“If you don’t eat them, you won’t know what makes them so special.”
– PAM HEATH
Eating a meal that includes animals on an “endangered” or “at risk” list can be a misunderstood affair.
Nesbitt-area farmer Pam Heath knows that very well. She’s Manitoba’s co-ordinator for Rare Breeds Canada, a group trying to bring back a host of livestock and poultry from near extinction on the farm.
It recently held a very special banquet, and yes, those listed animals were on the menu.
“‘Why eat them if they’re so rare?’ is a question we often get asked,” says Heath. Her reply: if no one does, it’s that much harder to convince anyone they’re worth saving.
“If you don’t eat them, you won’t know what makes them so special,” she says.
So eat them they did, during a sumptuous, chef-prepared banquet at the Commonwealth Air Training Museum’s canteen on a cool spring evening April 3. Guests were contributing farmers as well as other members of Rare Breeds Canada, which hosted its annual meeting in Manitoba for the first time ever this month.
On the menu – Ridley Bronze turkey and Highland cattle beef, Tamworth-Berkshire pork and Clun Forest lamb, and for dessert, creamy ice cream from the tiny Irish Dexter cow, all raised by farmers in Manitoba and eastern Saskatchewan.
This was the first time Rare Breeds Canada held such a meal, “and it’s all thanks to these generous farmers,” said a clearly impressed Liz Mackenzie, editor of Genesis magazine, Rare Breed Canada’s publication, who’d flown in from Ontario for the occasion.
For many in the crowd, this was opportunity to discover what gastronomic delights a chef can produce with food they’re already enjoying cooked at home. Ilse Mo h n , a Brandonbased chef and owner of Ilse’s Gourmet on the Run catering company, was commissioned
mi to prepare the meal that included the Ridley turkey in a savoury gravy, the Tamworth pork as a main course and appetizer, the Clun Forest lamb skewered as kebabs with fresh mint and the Highland beef served in a red wine reduction. A saskatoon crumble was topped with the ice cream from the tiny Irish Dexter.
She had questions as she got started, says Mohn, who wondered what sort of special preparation some of these meats might require. This pushed her creative boundaries, and she enjoyed that, she says.
“But we chefs like to be challenged,” she said. “We like to have a chance to explore different things.”
So do Rare Breeds Canada members.
Now marking its 22nd year in Canada, the organization has
as its mission to “make Canadians more
aware of their agr icul tural
heritage and, through education and niche marketing, involve them in conserving endangered
breeds of farm livestock
Yet, restoring any commercial value to
little-known breeds is uphill work in a context of modern agricultural systems’ quest for intensified productivity and food product standardization.
Some types of poultry and livestock are now so hard to source, they’re on Rare Breeds Canada’s conservation livestock list which ranks them variously as “critical,” “endangered,” “vulnerable,” and “at risk.” The group annually monitors breed numbers of most or all breeds of livestock and poultry looking for trends in populations and registrations to keep the list up to date.
The Ridley Bronze turkey, for example, is currently listed as “critical” with only around 100 breeding females annually registered.
It is not for sentimental reasons nor novelty, that this organization is doing this, says Heath. What concerns them is that viable populations of these animals be maintained to preserve genetic diversity for future generations.
“That would be our most important reason for doing this,” she says.
These breeds also simply “work” for the farmers who raise them.
Martin Penfold at Austin, who donated cuts of his Clun Forest lamb for the meal, built his small flock around the Clun because it produces exceptionally vigorous small lambs. It’s a very hardy breed and produces very tasty meat too, he says.
Frank Kirouvac’s small herd of Highland cattle was the source of the beef for the banquet. Kirouvac can’t say exactly why he found the hairy cattle so irresistible, but jumped at the chance to buy a few when some came up for sale at Woodlands a few years ago.
“I really didn’t know much about them,” he says. He does now. He raises them as grass-fed beef, and has come to appreciate the animals’ extreme hardiness as well. He sends a couple of animals for slaughter to a government-inspected facility every year, then direct sells meat to customers who enjoy the unique taste and leanness of the Highland. “It’s more of a wild flavour, more like elk,” he says.
At age 12 and possibly Rare Breeds Canada’s youngest member, Richard Heath already appreciates the traits and qualities of heritage breed livestock and poultry. His family’s farm supplied the Tamworth-Berkshire cross pork for the dinner. Heath says he enjoys working with these animals so much on their farm, he’s convinced he’ll be a farmer some day.
“I’ve seen some really neat animals over the years. They’re all unique,” says Heath.
The same might be said for those who raise them.
These are farmers who tend to be original thinkers, Mackenzie says. Farmers are attracted to rare and heritage breeds for many reasons, including specific traits and qualities, she says. “But they’re also people who aren’t afraid to be different.”
Rare Breeds Canada is particularly keen to see breeds of Canadian historical value, such as the Canadienne cow, preserved.
For more information about Rare Breeds Canada log on to: www.rarebreedscanada.caor telephone: 905-344-7768 or write the national office at: RBC National Office
1-341 Clarkson Road, RR1, Castleton Ont., K0K 1M0.