27 July 2011

How now, red cow?

Alcalá is surrounded by cattle, and not just the scary great black toros bravos - fighting bulls - bred around Medina Sidonia and destined to face Death in the Afternoon. This land produces some of Spain's finest beef. Drive out in any direction and you will see large herds of reddish-brown beasts with huge white horns, peacefully grazing or being rounded up by mounted vaqueros. There is usually a flock of cattle egrets in attendance, and occasionally a tiny calf just finding its feet. These are the raza retinta, our own native breed, and they are very special.

The word retinta refers to their colour, which can range from chestnut red to dark brown. The breed Bos taurus Turdetanus (I kid you not) probably originated in North Africa, but has been in the Iberian peninsular since ancient times and can be seen in cave drawings. Today it is found mainly in Andalucia and Extremadura, though there are small herds in other parts of Spain including the Balearics. Retinta cattle have recently been exported to Argentina, where they have adapted well and are being crossbred with local varieties.

Springtime in Cadiz
These animals have a number of characteristics enabling them to withstand conditions which our more wussy northern cows could not cope with. They shed their winter coat in spring and can tolerate bright sunlight and temperatures of up to 44ºC (111ºF).  They are highly resistant to disease and parasites, and surefooted on uneven rocky terrain. The bulls can be left in the meadows with the cows to do what comes naturally; the females calve easily and have great maternal instincts with adequate milk, so they can give birth in the field.

The dehesas or meadows around Alcalá are perfect for these beauties, although there are fears that they are being over-grazed. For six months of the year the grass is green and lush for grazing and provides enough hay to keep them going over the summer drought, while the groves of alcornoques and other oaks provide shade as well as tasty acorns to help flavour the meat.

So when looking for environmentally friendly sustainable industries to develop in the Alcornocales Natural Park, the Grupo de Desarollo Rural  (GDR) got together with local ganaderos  in 2004 to launch a project which would not only improve breeding techniques but also enable them to fatten and butcher the cattle locally, thereby enhancing profitability and providing more jobs in the area.

Unfortunately all has not gone smoothly. Resistance from the companies who previously profited from beef bred in Cádiz, and from some of the breeders themselves; a lack of slaughterhouses or cebaderos (fattening centres); a blue-tongue outbreak in the area, and the inevitable tangled web of Spanish bureaucracy have all contributed to the project not coming to fruition as quickly as it might have done. 

Cebadero Comunitario
Some Alcalá farmers are members of a co-operative, Los Remedios (based in Olvera), who have recently completed a cebadero just outside the town on the road to Benalup, financed by money from the Junta de Andalucia.   Not only will co-op members be able to fatten their cattle there, they will benefit from a vaccination programme and the monitoring of cross-breeding programmes with other varieties of cattle.

Spain has one of the lowest levels of beef consumption in Europe, preferring pork. Traditionally cattle were used as beasts of burden rather than as a source of food.  Beef became more popular in the 1960s but was generally of poor quality with most animals raised in sheds and unable to develop decent muscle fibre.  But thanks to the efforts of projects like the one described above, things are changing. In 2008 the local carne de retinto was awarded the quality mark Carne de Vacuno Extensivo de Cadiz to help market this excellent beef further afield.

It is already the steak of choice in most of the quality restaurants in the Province, but potential markets close by include Gibraltar, Seville, Málaga and the restaurants of the Costa del Sol, and the two Spanish communities on the Moroccan coast, Ceuta and Melilla (taking advantage of a halal slaughterhouse in La Linea).

At the moment it appears the only places in the province where you can buy the meat yourself are the Hipercor supermarkets in Cádiz and Jerez. Far easier to try a steak at La Cabaña or Casa Jiménez … and given the price of petrol it will end up costing about the same.

I once read somewhere that McDonalds Europe used to buy up most of the carne de retinto raised in Cádiz, but I can't find the source and I don't know if that is still the case. I'm not sure whether that would make me feel better about eating a Big Mac or not ...

Beef up your vocabulary:

This can be confusing as the same words are used to describe both the meat and the animal itself, and different sources supply different definitions.

  • Añojo/a (n.) – a weaned calf, or meat from an animal between 12 and 24 months.
  • Becerro/a (n.) – an animal between 12 and 24 months.
  • Buey (n.m.) – a castrated bull or ox. Commonly used in stews; rabo de buey or rabo de toro (oxtail) is very popular here.
  • Ganado (n.m.) – cattle, livestock.
  • Novillo/a (n.) – an animal between 18 and 36 months; a bullock or heifer.
  • Ternero/a –a calf less than 12 months old. Also used generically for meat from a youngish animal (carne de ternero). Veal in the English sense (i.e. white or pale pink meat)  is ternero lechal (milk calf).
  • Vaca (n.f.)– the generic word for cow (but the word ternera is often used for generically cattle bred for meat as opposed to dairy). Carne de vaca means beef from a a cow more than 36 months old.
  • Toro (n.m.) – bull. A toro bravo or toro de lidia is a fighting bull; often eaten after the bullfight but the meat can be tough. Eating bull's testicles (criadillas) reputed to make you more manly.
  • Vacuno/a (adj.) - bovine.   Carne de vacuno is beef in general; you will see this on packs of supermarket mince, sometimes mixed with cerdo (pork).  Be careful when ordering in a restaurant; vacuna (n.f.) means vaccine!

1 comment:

Tumbit.com said...

As the son of Cattle Farmers in the UK I haven't eaten beef for over 15 years and have a love of Cows (Sad to say I am in the process of fencing in a paddock for a couple) thanks for the vocab !