Latest post from my SF Burger column on Examiner.com is copied below (actual article LINK)
A carnivore’s responsibility
San Francisco is a city that treats eating with the utmost responsibility. Vegetarian? Nowadays it is more about being vegan, gluten-free, and if you eat red meat, it better be locally-raised, hormone-free and grass-fed. The problem is the beef terminology has proliferated to such a level that some of the meaning has been lost.
I eat meat; more than most men, women and children in a 10 mile radius. Last week alone I ate three hamburgers, a steak, a cheese steak sandwich and tri-tip. Of late, my passion has ignited a curiosity to understand meat at a deeper level – convincing me to attend a tour of Stemple Creek Ranch with the San Mateo Natural and Organic Beef Group. We’ve all heard of corporate responsibility; well, what about carnivorous responsibility? Let’s face it, if I’m going to write about burgers, I better educate myself on where my meat comes from.
Tomales – It’s different up here
Just an hour or so north of San Francisco sits Tomales, a small town where local goods abound and everyone is on a first name basis. Breathe in the scents of fresh-baked breads at Tomales Bakery and or sample some fresh produce at the market.
Stemple Creek Ranch sits just off the main drag on a thousand acres. Originally named Poncia Ranch when it opened over a century ago, this farm has been passed down generation after generation. Loren Poncia renamed the ranch a year and a half ago after the famous Stemple Creek which flows throughout Tomales, providing natural hydration and support for the various agricultural enterprises.
Let’s be clear, Stemple Creek Ranch is no Harris Ranch – that crowded, stench-ridden abomination off the I-5. Stemple Creek is more of a cow hotel, and let me tell you, this is one Ritz Carlton I’d stay in if I had a tail. Cattle graze to their heart’s content on the hilly acreage, enjoying certified organic feed and sweet grasses. When you step outside the car you literally hear moos of happy cows.
The Stemple Creek way
Part of the happiness has something to do with the Poncia family and how they choose to ranch. Loren Poncia is a knowledgeable, kind, family man who believes in doing the right thing for his farm, cows and customers. He studied agribusiness and dairy science at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. With this resume, you can be assured that Loren knows his meat, his land, and especially how to raise and harvest quality, grass-fed animals in a sustainable way.
At the start of our tour, Loren identified different ranch grasses and covered the calculated approach cows take in the selection of their food. Even in a field of natural grasses, cows seek out all the sweet, nutritious grasses like clover and alfalfa, leaving the rest of the grounds untouched. To manage land waste or overuse, it is important to practice a progressive ranching technique known as management intensive grazing, which helps encourage the cows to eat all grass types.
Stemple Creek is different. For one, the cattle, pastures and feed are all certified organic; do not expect to find any corn here Michael Pollan. Second, the ranch’s focus on environmental responsibility is evidenced with the grazing techniques, solar water pumps, cattle crossings, and planting of over 1,000 trees. Loren’s father, Alfred, was even honored with the Excellence in Conservation Award by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The Poncia family also supports staying local. One of the biggest challenges is whether to go organic or local. Even though Stemple Creek has certified organic pastures and cattle, if you take the cows to a non-organic slaughterhouse the meat may no longer be sold as organic. The main differentiator is the chemicals used – chlorine is not permitted and must be substituted with an alternative like hydrogen peroxide. With a local focus, Loren can take the cows up the street to a reputable slaughterhouse, which is a less stressful experience for the cows and also leaves a smaller carbon footprint. With an organic focus, Loren must drive a couple hours away. Knowing these particularities makes the challenge of staying 100% organic only that much clearer.
Another interesting fact shared by Loren is the difference between corn-fed, grass-fed and corn-finished. Most cows start off grass-fed, and many ranches exploit this fact, taking cows that have been fed on grass for the majority of their life and then “finishing” them on corn the last 150 days. This process is used to fatten up the cows and make them better for market, but that does not really mean they are grass-fed. It’s important to determine whether the ranch you are buying your meat from is actually grass-fed and grass-finished or grass-fed and then corn-finished.
The taste of Stemple Creek meat
With all this talk about responsible ranching, I’ve almost left out one of the most important topics – taste! One of the most sought after types of beef is marbled beef. Marbling refers to intramuscular fat that gives the beef a marble quality. The meat is more flavorful and tender than other cuts of beef and cows must be big, fat, grass-fed and generally older. Stemple Creek has a number of cows with marbling qualities and during our ranch tour and beef tasting I had a chance to sample a few bites.
For our tasting, Loren pulled out a huge black BBQ large enough for sixty chickens to be cooked at one time. Menu for the day? Short ribs, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, filet mignon, rib eye, NY strip, skirt steak and tri tip. The meat was simply seasoned with garlic salt and pepper, allowing the true flavor to emerge. A few descriptions come to mind when I think back on that blessed hour of beef tasting:
Ever-lasting goodness. Coarsely-ground beef burgers. Savory and juicy. Luscious, silky smooth beef that melts in your mouth.
As our group sat there, tooth picking bite after bite of Stemple Creek beef, a chorus of approving groans was heard in unison. That was probably the only sound for a solid couple minutes. I can say with complete certainty that I sampled some of the best tasting beef I’ve had in years.
Ordering your own meat from Stemple Creek
Which brings us to the final set of questions: How can I order meat from the ranch and how much will it cost? Think of Stemple Creek as a meat CSA where you can order a quarter, half or whole cow. For a bit of perspective – a quarter cow yields about 110 lbs of beef, and all types of cuts. You could estimate about 25 pounds of steaks, 30 pounds of roasts, 45 pounds of ground beef, 10-15 pounds of short ribs and stew meat, and 10-15 pounds of soup bones.
The price inclusive of packing, harvesting and packaging is about $550, which breaks down to around $5 a pound. Economies of scale indeed – just think that normally you spend $20 for a lb of filet mignon at the local Whole Foods. Stemple Creek also organizes ranch tours which provide the opportunity to purchase individual cuts of meat. Just contact the Poncias on their website for more details. It’s also important to mention that Stemple Creek has some pretty serious lamb for purchase. The ranch sells out of its meat every year so I’d advise getting on the list early. A quarter cow supplies a lot of burgers and steaks that will satisfy even the most carnivorous of appetites.
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