The great missed steak: Why you’ve been eating beef all wrong

Josh Dye
Chef Lennox Hastie says dairy beef is an 'untapped resource'.
Chef Lennox Hastie says dairy beef is an 'untapped resource'.  Photo: Wolter Peeters

Andrew Tout is a sixth-generation farmer who is sick of seeing old cows slaughtered for next to nothing.

So he came up with a solution. Instead of turning dairy cattle into burger patties or pet food in the US, he's fattening them up to sell them for their meat.

Dairy beef is not a new phenomenon; restaurants in Europe have been serving retired dairy cows on plates for years.

Butcher Glenn Dumbrell says dairy beef gives the farmers another opportunity to add value to what they do.
Butcher Glenn Dumbrell says dairy beef gives the farmers another opportunity to add value to what they do.  Photo: Simon Schluter

But in Australia the trend is emerging as the meat becomes easier to source and consumers learn to appreciate the more mature flavour. 

Tout's Coppertree Farms business in NSW has found a niche market selling older cows to top-end restaurants, and he is fetching a handsome premium.

Tout nominates two reasons why dairy beef is increasingly turning up on restaurant plates around Australia: sustainability and supply.

"The Australian consumer has become aware of what they're eating," he says. "They like the story of eating something that's already nourished people through dairy products."

And where once quality dairy beef was difficult to source, suppliers are now beginning to meet the demand from a small but growing number of restaurants.

'Major cultural shift'

Chef Lennox Hastie says he first came across dairy beef in northern Spain. He has wanted to serve it for the past decade but until recently has only been able to find "bits and pieces" of the premium dairy beef for his Sydney restaurant Firedoor.

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"It was next to impossible to find continuous supply," Hastie says.

He believes dairy cows are an "untapped resource" and the majority of the animals are wasted.

But dairy beef still carries a stigma and convincing mainstream Australia to eat it could prove tricky. 

"You're looking at a very major cultural shift," Hastie says.

"There's always the misconception that a dairy cow that's not produced for beef will be tough and unpalatable."

But Hastie reckons once people try it they're usually "surprised how tender it can be".

"I hope they can enjoy and appreciate it as much as I do, but it can take a while to change the palate."

Firedoor restaurant even uses the odd dairy cow from ice-cream makers Gelato Messina, meaning your mains and dessert could come from the same cow.

"[Messina] took a decision to buy a dairy herd to enrich the quality of their milk offering," Hastie says.

"[But] they're not in the meat business. When some cows get to a certain age where they're too old to milk, they go out to pasture and eat clover and grass for a couple of years."

Next thing you know, they're on your plate.

'It's a smart move'

Eighteen months ago, artisan butcher Glenn Dumbrell thought the only time he'd be able to eat dairy beef was overseas.

Now he sells the meat to customers at Char Char Char butchers in Melbourne's south-east.

​"You've taken product that's been bottom of the barrel and would be used for mince or pet food or whatever, and turned it into a premium flavour," Dumbrell says. 

"It gives the farmers another opportunity to add value to what they do. A lot of cattle have gone to waste over the years when they probably shouldn't have.

"In this world of sustainability it's a smart move to use all the protein we can to its optimum [level]."

​While supply and quality remain two issues facing the industry, Dumbrell is confident dairy beef won't just be a passing fad.

"I think if it's done correctly ... it's definitely got a future in Australia."

WHAT IS DAIRY BEEF?

Dairy beef comes from dairy cows, which have not traditionally been used for their meat. Dairy cows are usually leaner and are bred for their milk, whereas beef cows are raised primarily for meat production. Beef cattle are either grass- or grain-fed, they typically live shorter lives and are bred for their meat. Cattle beef is a multi-billion-dollar industry, whereas dairy beef is in its infancy. 

Restaurants serving dairy beef

Sydney: 

Firedoor 

Rockpool Bar & Grill 

The Gidley 

Melbourne: 

Ten Minutes by Tractor 

Crofter Dining Room and Bar (from January)