BLUE EGGS AND ROSE VEAL
By Paul Sussman
I first learned of Azuluna last spring when I got a call from Ted Kolota asking if I would like to sample locally produced, all natural veal. Ted wanted to drop off a selection of veal cuts that I could sample myself and serve to customers. The only catch was that they wanted my honest opinion as to the quality of the veal, and for me to do an informal customer survey. It was an offer I couldn't refuse, so naturally, I said "sure."
When Ted arrived the next day to drop off the veal loin, flank steaks, legs and some ground veal, he explained that the windfall was from a project led by Dr. George Saperstein at Tufts Veterinary School in Grafton Massachusetts. Their project was to design a system dairy farmers could use to naturally raise their male calves for veal and to create a market for the product by creating a brand: Azuluna. Three chefs in the Boston area, myself, Ana Sortun and Michael Leviton were being asked to evaluate the results.
Using the ground veal, I made meatballs for my staff and served the rest as specials over the next several days, cooking the flanks steaks over wood, roasting the loin and leg. I asked my waitstaff to explain to customers what there were getting and to gauge their reactions.
There were three questions, really. The first concerned the quality of the meat; it's tenderness, the fat content and the flavor. The second was how customers would respond to a veal that looked and tasted different from the traditional pale, mild meat that is considered the industry standard. The third was whether; with the negative association customers have towards standard veal, would they be more likely to order a naturally and humanely raised product.
The first question was easy to answer. I thought the quality was excellent; a bit tougher that the veal I was used to eating, but with so much more flavor. It is more full-bodied than standard white veal raised in a pen, but milder than grass or grain-fed veal which is "beefier". The response to the second question seemed quite positive too based on the sales and some random customer opinions. Some customers really appreciated the quality and were happy to buy a sustainable, natural product.
When I conveyed this to Ted I asked about the name Azuluna and he told me more of the story. The veal was but one product they were trying to brand and sell. They also had an egg. A blue egg laid by hens descended from a breed called Araucana, which they were raising cage free, scratching for food during the day and feed corn without antibiotics or hormones. They were to be marketed as not only natural, but fresher too. In addition,Additional products they were working on included heirloom breeds of pork and lamb.
I found this so exciting that I arranged a visit to see first hand what they were doingup to. A few weeks later I drove out to Grafton to get a tour of the school and meet with Dr. Saperstein. What I saw was inspiring: calves roaming in the pasture, chickens being raised as they were generations ago scratching the dirt, several varieties of sheep and pigs, including a few I'd never heard of, being raised in pens. I then learned how this all came about at a veterinary school.
First you should know that the Grafton campus, about 45 minutes west of Boston, holds not only the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, but a small animal hospital, the Tufts Wildlife Clinic that has been designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the official New England treatment center for rare and endangered species. Their Hospital for Large Animals provides 24-hour care for horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and llamas. Dr. Saperstein, a livestock veterinarian, is chairperson of the Department of Environmental and Population Health, which is concerned with the preservation of the balance between animals, humans and their shared environment, as well as the well being of animals and their caregivers.
Dr. Saperstein explained that a few years ago he was at a meeting of thelocal New England dDairy fFarmers discussing their concerns about their survival in the face of dropping milk prices, increasing feed prices and competition from California where labor is cheaper and they can buy alfalfa for less that a New England farmer can grow it. He realized that the conventional wisdom that he had been touting, that to make money, the farmers needed to become more efficient, and focused on producing milk inexpensively, was not working. He decided that diversity was the key: finding resources that were undervalued and then finding a market for them. He suggested that they put their least productive cows out to pasture with male calves, which are normally sold at a few days old for pennies, and with these calves, produce high-quality natural veal. The farmers were skeptical; they couldn't afford to take those kinds of risks. Dr. Saperstein realized that he would have to build the demand for the product before he could expect them to provide the supply.
He promised them that he would not return until he had chefs and high-end consumers clamoring for the product. He then obtained a $480,000 USDA grant to build a model on the Grafton campus that would give the dairy farmers an exact procedure for raising the veal, and would create a brand to sell it under, guaranteeing them a market. In his first trial he turned 13 calves out to pasture with four dairy cows, allowing them to nurse at any time they liked along with free access to oatsfeed on grain during their last weeks and hay. They were not given any antibiotics or growth hormones. When they reached 350 pounds they were slaughtered at Stafford Enterprises using humane methods.
The next step was creating the demand. To that end he enlisted Ted Kolota, a marketing and branding expert. They realized that there were several products that could be naturally raised and would have distinctive qualities that would set them apart from agricultural commodities. One was the blue egg that gave rise to the brand name of Azuluna. The color would be the brand icon so that the consumer would know that this egg was naturally raised and tasted the way eggs used to taste: rich, creamy and fresh.
The eggs are presently available in limited supply at Roche Brothers Supermarket in Acton, Massachusetts and Sudbury Farms in Sudbury, Massachusetts. They are wonderful. Unlike the "cage-free" eggs you find in supermarkets these days, which come from hens kept in huge, crowded rooms, these chickens are free to run around eating bugs and worms, producing an egg with a golden yolk 5% bigger that a standard egg, and a bigger flavor. They are expensive because of the space needed to raise them this way, because they lay less eggs thant a commercial hen, because they are sorted, graded and candled by hand and lastly, because they are not distributed the standard industry way. Instead they are distributed directly from the producer to nearby stores.
Six months ago, as part of Azuluna's quest for tastier pork, I got to sample naturally raised meat from breeds of pork from Berkshire pigs that are no longer in commercial productionthat spent their entire lives on their home farm with the opportunity to go out on pasture to enjoy fresh air, sunshine, and rooting whenever they pleased. Ted brought me some shanks, a gorgeous bone-in loin and some belly. The loin got slow roasted over hardwood charcoal, the shanks got smoked and the belly I braised with ginger, star anise and soy sauce. It was outstanding. Unfortunately the pork experiment is on hold. Consumer studies have shown that this is a product that customers are not willing to pay a premium for.
The Egg project is going well but there are limits as to availability because of the distribution challenge. They considered using a centrally located plant to wash, grade and distribute the eggs in New England, but decided that the energy and other costs would be too high. The plan is to find a chain willing to buy locally for each individual stores without charging shelving fees .This may make Azuluna eggs harder to come by, but it makes it easier for small farms to augment their slow season revenues by selling eggs locally without having to ship to large distribution centers.
Consumer response to the veal has great. In 2005, 13 farmers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont produced 61 Azuluna calves. Dole and Bailey, a large local distributor, is selling as much as can be produced. Demand for Azuluna veal is out stripping supply, so more farmers are being sought to increase production. Still only available in restaurants, keep your fingers crossed and perhaps soon you will see it in your market.