Sunday, January 27, 2008

Steak ... because it matters

Vic and I hosted a steak tasting party last night.

We aren't big red meat eaters, but during the holiday season, his company sent him a gift certificate for "4 Exquisite Connoisseur Steaks" from the Oliver Ranch Company. How could we resist?

The gift certificate itself was intriguing. Featuring a photo of steaks cooking on a grill, it compared artisan beef to fine wine. Then there was the company's slogan: "Discover the world of beef... because it matters."

When the steaks arrived, a letter from the company's CEO accompanied the package. "We invite you to join us on this journey," the letter said, "to discover what style you prefer, to acknowledge and sustain those ranchers who are truly dedicated to their profession. Those who manage their land sustainably and who follow superior animal husbandry practices, so that we can eat cleaner, more healthful, better tasting meat. Families who stay on the land doing what they do best. This is a win-win for all of us."

The package included four individually wrapped, color-coded, vacuum-sealed steaks from the company's Discovery Series 1 release:
- Wet-Aged Wagyu-Angus Cross, Holdredge, NE
- Wet-Aged Holstein-Friesian, Imperial Valley, CA
- Dry-Aged Charolais Cross, Front Range Region, CO
- Dry-Aged 100% Black Angus, Grass Range, MT

The guides to use in the blind taste-test were a bit intimidating. "I hope you know what to do with this," Vic said to me, "because I don't." There were color-coded labels to match steaks to ranch and "ranch/finishing teams" (I'm not sure what that means). There was a step-by-step Quick Start Guide, a Pictorial Guide, and an Artisan Beef Institute Tasting Guide instructing tasters to think about texture, personality and impression. Tasters were encouraged to think about mouthfeel (oily? mouth watering? dry?) and flavor notes too (mushroom? roasted nuts? lamby? umami?).

We invited two other couples to join us on this steak tasting odyssey and had a blast! In preparation, I had gone to Whole Foods and asked the Cheese Guy there to help me prepare a cheese plate. When I told him I was hosting a steak-tasting party, he lit up. He was unbelievably excited - and had me try a number of cheeses as the line of customers grew behind me.

Our friends came over with wine and appetizers and we grilled the steaks together, following the guides carefully. We sampled each of the four steaks, taking notes individually.

When we shared our impressions of each steak, it turned out that Vic and I had nearly identical taste preferences. We both ranked the Dry-Aged Charolais Cross steak from the Elliott & Ferris Families in Ft. Morgan, CO highest (mouth watering mouthfeel with a harmonious personality), followed closely by the Wet-Aged Wagyu-Angus Cross steak from the Kobe Beef America Ranchers in Holdrege, NE (moist, juicy mouthfeel like butter and balanced personality).

It was interesting to see that people really had distinct preferences. I wonder if our backgrounds and cultural influences affected our preferences, as one taster grew up in North Dakota and another in Vermont. Altogether, it was a great evening, although none of us knows what "umami" means.


Carrie Oliver said...

Lisa, I just stumbled upon your blog. I am SOOOO glad that you liked the steak tasting experience. Funny, I share your and Vic's top two selections, though my husband, Steve, chose the Wet-Aged Holstein-Friesian as his favorite.

We just held two tastings sponsored by our education arm, The Artisan Beef Institute, with large groups (50-60 people) out in the San Francisco area. We combine a tasting with an expert panel including a rancher, butcher, and chef, each addressing what they do to influence taste and texture. Each time, and with the home tasting kits we sell through the Web site, we see results like yours: there is no "winner," people have different preferences and favorites are almost always equally distributed in a group.

Do you think Cleveland would be a good place to host a similar tasting? We're really hoping to create a movement to help people connect to top producers and at the same time enjoy beef that suits their preferences and priorities.

Carrie Oliver said...

P.S. Umami is a very interesting concept and also hard to define. It's just becoming known in North America but has long been considered the "fifth taste" (along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty) in some Asian cultures esp. Japan. It's is found naturally in some foods including beef and is probably best described as savory. I think of it as a very round mouthfeel. Foods with umami are generally considered to be very delicious. Some hold Heinz ketchup (the American version) as the best example though parmigiano reggiano cheese is also often cited. MSG is apparently umami in a shaker bottle. Here's a site that tells you more about it.

Lisa said...

Hi Carrie! Thanks for leaving comments on my blog! Yes, the steak tasting experience was really fun.

I think Cleveland would be a good place for a tasting. Now that we are home to the newest Iron Chef, Michael Symon, I think there is an even greater appreciation for fine dining experiences, quality ingredients, etc.

Also, thanks for the explanation of "umami". I'm not sure if I have a good grasp of it, but I am wondering if it is what I taste in dim sum dishes, such as shrimp dumplings? I think I have some sense of it from growing up eating mainly Asian foods, but I had never known it as "umami". Cool.