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Meat of the Matter

happy cows
Michael Amsler

Cowabunga: Natural beef-rancher Bill Niman stands amidst his very contented cows at the pristine, livin'-is-easy Niman Schell feedlot in Petaluma. The cattle lead stress-free lives and are raised on healthful grains--two factors that contribute to their superior quality.

Specializing in old-fashioned, natural meats, the North Bay's Niman Schell Ranch raises and ages beef to thrill carnivore connoisseurs

By Christina Waters

Not so long ago, the very idea of beef-eating had about as much appeal to the hip and the politically conscious as chain smoking and Styrofoam. The natural-beef producers of Niman Schell are in the process of changing that--and not by using lean cuisine. What they deliver to the kitchens of Stars Palo Alto and Chez Panisse is big, thick cuts of some of the best-tasting, lavishly marbled meat in the country.

On umpteen different occasions, cooking poobah Julia Child has reminded us that, meat-wise, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that marbling. Urging us to loosen up and live a little, Child believes that while it's all very well to eat light, low-fat meals as a daily strategy, when we want to indulge we should go all the way. No porterhouse lite for her. So when natural-beef producer Bill Niman looks you right in the eye and tells you that lean beef is bogus, he isn't simply making a testosterone-driven sound bite.

Served at better Bay Area dining addresses, the steaks that bear the Niman Schell brand offer the ultimate in carnivore gratification. Rippled delicately with flavor-intensive veins of fat, these meats--custom-butchered, dry-aged and not sold in stores--re-create the glory days when steaks may or may not have tasted this good.

Flavor is only part of the difference that separate N-S ribs, roasts and loins from other brand products. Partners Bill Niman and Orville Schell are dedicated to making sure their steers are raised the old-fashioned, drug-free way. Their feed is a sweet granola of corn and grains. Steers carbo-load in stress-free serenity. No steroids invade their elegantly muscled bodies. They spend their infancy overlooking the ocean at Point Reyes, their youth in the high plains of Oregon and Northern California, and their sunset months at an open-air, all-you-can-eat buffet in the Chileno Valley just outside Petaluma. Transformed by N-S butchers into opulent cuts of prime gourmet heaven, they head off toward high-end Meccas like Chez Panisse, Stars, Bistro Elan and Oliveto, where guilt-free gourmets can savor a taste of the past recaptured.

"Top-quality, old-fashioned processed and aged meat," says rustically handsome Bill Niman, a man with a Bolinas/San Francisco/Petaluma commute many would kill for. "That's what we offer. No antibiotics, no hormones, it's premium quality. And it's a perishable commodity." From start to finish--from breeding of Black Angus/Hereford stock to raising, slaughtering and butchering--Niman Schell carefully controls every step of the process, something rarely done outside the corporate giants like Harris. "We're selling a service and, frankly, we don't trust anyone else," says the longtime Bolinas resident, who met partner Orville Schell in the early '70s when both were involved in local politics.

To increase the prospects of Niman's Bolinas pig farm, the partners purchased 200 acres in 1976, added a few cattle and tinkered with hormone-free, steroid-free meats. When the land was appropriated to become part of the Point Reyes National Seashore, the ownership became a lifetime lease and the ensuing financial windfall was plunged into cultivating designer markets for Niman Schell meats.

Word-of-mouth luster grew. Never frozen, not available to retail trade ("We don't want to worry about people putting our label on other meats in their counter," says Niman), the tender, flavorful cuts soon acquired cult cachet, thanks to upscale clients like Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower and Judy Rodgers. Which is all just fine with Niman, who fusses personally over the needs of his 70 plus venues. Only he'd much rather be ranching cattle.

"I've pretty much worn all the hats," says Niman, who works the hands-on beat. Partner Schell--a celebrated journalist and China scholar, who penned the exposé Modern Meat: Antibiotics, Hormones & the Pharmaceutical Farm--has moved quietly into background status and assumes the mantle of dean of the journalism graduate program at UC-Berkeley this fall.

"We're small," admits Niman. "We'll do over $3 million in sales this year, compared to hundreds of millions for the big companies." But being small has allowed N-S to fill consumer niches the big guys can't. "Our primary focus is restaurant business," and that includes burger joints and taquerias, as well as temples of cuisine. So the point is to grow the beef big and luxurious.

A Natural Man

Niman is still fussing with perfection, experimenting with feed configurations and expanding the 80-acre Petaluma feedlot to include grazing range. For now some of Niman Schell's Black Angus/Hereford stock--prized for its ability to produce tender, flavorful, well-marbled flesh--is bred on the 200-acre spread in Bolinas, where Niman shares a home with wife Sandra. Other calves that will one day bear Niman Schell label are bred and raised by natural ranchers in Oregon, like the hard-working Bentz Family, revered by Niman as living "in total harmony with the land."

After 18 months of grazing on native grasses on the open range, the cattle--by then around 900 pounds--are brought to the feed-lot (either in Petaluma or to another N-S facility in West Marin), where they bulk up on a mix of corn, barley, wheat, soy meal, sunflower meal, rice bran and alfalfa. The goal: 1,400-pound perfection.

"We can call our meat 'natural,' " Niman explains, "because their feed contains no animal products." He lifts a handful of what he calls "granola" so I can smell the sweetness. "I've eaten this myself," he adds with a straight face. But Bill Niman chafes at the "natural" label. "We like to call it old-fashioned. What we do is almost trivialized by the marketing label 'natural.' It's really so much more than that."

In the ripening afternoon light, the huge barn is nothing if not soothing. Coming and going as they like, several hundred stately steers seem unfazed by our presence. "Stress reduction is also important to our process," Niman says. "We raise the animals without machines or dogs or horses--we want them to become used to being around people." Niman even admits to finding these protein-providers "interesting. And their births," he says, with a slow smile, "are a recurring miracle." After all, he contends, there's so little money in this arduous business that "it's got to be satisfying on other levels."

Tackling the awkward but inevitable question, Bill Niman doesn't apologize for making a living from land-intensive livestock at the top of the food chain. "Cattle convert stuff we can't use, cellulose, into something we can, protein," says the former public utility commissioner who taught school in the San Joaquin Valley rather than serve in the Vietnam War. "Ruminants convert roughage into usable foodstuff. Most of what they consume is unusable and our ranches are on land that's not tillable."

Niman points out that each steer can grow to 900 pounds "without consuming a kernel of grain." Nine-hundred-pound conversion machines. On the Bolinas land where his breeding stock graze, herds are moved from field to field so as not to exhaust the land. Native grasses, rye and clover are replenished by seeding, and Bill's wife, Sandra, has begun experimenting with hedgerows to maintain the healthy wildlife population on the coastal ranchlands that includes fox, falcon and quail.

"As far as turning the land back over to native animal populations," Niman muses, "well, I have no problem with that." His ultimate dream for the ranchland he and his feedlot managers Rob and Michelle Stokes are nurturing at the dairy-farm-turned-feedlot includes replenishing native flora and fauna. "We're going to bring this land back," he says of these parched golden hills in the Chileno Valley. "It's not perfect yet."

Pampered Bovines

Shaded in summer, warm and dry in winter, with water and Nevada hay on offer around the clock, the steers are pampered. Embraced by an even, temperate climate, their entire existence from now on is one long banquet. "They eat all the time," Niman says, cracking a rare smile. They are, it's true, being fattened up for slaughter. But it's also true that they haven't a clue as to what's coming next. No loud noises, no frenzied machinery, just calm and quiet.

"These guys just came down from Oregon," Niman says, stepping out into the sun to admire the dazzling health and gleaming coats of his herd. Two gray horses shyly watch us from the distance. "The calves were born in Bolinas, and from there they go up to Lassen to graze. We only raise steers," he notes. "They make the best meat. Steers are the standard of excellence for our purposes--that means large cuts. Restaurants wants a big filet, seven pounds and up. For that you need a 750-pound carcass, which comes to about 1,200-1,400 pounds on the hoof."

By juggling breeding schedules on a network of provider ranches, Niman Schell keeps a steady stream of steers headed toward the Petaluma slaughterhouse. "They're finished about 10 at a time," explains Niman. "It's a very short drive, about four miles, to an old slaughterhouse that does things our way--by hand." Stunned before being dressed out, the steers are dispatched humanely, "if there's such a thing as a humane killing," Niman says.

From Petaluma, the quartered carcasses go to San Francisco for dry-aging and butchering. "After slaughtering, they lose moisture," the rancher says, "so to prevent shrinkage, the conventional technique is to mist the carcass. But that only creates rot, not tenderness." Niman dry-ages his cuts of beef in rooms kept between 35 and 40 degrees for anywhere from three to six weeks--rooms I make a special field trip to see.

No, it doesn't resemble the chamber of horrors I expected from Fred Wiseman's gut-wrenching documentary Meat. A visit to Niman Schell's Brannan Street processing location, where former steers are turned into designer cuts, proves to be almost undramatic. Except for the fact that I'm surrounded by two dozen grown men wearing blue smocks and black hairnets, busily slicing, dicing and sawing through a forest of crimson, bloody meat, it's all pretty normal.

Donning the de rigueur butcher fashions, I move from the corporate command module--three desks, three computers and a day that starts at 5am--into bovine limbo, where steers go before they get to meet superstar chefs. Meat to the left of me, meat to the right of me, into a vegetarian hell I walk wearing the required blue smock and black hairnet. Here experts surgically separate alabaster sheets of fat from tomorrow's tenderloins. Racks of lamb rise up from one rolling cart, while dozens and dozens of baby back ribs await packing. [A full-service meat company, Niman Schell butchers and distributes natural lamb from McCormick and Anderson ranches, as well as pigs hand-raised for the company on Wildwood Ranch in Redwood Valley, and the Willis Farm in Thornton, Iowa.

In another room, loins the size of my entire body hang down from a conveyor of hooks undulating along the ceiling. Niman, equally absurd in his black hairnet, ushers me into the aging room, briskly cold and well hung with so many sides of beef that I expect a gangland shootout any minute.

"This one has been aging for six weeks," he says of a heavily marbled slab with a black-as-midnight color of arterial blood. Destined for Chez Panisse, the prime cut will generate anywhere from eight to 10 steaks, depending upon the chef's mood and menu. The air is dry and crisp, lightly scented with something that smells like mortality and autumn leaves.

Back in the main butchering area, boxes quickly fill up with 20-pound briskets, mounds of hamburger and generous tri-tips. "Do Not Freeze" warn Day-glo stickers to be slapped on cartons, along with the Niman Schell logo. Except for dry-aging, the transformation from carcass to delivered product takes only a single day. Marrow-filled joints await their destiny as demi-glacé. Pork bellies head to Mexican markets, hamburger is bound for the Burger Joint. The room hums with power saws. Into garbage cans marked "inedible" go trimmings, which will be picked up daily by poultry people. The very thought of chickens makes Bill Niman grimace.

Every day the entire place--concrete floors, Teflon cutting tables, bins and carts--gets hosed down. And every day an inspector from the USDA makes a random inspection. Considering that we're talking about dead animal parts here, the butchering and packing rooms are surprisingly odorless and as clean as any butcher counter has a right to be.

Prestige Steaks

Niman opens up a package with four New York steaks on their way to Williams-Sonoma, from whose catalogs consumers can now order N-S steaks for around $15 a pound. Before wrapping two of them up for me to try at home, he points out that while lightly laced with tiny fat pockets, these steaks aren't marbled enough to be graded "prime." The more marbling, the more prestige.

Back home, seared over a hot mesquite fire just to the point of rare bloodiness, those steaks assume epic proportions. This is serious beef. The flavor bursts forth with an almost sweet opening, then it wanders into complex, almost primal flavor territory before finishing with rich, long earth tones. Like aged wine, these New York steaks bear intricate depths and unmistakable satisfaction. The difference between this and the lean steaks I've purchased at fine natural-foods markets is striking. It's the sort of striking difference that could turn even a diehard vegan.

"They have to eat a couple pounds a day," says Niman as we finish our stroll through the Petaluma barn, where munching is the dominant sound. "And they're fussy." Fussy and costly. Niman is checking out safflower hull as a possible feed for his stock since "it's cheaper and higher in fiber than barley. The best protein for beef is cottonseed meal," he admits, "but we refuse to use it because of poor pesticide controls during its growth."

In one year, feed prices increased from $133 to $233 a ton. With 1,000 head on feed at any one time, Niman has had to work close to the bone. "And because we've done a good job selecting cattle, we can use up less grain to grow more pounds." We busily swat flies attracted to a 20-foot tower of hay. "Flies are good,' Niman says. "It means the hay is sweet."

Like all complex endeavors tied to seasonal--as well as commercial--cycles, raising beef is a wide-ranging network of relationships. Ranches on which cattle can be raised without machinery, with respect for the land. Butchers with the expertise to sculpt to client specifications. Breeders who maximize genetic combinations designed to maximize health, size and flavor.

"We finally have the network of sources we want," Niman says with satisfaction. "The people who were easy to do business with, who had integrity--we have our loyalties." And he has to keep the network humming with the next links in the chains--lining up the next group to be pampered in Petaluma.

Leaving the enormous barn, we're followed by 100 sets of eyes. Steers every one, big without being imposing, they are graceful in their largeness. Only mildly interested in us, they are not overly intelligent creatures, Niman chuckles. Not like pigs, the Einsteins of the farmyard.

On the windswept coast where 1,000 acres of the Point Reyes National Seashore embraces Bill Niman's 200-acre ranch, clovers and native rye grasses rise to meet the needs of a breeding herd of 100 or so bulls, heifers and calves. In this undulating landscape, cypress groves form dark Rorschachs against the pale hills. A small lake provides water to cows, some of whom wander single file, for no particular reason, and then disappear again into a grassy fold. The scent of eucalyptus saturates the fog. White and weathered, the village of Bolinas nestles in its xenophobic '60s time warp a few miles down the road. The blue Pacific stretches ahead for thousands of leagues. As long as the land is used for agriculture, Bill Niman and Orville Schell have lifetime tenancies on this part of the preserved seashore.

"It takes a lifetime to put together a breeding herd," Niman says, an infrequent gleam showing in his eye. That's what he'd really like to be doing. "I know we can raise great beef--I just want to do it more profitably. And in another eight years or so it'll be right, and I'm hoping the employees will buy me out and I'll go back to raising cattle." At home, on the range.

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From the August 1-7, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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