Choosing Heritage Breed Meats

I can't think of a better time than early spring to sing the praises of heritage breed and naturally raised meats. For home cooks all over the country, this is the time for traditional feasts of ham and brisket and leg of lamb. And for farmers who raise their livestock the sustainable way--on pasture--this is prime birthing time, when new growth in fields and foraging areas ensures ample nutrients for the young.

Unlike commercial livestock that are confined to stalls and plumped up with hormones and cheap grain, heritage breeds and other sustainably raised livestock roam free with access to the diets their ancestors have been eating for centuries. "Heritage" refers to traditional livestock breeds that have not been genetically altered for commercial gain and display the same attributes as their breeds did hundreds--or even thousands--of years ago. These attributes, such as good maternal instincts and foraging abilities, cold (or heat) tolerance, and disease and parasite resistance, make heritage breeds much hardier than their commercial counterparts. And their natural diets of grass and bugs and other organic materials, paired with their active lifestyles, make them much more flavorful, too. Though it takes longer for these traditional breeds to reach their market weight, and raising them is therefore more expensive for farmers, the benefits of taste, texture, nutrients, and humane treatment far outweigh the cost.

Basically, what it comes down to is this: When you choose heritage breed and naturally raised meats, everybody wins. You get to experience some of the most flavorful, exceptionally marbled meat there is, the farmers get the money they need to keep raising animals the way nature intended, and that gives these heritage breeds a consistent purpose in our agricultural system. (This is a favorite subject of mine, if you haven't already guessed.)

So this year, if you're hosting an Easter or Passover dinner, or any other big gathering, may I suggest ordering a naturally raised brisket or heritage breed ham? Or why not swing by the Farmstand for legs of heritage breed lamb from Jamison Farm, and other naturally raised/heritage breed cuts and roasts from Sweet StemStrykerCountry TimePhilly Cow Share, and N.S. Troutman & Sons.

For more information about heritage breeds, click here or here or here.

And if you need some planning help, check out these menu ideas for Easter and Passover gatherings: