THE VERY LATEST IN FAST FOOD

Ostriches are famously fleet of foot. Might they also be minute steaks, asks Michael Bateman
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The Independent Culture
BRITISH ostrich farmers surely have their heads in the sand. Do they really believe anyone will pay pounds l2 a pound for ostrich steak?

The present asking price puts ostrich meat in a bracket with gourmet foods such as lobster, caviar, foie gras, truffles, and well beyond that of the beef fillet which it resembles.

The last few years have seen the tentative introduction of more than a few novelty meats: kangaroo from Australia, crocodile steaks from Kenya, ostrich from South Africa. They certainly arouse interest. But they are less likely to find their way on to the menu of a Michelin-starred restaurant than the blackboard of an attention-seeking pub.

What do they taste like? Not too amazing. Ostrich meat is some improvement on kangaroo, which is like dark, tough rabbit. Crocodile is pale and tender, faintly like chicken but less fibrous, but it can be fatty.

Ostrich fillet is like a silkier fillet of beef, a darker red. It's almost entirely free of fat and therefore less flavoursome. It's good, but at what price? Surely the idea of bringing these giant, flightless birds from the baking African savannah to our inhospitable climate sounds like the height of British eccentricity?

Ostrich has actually been farmed in South Africa since 1860, not for its meat but for its feathers. The bottom eventually fell out of the the market, there being fewer fan dancers or colonial governors requiring plumes to adorn their headgear. The hides, consisting of four square feet of the most delicate, fine leather, then became highly sought-after. Today they fetch pounds 400 a pelt and rumour has it that Princes Di kitted herself out with a skintight pair of ostrich skin trousers costing pounds 4,000.

The meat was always an insignificant by-product, though in South Africa they used it to make their popular air-dried meat, biltong. This has all changed. Ostrich meat is being welcomed by nutritionists as a choice alternative to beef, being slightly higher in protein, and much, much lower in fat and cholesterol.

Even so, you could have knocked me down with a feather when I read that British farmers were diversifying into ostrich meat. At least 150 farmers, it seems, are experimenting with a pair of birds. The British Domesticated Ostrich Association reports that there are 20 quite sizeable operations. The biggest, with 150 breeding birds, is at Woking in Surrey. Others are in Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

Robert Bailey is one of the pioneers. He started in 1990 and now has 60 birds on his mixed farm in Chepstow in Wales. Most of us have only seen these prehistoric birds in a zoo, so it was a bizarre experience to come face to face with them on his farm, grazing in a field adjacent to his herd of black-and-white Friesian cows, contentedly pecking the grass.

Robert Bailey is 51, and with his nail-brush beard would pass as a painter (his wife Nina is an artist, now in her ostrich period). Actually he is a civil engineer and plans to keep the day job for the time being. The only ostrich meat he sells at the moment is from creatures that he's had to put down.

"But I do plan to sell meat on a big commercial scale. Most of us are still at the breeding stage, building up stock. There's a lot to be done before we can get the price down to a realistic level, below that of regular meat. We'll need a million birds across the country to provide enough meat for the supermarkets."

For the supermarkets? Good heavens, Mr Bailey is really serious about this. "Of course. It's not so long ago that we bought turkey once a year, at Christmas. Now we buy it all the time and it's all due to good marketing." So we have Bernard Matthews to thank. What next? Bootiful ostrichburgers?

There's a lot of meat on an ostrich, 60 to 106 pounds, mostly from the hindquarters. But at present there's no practical return on meat sales because the breeding birds are phenomenally expensive: pounds 6,000 for a mature one, pounds l,000 for a nine-month-old, and even pounds 100 for fertilised eggs (and you need a incubator costing pounds 10,000 to hatch them).

"Then you have to think about promotion, how to put the ostrich across. We need to sell it as a very healthy, modern meat, with no cholesterol, certainly no BSE." There's no Mad Ostrich Disease.

Mr Bailey takes us on a tour of the farm, past the barn which is a Noah's Ark full of rare breeds of geese, hens, ducks, doves and guinea fowl, and into the field to meet five of his mature breeding birds. They are huge, some 12 feet tall when drawn up to full height, the two males black and haughty, the three females speckled brown and generally more agreeable.

On seeing us, the first hen in the pecking order, called Big Bird, adopts the mating posture, settling down on the grass. The male, who's called Sid Vicious, tries to keep his balance by flapping his heavy plumage as he mounts her. The other ostriches, called Little, Sweet Pea and Asstretch, stand close by.

Mr Bailey leads us to another field, to meet some younger birds, 10 to 14 months old, which have just reached youthful maturity. They push their long scruffy white necks over the drystone wall, demanding our attention. Robert Bailey feeds them each with a handful of mint from the farmhouse garden. Their huge eyes pop and their great beaks dive at his hand, evoking the incident when talk-show host Michael Parkinson's guest was Rod Hull's Emu. "They don't peck you," says Mr Bailey holding up four fingers and a thumb. "But they can deliver a vicious forward kick." So you'd find out what it's like to tangle with Eric Cantona?

"They tear at your chest. I have a shepherd's crook so I can to pull their heads down to my level and given them a talking to. If Sid Vicious is playing up I give him a clip over the ear. 'Stop that, do you hear?' And he'll behave himself for a few days."

Ostriches are tremendous fun to have around, especially the little ones. Robert Bailey takes us to a third group of 40 or so small brown ostriches, not much more than chicks, although they are already two feet tall.

When they see us, they go quite barmy with excitement, running around in dizzy circles. They try to impress us with their mating rituals, pirouetting and shaking their heads. Walt Disney had it right in Fantasia when he cast them as a corps de ballet for the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies. "They get over-excited," says Mr Bailey. "Eventually, they fall over."

Animal welfare people should be relieved to learn that ostriches in no way lend themselves to intensive farming. They need space and exercise to keep well. In fact, Mr Bailey's sleek black-and-white Welsh border collie, Ben, exercises them. He leaps the fence into the field, and runs around urging them to chase him.

They think it's a fantastic game, for even at this age they move fast. On the savannah they can run at 40mph for 10 hours on the trot; though if pressed (by a cheetah perhaps) they can accelerate to 80 mph.

Ostriches make extremely good farming sense, Mr Bailey says. "A cow produces only one calf a year. An ostrich lays an egg every other day, of which 40 to 80 are fertile. In the wild there's a 95 per cent failure rate, but using an incubator we don't need to lose any,"

The critical stage is the first three months after the chicks hatch. They are fearful creatures with no desire to live. In fact the chicks try every way to die, trying to starve themselves, visibly crying. "They are pitiful. They are very dependent on their human minders, it's totally exhausting." Happily they do become physically robust and live to a ripe old age of 100 or so. The females lay up to the age of 40, and the males are sexually active until they are 80.

Incidentally, ostriches are pretty daft, but they do not actually bury their heads in the sand, says Mr Bailey. On the rocky plains they inhabit, they rest their heads and necks on the ground and kneel down with their bums in the air. From a distance they can easily be mistaken for large boulders.

These are early days in ostrich farming, but the association would expect the meat to become freely available in two years' time, and as cheap as beef within five years. The only meat Mr Bailey sells is when he has to cull his birds, but various local restaurants are keen to take all he can supply. There's little consumer resistance to the idea of eating ostrich, he says. In fact, the Ministry of Agriculture's research arm, ADAS, has informed farmers that in a series of European taste tests 82 per cent of people preferred ostrich to beef.

"It's widely eaten in South Africa, which is where I got the idea. I saw this ostrich farm in the Northern Cape where the weather was worse than a Welsh winter. The meat was selling very well. The Swiss, Belgians and French buy it in. At one time they made up a name for it, volaise, but they have dropped it. I did meet one South African chef who couldn't sell any until he thought of calling it Kalahari steak."

A top South African chef was showing off ostrich meat in London only the other week, Constandinos Simatos from Durban's famous Royal Hotel. He put ostrich medallions on a wine-promotion menu at The Kensington Park Hotel. He got his ostrich from Scotland. He cooked the medallions with a Madeira sauce and they went down very well with an oustanding Stellenryck Cabernet Sauvignon 1989. Mr Simatos cut the ostrich fillet into pieces half-an-inch thick and pan-fried them briefly, two or three minutes on each side.

I managed to get hold of some. It's pure red meat, no bones, no fat or waste. It cuts like fillet steak, but is silkier in texture. I fried it quickly. We all liked it, the children too. If the price was right I'd happily buy it in preference to beef steak, turkey, venison or rabbit.

But ostrich is not yet a meat whose time has come. In fact you'll be hard pressed to get hold of any at a modest price unless you hunt down a local ostrich farmer who is culling their stock. You can try contacting The British Domes-ticated Ostrich Association, 41 Bank Street, Carlisle CA3 8HJ (01228 34423). Or you can buy fresh ostrich meat imported from Belgium, at pounds 12.40 per lb, by mail order from Barrow Boar, Foster's farm, South Barrow, Yeovil, Somerset BA22 7LN (01963 440315). !

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