Are You Game?
Consumers are showing a healthy interest in red meat alternatives
BY SUSAN LEIGH SHERRILL
Photos by Ted Axelrod
Dishes prepared by Kevin Kohler
Cafe Panache, Ramsey
(Download printable .pdf version here.)
Enjoyment of exotic foods has long been the purview of the wealthy and privileged. From the days of the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages and into the 20th century, common folk supped from the stew pot, while royalty and the very rich dined at tables laden with elaborate preparations of lobster, pheasant, quail, venison, rare fruits and sweets.
Today, increased interest in cooking and cuisine - thanks in equal parts to the late Julia Child and the "celebrity chefs" of The Food Network - has inspired a new generation of adventurous eaters. Caviar, game meats, specialty seafood and other items that were once difficult to find are now sold in supermarkets, and consumption is limited only by the amount one is willing to spend.
The greatest growth in sales of exotic foods has been in the meat department. According to U.S. News and World Report, sales of RMAs - red meat alternatives - have skyrocketed, with buffalo, also known as bison, leading the pack. While a taste for the new and different is a driving factor, modern-day health consciousness also plays a significant role. In addition to buffalo, RMAs like ostrich, elk, venison and kangaroo are lower in fat and calories than beef. And, unlike traditional beef, pork, lamb and chicken, RMAs are raised without growth hormones and antibiotics, adding to their appeal.
It was an interest in healthier alternatives to red meat that prompted Lance and Todd Appelbaum to launch their business, Fossil Farms, in 1997. On a ski trip to Breckenridge, Colo., the brothers tasted ostrich for the first time and decided that the versatile, low-fat product could be successfully introduced to chefs on the East Coast. Lance did the market research and networked with chefs, while Todd focused on the farming aspect of their business plan. What started with a small farm in Pennsylvania is now the largest breeder and distributor of ostrich in the country, with a sales office in Oakland and a 550-acre, former dairy farm in Sussex County, which the company acquired in June 2005.
"My brother is the farmer, I'm the city guy," says Lance, who continues to spend time in the field, promoting the flavor, versatility and health benefits of his products.
"It was an educational process for the first couple of years and then the chefs were talking about it chef to chef. Everybody says the same thing: 'We didn't think it would taste this good.'"
According to Lance, what sets Fossil Farms apart is its ability to market the meat effectively in the New York metropolitan area, to chefs and directly to consumers through grocery stores and its Web site. One of the company's first products was the Ossi Burger, which is on the menu in a number of chain and independent restaurants, including Fuddruckers and the Allendale Bar and Grill. Though the ostrich is a bird, its meat is classified by the USDA as red meat. The burger's appeal is its beef-like flavor, texture and appearance – it is also 97 percent fat free.
INSPIRED BY DAD
Growing up in Paramus in the 1970s, the brothers were introduced to the pleasures of country life by their father. Steve Appelbaum, a jeweler by trade, kept horses in the family's back yard, and was known to embarrass his young sons by picking them up from school on horseback. The brothers affectionately call their dad "The Fossil"; the company namesake's inspiration is still very much in evidence, as Steve pitches in with farming chores, teasing his sons that he's "the cheapest labor they've ever had." Prior to the acquisition of the Sussex County property, Fossil Farm ostriches were raised at several farms around the country.
"When the demand increased, we decided we couldn't leave it up to anyone else," Lance explains. "Because we grew up in New Jersey, we wanted to bring something to the state that was different from an agricultural point of view. We have customers who ask where the birds are raised, and they don't believe us when we tell them New Jersey."
The brothers plan to use the new farm to expand their operation - perhaps to include buffalo. While ostrich is the only product they raise themselves, Fossil Farms has since 1999 been the source for a variety of other exotic meats, including venison, elk, wild boar, antelope, alligator, kangaroo, turtle, rattlesnake and luxury items like foie gras, Kobe beef and the newest in trendy meat products, Piedmontese beef.
According to Lance Appelbaum, Piedmontese beef doesn't match the "hype" of the heavily marbled Kobe, but is healthier, and costs about half the price. Kobe rib-eyes and strip loins retail for between $35 and $50 a pound, while Piedmontese beef sells for $15 to $27 a pound. "We started this business because we wanted to promote all-natural meat with a healthy benefit to it," he says. "But, we carry some products, like Kobe beef and foie gras, not because they're healthy, but because of the demand for high-end meats."
The massive, "double-muscled" Piedmontese cattle, originally from the mountainous Piedmont region of Italy and now grazed in Montana, are grass fed with no antibiotics or growth hormones, producing naturally buttery, soft meat with about half the fat of Kobe beef.
CHEFS LEAD THE WAY
It was the increasing demand from chefs, Lance notes, that alerted the company to the need to diversify. "People know these products are natural, and to me that's the biggest seller," says chef Denis Whitton of Harvest Bistro, Closter. "They do have a lot of flavor as well."
Whitton says he looks forward to designing his fall and winter menus around meats from Fossil Farms. He has offered a grilled Piedmontese steak with Béarnaise or a red wine sauce, buffalo short ribs braised in Guinness, kangaroo ravioli, and an appetizer trio of exotic sausages: venison blueberry, buffalo chipotle and rabbit dijon.
"It takes the adventurous type." says Whitton of his customers' willingness to try these meats. "More men go for it than women, but women are catching up."
Whitton explains that slightly sweet sauces featuring berries or spirits like Armagnac and pent are a good match for game meats like venison and elk, which, because they are low in fat, should be served rare or medium rare. Both of these meats, sold by Fossil Farms, are farm raised in New Zealand, and are milder than wild game from the U.S.
"Most people know venison a little better," Whitton adcls. "Elk has more flavor, but is still lean and high protein." Kevin Kohler, chef/owner of Cafe Panache, Ramsey, treats rack of elk like a prime steak, crusting it in crushed peppercorns and serving it with a red wine sauce. "I think the. up-and-coming generation is wide open to something different," he says. "The elk rack is impressive - big and beautiful, and it tastes more steak-y than gamy."
According to chef/owner Michael Latour of Latour, Ridgewood, game meats like elk and venison lend them-selves well to French classic cooking his signature style. His menu has featured an especially tender cut of venison called the Denver leg, served with a rich, wine-based sauce and roasted root vegetables.
"The beauty of these meats is the saturated fat content, which is so much lower than other meats," says lanolin "Nutritionally speaking, they are definitely healthier for you. But I think most of my customers are unaware of that - people just choose to cat them because they are unique."