By Dave Seel, Long Island Food Correspondent
Driving through Cutchogue on Rt. 25, you have to keep a keen look out for the sign at McCall Wines or you might miss it. The tasting room, an old potato barn, is nothing like the large structures of other wineries, but is a relic of what the land has been and what it is now.
Russ McCall, who spent summers on Long Island as a boy and is now a veteran of the wine industry, bought the property with The Peconic Bay Land Trust in 1996 to save Down’s Woods, Fort Corchaug and the farmland adjoining his family's property. His goal was simply to keep the land as it had always been, as farmland.
Over the years, McCall has planted 21 acres of the 100-acre property with pinot noir and merlot vines, and released his first vintage in 2007.
Alongside the rows of grapes are rolling pastures, planted with native wild grasses. Inspired by a New York Times article on the awful state of beef feedlots, as well as a way to benefit from the hay he was already cutting, McCall purchased 14 pregnant Charolais cows and has been growing his herd ever since. This cattle herd is the source for what is becoming some of the most prized beef on the East End, and is already gracing the tables of some of the region’s emerging farm-to-table restaurants.
This summer the first cow was butchered with great excitement from East End chefs and food lovers alike.
Adam Kopels of Shelter Island's 18 Bay Restaurant opted to take whatever he could get his hands on, which turned out to be the cow’s head. “We’re a nose-to-tail kind of restaurant,” he commented. “So we were psyched to make some beef tonque and braised beef cheeks from this great product,” he said.
Charolais cattle are a muscular beef breed native to France and not as common as Angus and Shorthorn beef cattle. McCall picked the breed because it reminded him of his travels in France and his desire to bring something unique to the market.
Raised only on grass and hay from the same North Fork pasture, this cattle results in an incredibly special cut of meat.
According to sous chef Sarah Evans of North Fork Table “When people take the time to raise an animal in a better environment there is always a difference. The old saying, 'you are what you eat' is true for animals too. And just as in wine, terrior has a large impact. This first cow was 100% pasture grass fed. Animals that come from different places that are fed off of that land have very different characteristics than those of another place and especially those of factory farms.”
The meat is almost venison-like -- lean, gamey, and as Evans describes, “the beefiest beef I’ve ever tasted.” She recommends cooking the beef in “luscious” fats, like duck fat, and no more than medium-rare to avoid making the meat tough. For those cooking McCall beef or any grass-fed beef, she instructs, “Give it a good ten minutes to rest after cooking so the juices can redistribute inside the meat not on your plate. During the resting time, the beef will continue to cook, so pull it off a little earlier than you think and it will come out perfectly. Always pair with freshly picked local produce and a fantastic North Fork wine. There is something to be said about the harmony of products all coming from the same terrior!”
Russ McCall recommends his 2007 Ben’s Blend: a Bordeaux blend of merlot, petit verdot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.
Currently, the beef is being sold at Love Lane Market in Mattituck and can be found on the menu of the North Fork Table and Inn. Along with Love Lane Kitchen, the Market has become a beacon of the emerging local food scene on the North Fork. “We are trying to bring cooking and eating back to the way it was a hundred years ago. People should know where their food comes from,” said Siran Libretto, General Manager of the Market, “There is such a food revolution occurring with people wanting to eat and drink local, having McCall’s beef helps complete that circle.”
As Adam Kopels describes it, “There is a new consciousness in the way people eat. Chefs really can be the bridge between the producers and diners. We can tell people, ‘Hey, this is just from ten minutes down the street. Go get some for yourself and try it at home!’”
This communal mentality is really what is driving the food scene on the North Fork. People want to support one another because they know they share a common place. They appreciate the interconnection of the land, the food that is grown from it, and the sustainable methods used to do so.
From time to time, McCall still reminisces about his boyhood days when he would catch fish, eel, and crabs in local creeks and would grab some produce from his neighbor’s farm. “We ate what was there…what was in season.”
His cattle and wine are a part of a broadening movement to return to this local appreciation of food. Not only does it lessen our carbon footprint and stimulate our local economies, but it also connects us with each other and the land. It allows us to be a part of the lives of those that are inextricably tide to us, the community of people and organisms that sustain us.