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The Guru of Happy Cows

Martin Booe last wrote for the magazine about petits fours.

“See that? happy cows with an ocean view!”

I am hardly qualified to speculate about the inner life of cows, but I’ll take Bill Niman at his word. We’re standing in a jade green paddock on the original Marin County ranch where Niman began raising cattle in the early 1970s, and we are pretty much surrounded by cows, about 300 of them, blinking at us with gentle curiosity. Tufts of mist curl along the hillsides, and in the distance, shrouded in haze, lies San Francisco Bay. If nothing else, these cows act as if they have nothing to fear from humans. Niman says it’s because the ranch hands visit them frequently--on foot, not horseback--and spend a fair amount of time talking to them.

Niman firmly believes that a happy cow is a tasty cow, and while this may sound like a New Age flight of fancy, it is solidly rooted in science. Nervous, stressed cows secrete cortosteriods and other stress hormones that affect the texture, flavor and color of their meat. To Niman, the humane treatment of cattle isn’t just a matter of taking the moral high road; it’s good business, and that’s why he insists the constellation of 40 ranchers who raise Niman beef, on spreads largely clustered near Boise, Idaho, adhere to a strict code, including the stipulation that they walk cattle individually to the slaughterhouse, to calm them.

If you think that’s bunk, you might want to consider that Niman Ranch has gross sales of $40 million a year--and growing--in beef, pork and lamb. It’s a far cry from the cottage industry Niman started in the mid-'70s, when he began supplementing his meager teacher’s salary by delivering choice cuts of his own home-grown beef to Bay Area restaurants.

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When Niman started farming in Marin County near Bolinas with eight pigs and a half-built barn, he had an inkling that animal husbandry practices were taking a turn for the worse. He did not, however, foresee the advent of the Frankencow, or the ever-widening market niche that industrial meat’s declining reputation would eventually make for more naturally raised beef like his.

“I wish I could say I had a vision for all of this, but I really didn’t,” he says. “We really just crawled along an inch at a time. We never set out to convert anyone. Our attitude was, ‘If you agree with us, come along for the ride.’ ” As it happened, his timing was fortuitous. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Berkeley was all about flower power. But by the late ‘70s, it was all about food. There was Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, Jeremiah Tower at Stars in San Francisco and Margaret Fox at Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino--his first restaurant account. Admiring Niman’s refusal to feed cattle growth hormones and antibiotics to hasten their fattening, all became customers. Also strictly barred are animal byproducts, such as chicken-feather meal.

Niman says today that he didn’t appreciate the growing stature of those first chefs at the time. “I just dealt with them as regular folk and they dealt with me as regular folk. They were the culinary giants of the industry. I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time. It would have been intimidating.”

The fact is that most cows (and pigs and sheep) these days are anything but happy, and it didn’t take Stephen King to conjure the image of the common beef steer as a hidebound cargo container of chemicals and byproducts standing on four hoofs. The past year has seen at least two high-impact salvos that have inspired a lot of inveterate carnivores to start reaching for the tofu burgers. First came the bestseller “Fast Food Nation,” and next was the recent New York Times Magazine article by Michael Pollan, documenting in visceral detail the lurid banquet of hormones, antibiotics and animal products force-fed to cattle in the beef industry’s quest to fatten them at an unnatural pace. Suddenly, concern about meat quality was no longer limited to health food nuts, and worries about the treatment of feedstock gained interest beyond circles of animal-rights activists.

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With his droopy mustache, rangy frame and salt-and-pepper hair, Niman can, in a certain light, resemble Marin County’s answer to Marshal Dillon--or better yet, the cattle industry’s. Donning horn-rimmed glasses, though, he takes on the aspect of a history professor. He is soft-spoken, congenial and deferential, but belying this is an indisputable streak of ambition, one that’s aimed more toward influencing agricultural practices than financial success.

Niman is emerging as one of the country’s leading voices in animal husbandry, and it’s a position he relishes. He was the first rancher to adopt the Animal Welfare Institute’s stringent but admirable standards for raising pigs, which he extends to all 210 pig farmers who supply Niman Ranch pork. “Without Niman Ranch, our standards would only be theoretical,” says Diane Halverson of the institute. “Bill brought them to the real world, consumers responded, and others are following suit.”

Among those requirements are that pigs be allowed to nest before delivering. “It’s important for them to have a chance to realize their instinctive behavior,” Niman explains. “We believe you can’t separate an animal’s psychological health from its physical health.”

Ideally, Niman wants to represent the future of animal husbandry. In practice, by contracting with small farmers who are on a first-name basis with their cattle, he represents its more humane and ecologically sound past. “My goal is to turn back the clock on agricultural practices a good 40 years,” he says. “And if we can save a few hundred family farms in the process, all the better.”

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Judging by its name recognition among foodies, Niman Ranch is the prevailing gold standard for beef. In the Bay Area, his home turf, where culinary passion is rivaled perhaps only by New York, Niman enjoys something bordering on rock star status. His is one of the few brands, as with Hudson Valley Foie Gras and Liberty Duck, that is touted by name on restaurant menus. Once fairly limited to the Bay Area, his market has expanded considerably. In the past two years, Niman Ranch products have found increasing favor in Southern California, as well as the East Coast. In Los Angeles, it’s served at Ammo, Campanile, Jar and Lucques, and at Newport Beach’s Aubergine. Trader Joe’s now carries Niman’s pork chops and bacon and will soon distribute his prime rib. Niman Ranch products are also available on the Internet at www.nimanranch.com.

But what exactly are its selling points? Is it flavor, or is it the product’s reputation for purity? Niman is the first to admit that the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand. “I think when a restaurant puts ‘Niman Ranch’ on the menu, they’re probably marketing the P.C. angle,” he speculates. “But chefs at the level we’re talking about wouldn’t sign on if the flavor weren’t there.”

The flavor is there, according to any number of chefs. Many attribute the beef’s superior taste to its 21-day dry aging and to shrouding, an all but forgotten process that causes the meat to shed much of its water. “I wouldn’t say that there isn’t any other beef that can compete with Bill’s for flavor,” says chef Suzanne Goin of Lucques. “But when you consider that Bill doesn’t take any shortcuts with his cattle, that his agricultural standards are amazingly pure, and he still comes out with this superb, highly consistent product, there’s really no one else. And I’d say that 75% of our guests know Niman Ranch beef by name.”

Niman was hardly born to ranching. A native of Minneapolis, he was a city kid who majored in anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He spent a year teaching school in a federal poverty district in the rural San Joaquin Valley, and it was there that he was exposed to the farming life. “I wasn’t actively involved in agriculture at that time, but I think just being there planted the seed. I got to know the farmers. Every time I saw an animal born, it was like a miracle.”

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He moved to Berkeley to get a teaching credential, but after a year decided that “Berkeley was getting a little too heavy,” he says as we slog through the pasture to the wooden house he built in 1977 with his own hands. Small but airy and elegant, it’s nestled in a sylvan grotto of emerald green, shielded from the winds that rake the coast. “You had the hippies versus rednecks thing, you had racial turmoil, you had the Symbionese Liberation Army. I needed to get out.”

Eventually he drifted to Marin County, married, worked in construction to support himself, and wound up with an 11-acre ranch across the road from where he now lives. On the side, he started raising hogs under the tutelage of veteran local ranchers. Nearby, a hippie commune called “Paradise Valley” had sprung up and one Orville Schell, now dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and a noted China scholar, sought refuge on Niman’s spread from the dubious amenities of communal living. Schell, a maniacally disciplined writer, began working on the book “Modern Meat,” published in 1984, sitting at the typewriter while balancing his 2-year-old child on his knee. (The book, now out of print but widely considered a lost classic, decried the looming degradation of animal husbandry practices.)

In 1973, the two became partners and acquired the grassy 207-acre plot of land where Niman still lives. It was more suitable to raising cattle than hogs. Thus was born Niman Schell Ranch, which became Niman Ranch seven years ago when Schell sold out his share. “Basically, I loved the idea of creating food for people,” Niman says. “To me there was something magic about converting forage and sunlight into flesh and blood. It was a hobby that metamorphosed into a full-time job.”

Schell was the first of several literati who took up residence on the ranch. Another was the poet and Los Angeles River activist Lewis MacAdams. “I don’t think you could really call Bill a hippie,” says MacAdams, who in 1975 spent a year sleeping in Niman’s hog barn and published a book of poetry, “News From Niman Farm,” based on the experience. “He was way more together than that, and he worked harder than three people combined. When a hog gave birth at 3 a.m. in the pouring rain, Bill was out there midwifing. For Bill, it’s always been a labor of love. You could say he was an artistic success long before he became a commercial success.”

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Niman has a beef, and it’s with purists. He took heat for contracting with the Chipotle chain, of which McDonald’s is a majority owner, to supply pork for their carnitas. “A few people said I was getting in bed with the devil. But if you want to change animal husbandry practices, what better way than to supply a corporation [owned] by McDonald’s? Chipotle had to raise the price of their burritos by $1.05, and sales doubled. And every time they open a new store, we save another family farm.”

Then there’s the grass-fed issue. Niman Ranch beef is not strictly organic because Niman will administer antiobiotics to an animal, but only if it is diseased. Also, the cattle are “finished” on corn, which improves marbling. On this note, Niman became engaged in a spirited e-mail exchange with the New York Times Magazine’s Pollan, who wrote the influential article “Power Steer,” tracing the odyssey of a cow on its way to becoming industrial beef. Pollan held that feeding grain to beef is unnatural. Niman seriously disagreed, and the two exchanged many volleys.

Walking through a paddock, Niman toes perennial rye grass that has gone to seed. Usually laconic, his voice rises at the thought that critics find it acceptable to feed grass but not corn to cattle, arguing that their stomachs can’t handle corn. “Grass is grain. Corn is grass. And when grass goes to seed, that’s when it’s drawing the most energy out of the soil. The animal’s inclination is to nibble the top of the plant, which is where the most nutrients are. It’s a high-energy diet, and the seed is what prepares their stomachs for corn. That’s why the extended grazing period is so important. It’s like a bear fattening up on the salmon run before hibernation.”

Even so, now Alice Waters is nipping at his tail, albeit gently: “I’d like to see Bill go completely organic,” she says. “In fact, I’d like to see the whole beef industry become purely grass fed and get rid of the feed lots completely. But I think that right now, given the scale he’s operating on and the way he’s maintained the purity of the product, Bill is in a league of his own.”

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Braised Beef Shortribs With Young Spinach and Horseradish Cream

from Lucques

Serves 8

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For the beef:

8 14- to 16-oz. 2-inch thick beef shortribs marinated overnight in cracked black pepper and thyme sprigs

1 cup medium diced onion

1/4 cup medium diced celery

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1/4 cup medium diced carrot

3 sprigs Italian flat-leaf parsley

6 sprigs of thyme

1 bay leaf

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2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/2 bottle hearty red wine

1 1/2 cups port

6 cups veal or beef stock

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For the potato puree:

4 large russet potatoes

4 large Yukon gold potatoes

2 tablespoons kosher salt for boiling the potatoes

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4 teaspoons kosher salt for seasoning the puree

1 cup cream

1 cup milk

1 pound unsalted butter, cut into chunks

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For the vegetables:

4 cups young spinach, cleaned

4 shallots, sliced thin

For the horseradish cream:

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1/2 cup creme fraiche

1 tablespoon prepared horseradish or more to taste

Mix together, season with salt, pepper and lemon if desired.

For the ribs: Season the shortribs on all sides with salt and pepper. In a heavy saute pan sear the shortribs in a little cooking oil until they are caramelized on all sides except the bone side. Remove the ribs to a platter and saute the vegetables in the same pan, stirring constantly to pick up all the crusty bits left in the pan until the vegetables are caramelized. Add the bay leaf, thyme and parsley. Add the balsamic vinegar, port and red wine and reduce by three-quarters. Add the veal stock and let come to a boil. Pour the liquid into a braising pan and then place the shortribs and their juices in the pan.The liquid should come 3/4 of the way up the side of the meat. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and then aluminum foil. Braise in a 350-degree oven for about 3 hours.

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After 2 hours and 45 minutes, insert a paring knife into a shortrib to check for doneness. The meat should fall off the knife easily. When the meat is done, uncover the pan and let the ribs brown in the oven for 10-15 minutes until they are caramelized. Let the ribs rest for 1/2 hour in their juices, then remove them to a sheet pan and strain the juices. When the juices cool you will be able to skim off most of the fat. When you are ready to serve, reheat the ribs in their skimmed juices.

For the potatoes: Boil the potatoes with skin on in water to cover with 2 tablespoons salt. When the potatoes are cooked through, strain them and set aside to cool until you can handle them. Peel the potatoes and put them through a food mill or potato ricer. Put the riced potatoes in a heavy-bottomed pan. In a separate pot, heat the milk and cream together. Over medium heat stir the potatoes with a wooden spoon to dry them out. Then slowly add in the hunks of butter, stirring constantly. Season with 4 teaspoons kosher salt. When all the butter has been absorbed, slowly add in the milk/cream mixture until you achieve the consistancy of a puree. Taste for seasoning and remove from the stove.

At the restaurant, we pass the mixture through a fine mesh tamis with a rubber spatula two times.This makes an extremely smooth puree. You can skip this step if you want a more rustic style potato puree. If you are going to serve the puree soon, you can keep the potatoes in a metal bowl covered tightly with plastic wrap. Otherwise you can make them ahead of time, let them cool, keep them refrigerated and later heat the puree in the oven with a little more cream.

When you are ready to serve: Put the ribs in their juices in a 400-degree oven to reheat. Saute the spinach and shallots in 1 tablespoon butter until just wilted. Season with salt and pepper. In the center of 8 large bowls place a spoonful of hot potato puree. Divide the spinach among the 8 bowls. Place a shortrib in the center of each bowl and spoon over some of the braising liquid. Top with a generous spoonful of horseradish cream and serve immediately.

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