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What makes Irish beef so good?

27-11-2013 12:30

In January 2013, chefs from around the world competed at the prestigious Bocuse d’Or international culinary competition, held in the French city of Lyon and regarded as the Olympics of the food world. Irish beef was selected from all the beef submitted for consideration as the principal meat with which the chefs were to work. Only the very finest ingredients are selected for this rigorous competition, and it was a great honour for Irish beef farmers to have the quality of the meat that they produced vindicated at such an important forum. But what makes Irish beef so good? Pat Whelan, Ireland’s foremost butcher and author of ’The Irish Beef Book’, believes that there are five main reasons Irish grass-fed beef it is a world-class natural product.

The People

Cattle have been important in Ireland for thousands of years, and in times past a person’s wealth was measured in terms of how many cattle they owned. The Irish word for a road – bóthar – literally means cow path, wide enough for two cattle to pass each other. A ‘boreen’, or little road, was only wide enough for one animal.

Irish agricultural production today is based on a network of over one hundred and twenty thousand small farms. These holdings have been passed from generation to generation over the centuries, along with the craft and the love of livestock farming. Cattle are cherished in Ireland; they are at the heart of Irish farming, and farmers take great pride in the continual improvement of their stock. The uniqueness of the Irish smallholding, and the knowledge that passes down through families along with the land is at the core of what makes Irish beef wonderful.

The Place

Ireland’s temperate climate benefits from the gentle influence of the Gulf Stream, which brings warming waters from the Gulf of Mexico to northern Europe. Abundant rainfall is the most obvious evidence of this, making green pastures the mainstay of Irish agriculture. A further reason for the richness of the country’s farming tradition is a secret resource underground: the centre of Ireland lies above the largest continuous stretch of carboniferous limestone in Europe. This limestone gives Ireland’s farmland excellent drainage, and its grasses a rich source of calcium and other nutrients – in other words, perfect grazing conditions.

The Tradition

While climate and geology are important, history and culture have a place too. Cattle have been a part of the Irish landscape for over five thousand years, and their presence has helped shape the political, social and cultural fabric of the country. Traditionally, cows were the unit of currency and owning cattle was the measure of status. Cattle raids, in which neighbouring communities captured each other’s cattle, were a distinctive part of Irish life – a social institution – for a thousand years. One of the most famous tales in Irish mythology concerns the Cattle Raid of Cooley, in which Queen Medbh sought to capture the great brown bull, defended by the famous warrior Cú Chulainn.

The Cattle

Traditional native Irish breeds such as the Kerry and the Dexter were central to the herds of ancient Ireland. At Farmleigh, the state still grazes a full herd of Kerry cows on the pastures of Dublin’s Phoenix Park, offering a rare glimpse into this living heritage. The Dexter is today very popular among smallholders the world over, and is enjoying something of a resurgence in Ireland. It is one of the smallest breeds and is a very productive dual-purpose animal, producing both high-quality milk and meat. Michael Quinn, head chef at Waterford Castle, recently served an eight-course dinner celebrating the breed – Dexter beef was used in every single course. The Irish Moiled, another dual-purpose breed, comes in an attractive range of speckled red and white colours and is native to Northern Ireland. Like the Kerry and Dexter, it can survive on very poor pastures, and produces beef with great marbling and flavour.

With the coming of the agricultural revolution in the eighteenth century, Ireland’s cattle breeds and the appearance of the Irish countryside were to change forever. The oak forests that had once covered most of the country were cut down and fields, enclosed by hedges, took their place. This new form of farming relied on high-quality pasture, and breeds such as shorthorn, Hereford and Angus were introduced from across the water. Irish breeders quickly excelled with these new breeds, and exported large numbers of them back to their homeland. With this new productivity, Ireland became a major exporter of beef. It’s a role that has continued right up to the present day.

At first, exports of live cattle were common, but exports of fresh bone-in beef to the Smithfield markets of Victorian London began in the early 1890s. Today Ireland is a centre of excellence for many breeds and is an important source of genetic improvement for farmers around the world. Ireland now exports about 90% of its beef output, making it the northern hemisphere’s largest net exporter of beef. Ireland has a human population of approximately 4.5 million, yet is estimated to produce enough beef annually to feed 28 million people.

The Grass

At the heart of the Irish beef success story is our national herd of approximately one million suckler cows. Almost 75% of the national herd calves in the spring, with calves generally spending the first six to ten months suckling their mothers at pasture. They reap the benefit of the longest grass-growing season in Europe, grazing a continuous diet of fresh grass and clover. By the time of slaughter almost 90% of their diet will have been grass – by far the highest percentage for any cattle in Europe.

Scientific studies show that grass is a more natural diet for beef cattle than grain. Grass-fed beef has a more even distribution of fat – marbling – which makes eating it a more enjoyable sensory experience. Grass-fed beef also has higher levels of vitamin A and beta-carotene, giving Irish beef a rich burgundy colour. In addition, a higher ratio of omega 3 fatty acids and CLAs have been linked by a growing number of scientific studies to health benefits in humans, such as lowering cholesterol and reducing cancer risk. Nowhere is the adage ‘you are what you eat’ more true – the 
consumer who eats grass-fed beef gains a significant health advantage.

Pat Whelan is the fifth generation of his family to be involved in farming and meat production and has established a reputation as the foremost butcher in Ireland, recognised as an Irish Food Hero by Rick Stein. From his farm at Garrintemple, Pat supplies all the beef and lamb to his family business, James Whelan Butchers, with shops in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, Avoca Monkstown, and Avoca Rathcoole, Co. Dublin (coming in 2013), and was Ireland’s first online butcher. Pat’s rigorous approach to animal husbandry and devotion to exemplary standards and the craft of butchery has earned him numerous prestigious accolades. As chair of the Tipperary Food Producers, Pat is a key member of the flourishing Irish artisan food community. Pat lives in Clonmel with his wife and three children. Pat is the author of An Irish Butcher Shop.

’The Irish Beef Book’ by Pat Whelan and Katy McGuinness is now available from the Gill Books Online Bookshop and all good booksellers nationwide.

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