Sunday, April 18, 2010

Queensland Natural Beef

Hanging with cows after you’ve just polished off a steak? Yes, siree. With mind to meeting what we’re eating, we set off on a Saturday jaunt to Harlin, west of Kilcoy, where the fabulous and very kind Blacklock family of Queensland Natural Beef showed us their digs, explained the ins and outs of the grass fed beef industry and brought us up to scratch on the current state of beef farming practices in Oz.

It was a huge learning curve and a bit of a wake up call - it’s one thing to picture a cow when you’re buying meat from the butchers, the farmer’s market or god forbid, the supermarket, but to actually hang out with cows in their paddock? Pretty darn cool.

The lack of thought that goes into buying meat today is staggering, especially when contemplating new shoes is up there with launching a space shuttle. Why are we so insistent on wearing of-the-minute designer heels made by Italian craftsmen from top notch leather, but are so nonchalant about where our meat comes from? Is it that the living, breathing animal seems so far removed in our minds from the cling wrapped end product?

QNB produces delicious grass fed, natural beef. The cattle we rubbed shoulders with are free range - they feed on what grasses they like and drink when they choose - and are treated with care and respect. The difference between the spectacular steaks we ate for lunch and what you’ll pick up at your average supermarket is mind boggling.

“Most beef from supermarkets is probably grain fed, so the cattle are generally locked up and can’t exercise, and are force fed so they gain weight quickly for fast returns,” said Carolyn, who works the cattle station with her dad and her husband Shane.

“The budget cuts will probably be young cows or poor quality beef, the mince is from old cows and cattle.”

The catch with supermarket beef? You don’t know what you’re getting. It could be grain fed or grass fed, may have lived a splendid life or one of misery. But it’s all sold together, as plain old beef. In a nutshell: you don’t know how your dinner has been treated.

“Most of the beef in Australia is produced with hormones, and I don’t think the Australian public has an understanding of that,” Carolyn told us.

While the poultry industry bore the brunt of consumer complaints about poor living conditions and the use of growth hormones, the beef industry has slipped under the radar.

“Chicken in Australia isn’t allowed to have had hormones - farmers can feed them medicinal antibiotics but that’s it,” Carolyn said. “I think we know what consumers want. In my personal opinion, people are concerned about the health and well-being issues, not just for the person eating it, but for the animal.”

Carolyn said interesting challenges lie ahead for the beef industry, but until consumers pipe up and demand information about hormone use and animal livelihood, it’s unlikely to change.

Over lunch, we tasted the difference, and Carolyn’s mum Carol told us that grain fed meat - which has much more intermuscular fat - can always be tender but not necessarily flavoursome, while grass fed is bursting with flavour but needs monitoring to ensure it’s tenderness.
Carol, who's a passionate cook - her Y Bone casserole is a family staple - says chefs like Neil Perry and Jamie Oliver, and shows like Masterchef have encouraged people to know more about their meat, and to put lesser cuts like shin and oxtail to good use.

We checked out a large chunk of the 1200 acres, explored Carol’s vegetable garden and trawled through her hand written recipe book while she treated us to home made jam drops and tea. Spoilt or what?

In How To Cook, Jamie Oliver writes:

“The truth is most people buying meat do not see any value in it, have never thought or wanted to know or even questioned where their meat comes from, how it’s been fed, looked after, slaughtered or butchered. You might think, ‘why would I want or even need to know?. Well you should, because the difference it makes to the quality of your meat is incredible.”

It’s so worth the time, effort and curiosity to really investigate and understand where your meat comes from. And with an abundance of Farmer’s Markets, there’s no reason why you can’t. If you’re in Queensland, Carolyn and Shane run two butcher’s shops where they sell their meat, and they deliver to the city once a week. You can visit their website here.

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