Rare cows

Aging the meat

(source cookbook Herman Nearby)

‘I have been working with Meuse-Rhine- Issel cows for almost twenty years now. Before that, you wouldn’t catch me with meat. Due to the consistency of quality and the use of hormones, you never knew what you were throwing in the pan. Meat is a matter of trust, something I figured out pretty quickly. I wanted to able to have a look behind the scenes, in the stables, so I could see whether the farmer treated his cows with respect. The animals had to be brought to the abattoir with dignity. My experience is that a good treatment creates a better product. There will probably be some fine pieces of meat coming from abroad, but I can’t determine for myself the manner in which the animals were raised. I have a lot of problems with that.’ ‘Thanks to the girls at Hazerswoude, the MRI-cows, I have developed a weakness for cows. What I didn’t know was that MRI-cattle is considered to be a rare breed of pets in the Netherlands. There are more rare breeds of cattle: the Dutch Belted, the Blaarkop, and the Red Friesian. So I’ve been working with rare animals for years. So what makes this cattle so rare? Because you rarely taste such good meat? Our girls prove that Dutch cattle can also provide some high-quality meat. They received a lot of attention in my books because of this. If I were to believe the expert, other Dutch breeds have a lot of potential as well. They don’t have a lot of meat to offer just yet. That doesn’t matter though, we started off on a very small scale with MRI-meat as well. Now, twenty years later, MRI has an immense reputation, especially with foodies and chefs. I came up with the idea to rescue all those other Berthas, Bessies, Mary’s, Hermans, or whatever their names might be, from oblivion. In the following pages they will take centre stage and I shall honour them with some recipes. Because just looking at them, no, that just doesn’t cut it for me.’ Rare beauty, rare taste.

The Netherlands has been suffering from Holsteinisation for quite a long time now. Is that a bad thing? From the nineteen seventies, the black and white cows with American Holstein blood rapidly took over the polders. These Americans gave more milk than the old Dutch breeds. So, these fine animals were herded into a tight corner. Where once bold cows like Blaarkoppen, Dutch Belted, and Red Friesians decorated the landscape, now stand black and white anorexic cows eating away the grass, if they see daylight at all. All those Holsteins in the meadows are considered by many to be an impoverishment of diversity and landscape. Away with colour variation, away with the good properties of all those old breeds. Because they don’t seem to be inferior to the Holsteins. Take the Red Friesian or the Dutch Belted. Lower milk production, yes, but the bulls provide superior meat, if properly fattened, and the cows thrive on a diet of moisture-loving Common Rush leaves. That saves a pack of concentrate those Holstein large-scale consumers so desperately need, which is good for the environment in return. Old breeds make the polder healthier and more beautiful and are good for the meat eaters, if you were to believe their promoters. Petra Beerda, hufner of the beautiful Rispens state, is a passionate lover of the Red Friesian cattle. Her farm in IJlst is located at the edge of the Wilddraai, a broad Frisian ditch, throws you back a few decades in time. Not that time has stood still here, on the contrary. The new, half-open deep barn stands out on the farmyard. Although, barn… more like a cow hotel, it is that beautifully built. The animals have a lot of space and relax on the hay. The deep barn is chockfull of modern energy technology; Rispens State even supplies energy to the net. Petra can be called an expert, with her diploma as veterinarian in the pocket. Why did she say goodbye to her veterinary clinic two years ago for her Red Friesians? ‘I didn’t feel at home in my business. As veterinarian in ever-growing companies, you are employed as an anonymous service provider. You are not a veterinarian anymore who builds up a relationship with the farmer and his cattle. I had to do things I sometimes didn’t want to do, like dehorning calves. The FMD-crisis got me thinking as well. When my husband and I got the opportunity to buy this farm with ninety-eight acres of land, everything fell into place.

During my studies, I came into contact with rare pet breeds. I thought that was an interesting subject. I decided to take up the farming profession and close my practice. The choice for cattle was quickly made. We are in Friesland, so it had to be Red Friesians. They fit so well into the scenery. There were only seventeen cows and 4 bulls left of the Red Friesians some seventeen years ago. First, the huge export of dairy cattle gave the breed a nasty blow. Because the American buyers only wanted the Black Friesians, they believed the Reds weren’t purebred, which is nonsense. Red Friesian calves were often abandoned. One of those little calves stands top of the family of Red Friesians. Next, things took a turn for the worse when the highly productive Holsteins arrived on the scene. Luckily, a few stubborn farmers pledges loyalty to the breed, dairy farmers who were more than happy with their cows. For they are economical animals, they grow on very little. Reds may not be the best milk producers, but they are far less susceptible to diseases and have a gentle personality. You make do with a little less as a farmer. There are 330 cows left, the bulls are only virtually alive, in the gene bank. There are a few living bulls, two of which at my farm, breeding bulls. When I started, I bought thirty-five cows form fifteen different locations. Buying cows is an art in itself, you really have to grow into it. There were cows that I wouldn’t want to have now. Oh well, you live and you learn and it’s fun to do. A dairy farm was not it for me, that comes with a workweek of seven days. I chose for suckling cows and deliver female animals to dairy farms.

‘The bulls that are left, are fattened and the meat is sold by butcher Menno Hoekstra in Anjum. He is very enthusiastic about the fine structure and taste of the meat. The fat build-up is beautiful and controlled. Red Friesian cattle as a culinary product is the future, in our opinion. Why import foreign breeds, when you can work with cows that thrive so well in our climate? I think I am onto something here. That’s why we are busy reaching out to all farmers who keep Red Friesians. We want to convince them not to give away their bulls to the merchant, because they then disappear as anonymous meat in the stores. We want as many bulls as possible at our finisher and label the meat as ‘Red Friesian’. Meat will reach the consumer recognisable as an authentic, cultural-historic Frisian product of the region. I think it’s so useful to save such a beautiful breed by giving it a new destination. It may not be much number-wise, but it’s a start.’ ‘Look, this is biodiversity. I have a certified, biological company. Working biologically wasn’t based on some vague, romantic ideal. The farmer from whom I bought the farm, intensively fertilised the soil. Which impoverished the soil quality. The ground water level was also low. With a higher ground level, you get a richer soil quality. I don’t use fertiliser nor pesticides. The ground first attenuates, the fertilisers slowly but surely disappear. Subsequently, the diversity in plant life and life in the ground increases. I give the cattle the maximum pasture. Is November too wet, into the deep barn they go. Biological farming is rewarding. I see that the immune system of the cattle builds up every year. There are far fewer problems with afterbirths and utter inflammations. They are dairy cows, so you tend to get an overabundance of milk rather quickly. But they are never sick from that. If I really want to make money, I would have to have a lot more animals. Maybe that day will come, the beginning is here. I hope that others see that I don’t just keep a few cows, but that I’m working very diligently. I think that a lot of farmers think: “Let her do it, we’ll see. It’s good that she does it, though.” I’m working my butt off, but I love it. I do hope that an increasing number of people want to discover the Red Friesian and its beautiful meat.’ The herd of Rispens State is looking prosperous. The soft sniffling and the suckling of the calves intensifies that idyllic feeling. Bull Luc walks among his herd, but don’t try and get near his ladies because he’ll come and seek you out. Not wild and full of aggression, no, calm and dignified, yet resolute, that’s Luc when he is walking towards you in a straight line. The diversity in plant life stands out. Wet cow’s tongues, looking for fresh grass and sorrel, deftly avoid the thistles. Such plants aren’t found in your average polder.