Beef, like cheese and wine before it, is a food product that has gone from only-good-if-it’s-imported to excellent-if-local. Even as recently as five years ago, USDA prime had the edge over Canadian on restaurant menus. And in terms of wagyu, Japan was the top of a list that also included Australia, New Zealand and the U.S., with no mention of Canada.
Jacobs & Co., arguably Toronto’s top steakhouse, is championing the change. Their steak menu leads off with selections from places like Seaforth, Norfolk, Tweed and Bruce Mines – all in Ontario. “We deliberately dropped Nebraska beef in favour of Ontario,” says their executive chef, Danny McCallum. And one of the most prized cuts is a $294 ribeye from Wagyu Sekai in Puslinch, Ont. It’s from a cow that was raised by Ken Kurosawatsu, a master of wagyu genetics.
“You can smell the manure and hay when he walks in,” says McCallum of farmer Ken’s rare and unannounced drop-offs. “We never know when he’s going to show up. Some years we might get three cow’s-worth from him, some years six.”
And McCallum is fine with that. The Sekai beef is so unusual that he has to keep a call list of customers who want to know the moment it hits the menu at Jacobs. One gentleman flies in from New York for it.
The team at Jacobs is pleased to be one of the only places to try this super-exclusive beef but they also focus on day-in-day-out quality across their range. McCallum notes that his customers are eating a lot less meat than they used to, but “knowing where their beef comes from empowers people to feel comfortable with that decision,” he says.
For him, as a chef, it’s important to be able to call up one of his suppliers, like Kevin Van Groningen at VG Meats to find out how the cows are doing, what they’re eating and when they are going to the abattoir.
That Simcoe, Ont. farm is one of the province’s leaders for beef traceability. Each of their finished carcasses is tagged and individually numbered so that chefs or butchers can check on their particulars.
Companies like truLOCAL that specialize in delivering beef, especially grass-fed, directly to consumers are part of an obvious trend that has seen beef aficionados pay careful attention to what cows eat. Adding to that, McCallum thinks it’s genetics that has made the real difference for bringing Ontario into the top tier. The movement has become local but he credits Creekstone Farms in Kansas with setting the model. In the U.S. only five or six per cent of beef receives prime certification, but Creekstone manages to hit between 20-25 per cent for animals they send to slaughter.
The steaks at Jacobs are an excellent treat, dry-aged in one of their carefully monitored aging rooms and prepared masterfully. They only serve beef cut from the rib, strip loin or tenderloin, so McCallum appreciates that other outlets make sure that the rest of the cows they’re cut from go to good use. His commitment to the big three cuts doesn’t keep McCallum from experimenting. Genetically, most of his steaks come from Angus, Hereford or wagyu lines but he recently raised eyebrows by putting Holstein on his steak menu.
Ecklerlea Acres, in Seaforth, Ont., has started a programme that sees former dairy cows finished on a beef-cattle diet after they’ve been retired from having calves. This beef has a robust flavour and because of its age and slightly tougher texture, McCallum only serves the tenderloin.
One of the outlets for the cuts lower down the beef price chain is butchers who sell to home cooks like me. After hearing so much about the dedication Ontario beef farmers are putting into their product I was fixated on the idea of making the perfect Ontario beef dish. The beef should be front and centre and there needs to be something special about the preparation that recognizes how much goes into raising beef.
Genetics has brought Ontario beef into the top tier
For insight on how best to do that, I got in touch with Spencer Cryan, the founder and co-owner of Bespoke Butchers on Queen East. (They recently moved from Liberty Village to Leslieville.)
Cryan emphasizes that relationships and trust have a big impact on decisions like where to source their beef from. Penokean Hills, in Bruce Mines, west of Sudbury and almost to Sault Ste. Marie, is one farm that both Jacobs and Bespoke work with. It’s a vertically-integrated operation – something that Cryan points to as a sign of quality – and that means they control as much of the process as possible. They grow peas and barley (a fairly unusual combination as a diet for finishing beef cattle) on their own property and work with neighbours to get the rest of what they need.
“A lot of grandfathered farms were losing their shirt,” Cryan says. So, having a viable operation at the centre of a community was a boon to the Algoma district. The end of the cow’s life matters just as much to the ethics and quality of beef. “We look for animals that are well cared for, but it’s difficult to justify that if we don’t also look at the slaughtering process,” Cryan says.
Penokean Hills owns their own certified abattoir. As Ontario beef farmers have levelled up on feeding and genetics, slaughtering capacity has been the weak link. Necessary regulations mean that it’s expensive to certify an abattoir so they tend to be big, industrial operations where small farmers with only ten or fewer cattle get lost in the shuffle amongst bigger producers.
Closer to my goal of understanding Ontario beef, but still without a showstopper recipe for bringing it home, I asked Cryan about his favourite cut and he had a surprising answer: Chuck tail.
Serratus ventralis is the Latin name for the main muscle that runs through the rectangular cut that’s part of the blade section. Cut properly, it looks a lot like a sirloin but has more fat and flavour than its leaner cousin. Plus the toothsome grain is coarser and its connective tissue does a dynamite job of enriching sauces. It also usually sells for half the price of sirloin.
Amazingly, it’s not easy to find. I talked to several butchers around Toronto and they said they could special order it for me. Some of the ones who had it in stock were hesitant to cut the best part of the blade off and sell it separately. (If it’s not from a super-premium source, the remainder could be sold as ground beef for burgers.)
Bespoke has made chuck tail a standard specialty in their retail store. That helps balance out the home cook’s enduring preference for steak cuts – as does Bespoke’s growing focus on selling to chefs. The butchers sang chuck tail’s praises as a “knife and fork steak”. Tender enough to grill loaded with flavour.
Bone marrow is the secret ingredient for beef essence in your meal
Looking at it in cross-section, that savour obviously comes from the marbling that you’d usually only see in top prime ribeye. Should I make my hard-won four pounds of chuck tail into steak or stew? The former is a slab of meat, at its best when covered in sauce. (Pipe down, purists, there any many thoroughly delicious options here beyond mass-market brown steak sauce.) The latter is a sauce with hunks of meat bathing in it. So, why do we have to pick one or the other?
To satisfy our mood, partly, but mostly because of the weather. For obvious reasons, we’ve decided that summer is steak season and winter is the time for stews. With cooler forecasts closing in and fall approaching, I went with a recipe that converts easily. Make it, as described, as a stew or leave the beef as steaks, grill them fast and hot over a blazing charcoal fire and start the sauce at step 2.
The secret ingredient for making this dish worthy of Ontario’s world-class beef? Bone marrow. It’s the best way to get the essence of beef to permeate your meal (and its wonderful aroma throughout your house). Scooping it into a sauce for extra richness is an old French chef trick, the key to bordelaise sauce, and combines wonderfully with the flavours from a ripe, bold red wine.
Even blended until smooth and thickened by vegetables, this sauce will still have a texture that is thinner than some steak sauces. Consider that the perfect opportunity to flavour a big pile of garlic mashed potatoes and broiled mushrooms – I like halved cremini and thickly sliced king oysters. Even in an ideal scenario, raising beef requires a huge amount of resources and effort. If we’re going to have that effect on our world, we should go all out, make the beefiest dish we can and decant a special bottle of red wine to enjoy it with.
Chuck Tail Bordelaise Recipe
4 lbs chuck tail, in 2-inch cubes
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
3 carrots, peeled and diced
2 medium onions, peeled and diced
3 pieces bone marrow (4-5” long)
3 cups beef stock
2 cups fruity, bold red wine
Small bunch thyme
3 bay leaves
2 Tbsp sherry vinegar
2 Tbsp grainy mustard
1) Season beef generously with kosher salt. Get your largest Dutch oven hot over medium-high heat and brown beef in it. Don’t overcrowd. Remove beef.
2) Add butter, carrot and onion and cook until softened, about ten minutes.
3) Nestle bone marrow into vegetables so that one end contacts the pan bottom. Add stock, wine and herbs. Scrape the bottom to loosen flavourful bits.
4) Return beef to pot, cover and simmer over medium-low for four hours, removing the lid for the last hour.
5) Remove beef from the stew. Scoop marrow from bones into the stew and discard bones. Add vinegar and mustard. Add black pepper and salt, to taste. Use an immersion blender to puree stew into a smooth sauce.
6) Serve beef with mashed potatoes, broiled mushrooms and green beans.