Where Does This Steak Come From? Learn The Story Of Canadian Beef From Cattle Ranch To Fine Dining Table
Open prairie as far as the eye can see, wide blue skies, mountains in the far distance, and cowboys on horseback. That’s the image that comes to mind when I think of the “wild, wild West.” And from imagination to reality, I found myself living the “not-so-wild West” during a week-long trip to Alberta, Canada with Metro Channel’s FoodPrints team and host Sandy Daza.
The wide open spaces of Butters Ranch
We were in town to learn more about Canadian beef, how the cattle are raised, and why the country has earned its reputation as a supplier of premium quality beef. To know the reason why, the story has to start at the source—with a visit to a typical Albertan cattle ranch—before ending at one of the best tables in town.
The ranch life
One rainy morning several days into our week-long stay in Calgary, Chef Mathieu Paré, the Executive Director of the Canadian Beef Centre of Excellence, picked us up at our hotel in downtown Calgary for an hour-and-a-half long drive north of the city to spend the morning at Butters Ranch in the scenic Ghost River Valley, not far from the Rocky Mountains.
The Butters ranchhouse
The ranch has been in the Butters family since the 1930s. We arrived at the ranch and were met by 3rd generation owner Eric Butters in his pinewood ranch house filled with cowboy memorabilia. His great-grandfather moved to Alberta in the 1880s from Wyoming. His claim to fame was knowing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (yes, those near-mythical cowboy criminals immortalized in that Robert Redford and Paul Newman movie in 1969). The Sundance Kid was actually the best man at his great-grandfather’s wedding!
Cowboy memorabilia on display
Butters Ranch has around 250 head of cattle that spend most of their lives outdoors, roaming the pastures and feeding on grass, hay, alfalfa, oats. The cattle are hardy enough to withstand the harsh winters outdoors, digging through the snow with their hooves to get at the grass below. If the snow is too thick, Butters supplements with feed, and if the wind and temperature are particularly harsh, he provides temporary shelter.
Eric Butters with FoodPrints host Sandy Daza
In March to May, it’s birthing season when the calves are born. They’re kept with their mothers for seven months, before they’re sent to a feedlot to be “finished” with grain. Each of the calves are tagged in the ear at six weeks old using the government-mandated ID tag program to ensure 100% traceability throughout the beef chain. No matter where you are in the world enjoying Canadian beef, you’ll be able to know exactly which ranch and which animal your steak came from.
Young cows in pasture
As we relished the fresh air, and buttoned up against the chilly wind (despite it being late summer), Butters shared what work is like on the ranch—checking on the cattle, maintaining the miles of fencing that border the vast property, patrolling for moose and elk that could damage the fences, supplying the different pastures with water and supplemental feed—much of which is still done on horseback.
The cattle landscape
According to Chef Mathieu, the bulk of Canadian beef comes from more than 68,000 small family-owned ranches—just like Butters Ranch—rather than big, quasi-industrial lots. Cattle in Canada are spoiled with wide open spaces to roam and graze, enjoy the fresh air, clean water, and pure grass.
Red Angus bulls in a separate enclosure
While much has been written about the cattle industry as a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, Chef Mathieu asserts that Canada’s approach places value on sustainability and stewardship of its resources. This landscape was made for grazing, he says. Millions of bison thrived here, even before the arrival of European settlers. When buffalo became scarce, cattle simply replaced them. The Canadian ranchers didn’t transform the land to conform to the cattle, but rather used the existing landscape, with the cattle being bred as a crucial part of the prairie ecosystem. Chef Matthieu asserts, “This land needs beef.”
Like many ranchers in Canada, Eric Butters plans to pass on the ranch to his daughters and their husbands, who have already started taking on more responsibility in running the ranch, and thus maintaining the lifestyle and continuing the legacy of producing beef the same way their forefathers did close to a hundred years ago.
Beef on the table
There’s nothing like visiting a cattle ranch on the Albertan prairie to gain a deeper understanding of the time and effort it takes to put a premium piece of Canadian beef on your plate. And our group was excited to get a try different beef cuts prepared in myriad ways at another kind of ranch called Bow Valley Ranche.
The restored Bow Valley Ranche mansion
This fine dining restaurant is housed in the property formerly owned by William Roper Hull, an important figure in the development of Alberta’s cattle industry in the late 1800s. In 1902, the ranch was purchased by Senator Patrick Burns, one of the big four who started the Calgary Stampede (Canada’s biggest annual rodeo). Since 1973, Bow Valley Ranche property has been owned by the Alberta government as part of Fish Creek Provincial Park.
Relaxed ranch-like interiors
Now a restaurant, Bow Valley Ranche maintains much of its rancher charm with wood paneling, warm fireplaces, antler chandeliers, and even a gigantic bison head hanging in the main dining room. But its menu is anything but traditional, as Executive Chef Jenny Kang brings a modern-day sensibility to the menu, while still being mindful of its ranch origins.
Chef Jenny highlighted the quality and versatility of Canadian beef through dishes that spanned the globe, from subtle Japanese flavors, to hearty rustic Italian, and a classic steak dish with a French flourish.
Canadian beef striploin is prepared tataki style with a light ponzu sauce, grated radish, and onions
Ravioli with a stuffing of braised Canadian beef short rib, served with carrot purée, mixed mushroom fricassée, and dusted with truffle powder
Superb Canadian beef tenderloin with potato gratin, rainbow carrot, Swiss chard, grilled zucchini and foie gras jus
This Black Sage Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2015 from the Okanagan Valley in nearby British Colombia plays the perfect to match to the beef dishes
To end, a tropical-inspired peach and vanilla custard with coconut gelato, almond crumbs, and peach fluid gel
While a good steak on the plate is always enjoyable, what made this dinner even more special was knowing where that steak came from—the way the cattle are raised, the land that they live in, and the ranchers who ensure that what arrives on our tables brings us both pleasure and sustenance.
Watch Sandy Daza tour Alberta, Canada on FoodPrints Season 6 on Metro Channel (Channel 52 on SkyCable and channel 174 on HD). Catch replays throughout the week.
Special thanks to the Canadian Beef Centre for Excellence at canadabeef.ca