The Market is now open Thursdays from 3:30 - 7pm through the produce season.
Don't miss the 15th Birthday party this Saturday! See the event listing for more info.
What's Your Beef?
With barbecues firing up all over the city, our meat vendors find themselves peppered with questions about local beef. Everybody knows someone who's had a disappointing experience that may have affected their outlook; we wanted to address some of the questions that have been raised lately to help you when you're deciding what to try, what to buy and what it all means.
For simplicity's sake, let's say there are three kinds of cows. Dairy cows are bred for milk production and breeding capacity. Beef cows are bred for eating. There are also combo cows that can be used for either purpose that we'll leave out of the discussion for now because you won't see a lot of their beef around.
Sometimes you see dairy beef on the market, usually sold by the side or quarter, and often as ground beef. Dairy cows tend to be 'retired' when their production drops and sold at a discount. There's a reason for this! The older a cow is, the tougher and leaner its meat tends to be. If you're buying dairy beef at a great deal, don't expect melt-in-your mouth steaks - you get what you pay for.
Most of the beef cattle you get in Thunder Bay tend to be steers (neutered males) because females born are kept for breeding. Our beef farmers here generally raise their beef cows to 12 to 14 months of age to find the sweet spot between animal size and tenderness. In our area we've got the most popular North American beef cattle: Polled Herefords, red and black Angus, Limousin and Charlais beef, although you'll find mostly Angus and Limousin at the Market. While some may argue that there's a distinct breed flavour we tend to disagree - the animal's raising has a lot to do with its flavour as far as we're concerned.
An animal which is let out to pasture or fed hay year-round is typically described as grass-fed. Grass fed beef is becoming popular in many places for a number of reasons, among them leaner meat and a smaller environmental footprint - letting your cows out to eat standing hay requires zero petrol fuel, while planting, harvesting and drying grain requires a significant investment.
Since not everyone is fond of the flavour of grass-fed beef, many local farmers feed a combination of hay or pasture grass and grain ration. Our grain-fed beef farmers tend to feed wheat, oats, rye and barley according to their personal preferences - and some are downright secretive about their special blends.
Big industrial beef operations use a lot of corn in their feeding, an issue that's got animal rights and environmental activists up in arms around the world. Corn is an inexpensive high-energy feed that grows and fattens beef quickly, but it's argued that animals evolved to eat grass can't process the high-cellulose grains like corn, leading to diseases, poor overall health and prophylactic antibiotic use in the animals - and high cholesterol in the humans consuming them.
We can't speak for all the beef farmers in the area, but none of the vendors at the Market feed their cattle corn.
Side? Quarter? Half-side, what?
There's a great sense of accomplishment to coming home and stocking your freezer full of brown-paper-wrapped cuts of beef. If you're familiar with the beef you're buying and know exactly what you're getting it's a great thing. First-timers have been disappointed, however, and we caution you to sample widely before making this kind of investment to avoid that. Local beef is great - but make sure you've chosen the one you want to eat for the next several months... or a year.
Choose wisely as well when choosing your quantity. A side (half a cow) usually weighs about 300lbs and will arrive in an amazing variety of steaks, roasts and ground beef. If your eyes are bigger than your stomach you may find yourself eating freezer-burned beef a year after your purchase, or sending it to the landfill. The experience won't be the positive one your farmer wants you to have. Sometimes less is more!
Make sure you want to make the commitment to cook everything in your beef order as well. You'll find yourself presented with unfamiliar cuts, which can be either an adventure or a bummer depending on your outlook.
All of our Market vendors offer single cuts for sale, and most offer family packs of some sort. It's a great way to get to know the different kinds of beef on the market and the price is similar to everyday grocery store prices. If you're dedicated to the idea of buying a side or a half-side (quarter), be sure to talk with your farmer to get some tips on cooking and quantity for your family.
At the Market we've got four vendors of beef, an elk farmer and a retailer of area bison meat.
Tarrymore Farms - Grass-fed Beef
Jenny and Bill Groenheide's Red Angus beef cows are pastured on 160 acres and enjoy their hay right where it grows. The younguns are weaned naturally by their mothers and fed a little barley as this happens to help them maintain their strength as they transfer over to grass. From there on they roam, munch and laze in the sun until they're 800-900lbs at 10-13 months of age. Tarrymore Farms send their beef in to be processed at a smaller size than other farmers; she likes the additional tenderness and finds the cut size to be better for personal-sized portions; they're big enough to satisfy but small enough that you don't feel obligated to split a steak between two people. Tarrymore's grass-fed beef is very lean, red and flavourful.
Sandy Acres Farm - Grass- and Grain-fed Beef
While they wouldn't tell us the secret behind their grain blend, Peter and Scott of Sandy Acres were happy to show us the huge bins where they store the naturally-grown whole grains. Most of it they grow themselves and they feed their Angus/Limousin "eaters" a ration twice a day to supplement an unlimited diet of their own naturally-grown hay. We saw the difference recently in a strip loin; grain-fed beef does have more marbling than the grass-fed variety and the taste was richer. Sandy Acres cows go to processing at about 1200 lbs, 12-14 months of age and consequently the cuts are pretty large; unlike Tarrymore steaks you likely will have to share yours -or save it for cold cuts the next day.
Cornell - Marinated Grass-fed Beef
Most of Cornell Farms' Polled Hereford and Red Angus operation is grass-fed "cow-calf" work. This means the bulk of their business comes from the breeding and selling of prize heifers and calves, many of which end up in the pastures of Thunder Bay beef farmers. Some of their breeding stock have been shipped all the way out to the middle East to strengthen the breeds there! The steaks you find in the Cornell freezers are mostly marinated, as they tend to use older cows for meat. The prices are usually very competitive and the marinade makes their tasty beef tender; you'll also find it very lean. The soy-based marinade should be pricked in with a fork a little before cooking so it reaches all the way inside, and we're pleased to say that these steaks are virtually error-proof: barring turning your beef into charcoal it will be good whether it's cooked medium or well-done.
The Cornells finish their younger market steers with grain and sell them only in sides and quarters. Be sure to ask Margaret at their freezer if you're interested in exploring this option.
Rainy River Elk - Pasture-fed Elk
Bill Darby and Deb Cornell raise their majestic Rainy River Elk just west of Fort Frances. The animals range rolling natural grass pastures and woodland throughout the summer and are hay-fed through the winter, living protected, idyllic lives and enjoying excellent care.
Farmed elk steaks are darker and richer than beef, and you'll notice a hint of sweetness about the meat. Unlike wild elk you don't have to worry about a gamey flavour but it does have the same compact graining that makes a small steak stretch much further than a similar-sized beef steak.
We enjoyed strip loins from Rainy River Elk with some of SMOKE's smoked grilling spices. Grilled to medium-rare they were juicy and rich, with less fat than grain-fed beef but a little more than the grass-fed variety. We found the sweetness of the meat went really well with the paprika and cayenne in the spicing and made for a great package.
Mile Hill Farms - Natural Grain and Pasture-Raised Beef Sides and Quarters
Renata at Mile Hill Farms has been pasture-raising her own beef since 2003, but in 2007 she started growing her own grain so she could supplement their diets with natural-method feeds. While she'd like to be able to use the word "organic" to describe the grain and the beef it feeds, she's more interested in following the methods and seeing the results than paying a third-party agency to tell her she's certified.
You'll see Renata at the Market throughout produce season but she won't deliver her beef - sold in sides and quarters - till the fall; talk to her if you're interested in ordering larger quantities.
Northern Unique - Bison
Bison is the one North American animal known not to contract cancer. It's also one of the leanest, highest-protein meats out there, without the gamey flavour of venison or moose. Steaks are generally a rich purple colour with very close graining. We wrapped our striploin in bacon (sorry, low-fat fans) and cooked it to medium to break down the proteins; its flavour was very rich and we found ourselves eating only 4oz or so of steak before feeling full.
Northern Unique retails bison for the Dawson Buffalo Ranch in the Rainy River district west of Fort Frances.
The Other Stuff
"A barbecue's not complete without something beside your meat."
One Ugly TomatoDeBruin's heirloom reds are at the Market now. They're enormous, obscenely red and folded and convoluted so many times you'll never get a perfect tomato-shaped slice off of one. But cutting one open and eating a wedge of one of these juicy, meaty monsters will change your life. This is the way tomatoes should taste - sweet and salty, only a little acidic, and so juicy you may want to eat it over the sink. Get to Market early to get yours, and be prepared to be disappointed by store-bought tomatoes forever after.
Tomatoes used to be radically different from the round perfect ones you find in the grocery store today. Modifications have been made through selective breeding and other scary processes to make tomatoes the pretty, smooth things we recognize. Unfortunately, much like the red rose prized by doghouse-bound hubbies and charming swains, the "perfecting" of the red tomato has taken away a lot of the other good things about it. Red roses may look great and their blooms last longer than ever, but they've lost much of their delicate scent. Commercial tomatoes may look nice and non-threatening but their taste has become bland and their texture amazingly wimpy compared to what they used to be.
It would probably be really good in soups; we had it Spanish style with some peppers and tomatoes and used it as a bed for a steak. SMOKE's Smoked Rice, like their other products, is naturally wood-smoked with none of the funny liquid smoke stuff.
Click here to check out more great products on our Featured Products page.