Grant Allen: From paddock to plate (+recipes)

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Where food comes from and what was involved in its production is fast becoming a consumer concern, writes Grant Allen.

Grant Allen joined Sonya Oyston and Eric Morgan for some fiery cooking lessons. Photo / Michael Craig
Grant Allen joined Sonya Oyston and Eric Morgan for some fiery cooking lessons. Photo / Michael Craig

Have you noticed the increasing use of "provenance" and production methods
listed on food packaging and restaurant menus in the past few years? Terms such as "free-ranged in Fiordland", "Greytown grass-fed" and "Cambridge cage-free" abound. Of course, I am making up these names but more and more consumers are concerned about how their food is made and where it comes from.

Provenance (from the French verb provenir which means to come from or be due to) has previously been more applied to works of art and historical objects and their ownership, custody and location. It is now applied to food and its traceability - the story of where the food comes from and who and what was involved in its production.

It's still a case of "buyer beware" though, because New Zealand packaging laws are very loose. Marketing gurus are aware of food and lifestyle trends and customers' vulnerability to warm, fuzzy words and feel-good pictures.

I applaud the increased story lines on our packaging, as long as they are the real story.

Various legitimate independent audit schemes exist to substantiate these claims, such as the SPCA Blue Tick scheme or BioGrow, which certifies organic producers, so look out for their certification on your purchases. Never forget your power as a consumer - it's your choices that drive the market.

I went to a promotion that was different from the usual. Food writers are usually presented the final cut, the glossy brochures and the tasty food cooked by a high-profile chef, in the hope word will be spread. This one took us through the whole research background of product development, the thinking and strategy behind the campaign and the systems in place to ensure the customer will get an assurance of quality. I'm usually loath to write about specific producers, but in this case I'm happy to, because anything that improves supermarket meat offerings has to be good.

The campaign heralds "beef like your mother never used to make". I'm not sure that's entirely fair to mothers, as mothers haven't always been able to buy the prime cuts grown by our export-driven animal producers. This range is trying to go some way towards supplying the domestic market with the best.

Based on research that involved 97,000 samples and 13,900 consumers in New Zealand and the US and collaborating with the University of Otago and Texas Tech University, a grading system has been developed to confirm taste, tenderness and juiciness.

As a result, with the support of the Government's Primary Growth Partnership and FarmIQ, Silver Ferns has developed a range of beef cuts it promises will meet the highest expectations. As part of the event I attended, we were presented with a magnificent beast, a 120kg heifer. Grader Sarah Duncan demonstrated the steps the meat goes through before being certified.

The meat is aged for a minimum of 21 days to develop flavour and promote tenderness.

The graders are trained and assessed every eight weeks to make sure they are on track.

They match colour wheels to the meat to rate it and look at fat distribution and other factors to ensure product-labelling consistency. The organisers were reluctant to let us snap Facebook, Twitter and Instagram shots of this wonderful heifer. They felt it was a bit too real.

It was their prerogative, but I thought it was a bit of a shame. If we are to truly promote the pasture-to-plate story we need to address the disconnect between the realities of animal production and the food we eat. I always refer back to a question a teenager asked me at a food show: "Does bacon come from a pig?"

Here's a challenge to food promoters - there's no need for gruesome pictures, but let's move towards telling the whole story about the trip from the paddock. It's all part of assuring the consumer that the animal was well-treated and respected for its contribution to our plates.

Here are the recipes prepared for us by Main Course cooking school for this tasty Silver Fern Farms presentation. All recipes are by Annabel Langbein.

Recipes

Beef medallions with spicy onion jam
Steak with bistro butter
Tender barbecued beef with avocado cream
Tenderloin steaks with pinot noir and cherry sauce

- Herald on Sunday

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