 10 years old, left to graze on organic pasture for a year and then hung up for 20 to 28 days after slaughter. White says feeding the animal on a grass-based diet throughout its life gives it a really fine layer of fat running through it, which when cooked renders down and tastes sensational.
Older meat is also far darker in colour then the pinky-red of the younger ones, while its flavour is deeper, stronger and the taste lingers like a good wine, according to Nemanja Borjanovic, the owner of London restaurants Lurra and Donostia.
Do breeds play a part in older meat? At Mindful Meats, the most common are Holsteins and Jerseys. Holsteins are known for their copious production of milk, while Jerseys are recognised for their butterfat.
There are also a number of farmers raising heritage breeds such as Montbeliarde, Danish Red, Brown Swiss and Ayrshire.
But as this kind of beef is only burgeoning in Britain, Austin says there are no specific breed requests yet. “No doubt that will come later on along, once it’s established, and people will start to try the different breeds that are on the market and they will choose which is the favourite,” he remarks.
So does Sparkie have beef with older meat?
There is interest in older animals and it makes complete sense. I expect with an increased focus on sustainability that ‘ex-dairy beef’ or ‘ex-layer hens’ will become the next ‘wonky veg’ label.
It is all about using the whole food chain and limiting waste where you can. That meat is perfectly good too, so why not?