It takes Daniela Mollica and her husband Ian Walker well over five years to get one of their long-legged chianina cattle from paddock to the plate. So it’s no surprise that they currently can’t meet demand for their exceptionally lean beef. The couple has bred Chianina (pronounced kee-a-nee-na) – an Italian breed – for about five years on their farm in Victoria’s South Gippsland.
Chianina, which take their name from the val di Chiana – a valley in central Italy, are huge, handsome, lean, white beasts that are very slow to grow. The couple’s herd is full-bred – not full blood – which means they have been bred up from a crossbreed to a high percentage of Chianina genetics over a number of generations. That takes time. Calves are carried for nine months, and mating doesn’t happen before they’re two years of age. Chianina are also so large they are about two years old before they’re big enough for slaughter.
It’s a slow process. But the couple is in no rush. Mollica co-founded the Melbourne chapter of the Slow Food in 1996 before living and working in Italy for four years, where she was also involved in the Italian arm of the movement, so slow food is part of her make-up. And it’s part of the artisan philosophy behind the farm.
The herd has increased in size by about 50 percent in the past five years. The plan is to grow it by another 50 percent over the next 12 months to two years. That will take them to several hundred breeders, which is in line with the couple’s philosophy of running a small, hands-on operation.
“We’re still in a growth period,” Mollica says. “It takes time to breed up animals.We’re still small, still considered artisan farmers.”
Chianina is the leggy blonde supermodel of the beef industry. The breed has been in Australia since the early 1970s. But they’re less profitable than the traditional English and European breeds so most Australian Chianina farmers use the cattle to cross breed.
Chianina are slow growing, larger animals so they eat more grass. It costs around 25 percent more to produce the same kilograms of Chianina beef as Angus, Hereford or Murray Grey, which are the more traditional breeds consumed in Australia.
“It makes it slightly less economically viable,” Mollica says. “You need to hold them for longer therefore they eat more grass, however we also feel that because they are slower growing it does develop a more flavoursome meat.”
The beef, marketed as Isola Chianina, is grass fed and dry aged. Being a large, lean animal, it is not flavoursome in the same buttery, fatty way that wagyu is with its high proportion of intramuscular fat. Because Isola Chianina lacks the fat levels of other beef, it is particularly unforgiving if it is overcooked – but the reward is beef that has a long, clean flavour. The animals are raised on good pasture in a high rainfall area, which lends a grassy note to the finished beef.
The couple believes they are the only farmers in Australia breeding Chianina commercially for meat. Currently demand far exceeds supply. About eight cattle are slaughtered each month, and distributed in $175 fresh “home packs” (in Melbourne only), which comprise a mix of cuts. Customers essentially receive 1/15 of a carcass, with a cost saving – from buying in bulk – of about 33 percent when compared to similar quality dry-aged grass fed beef.
While gastronomes wax lyrical about the classic Tuscan dish bistecca alla Fiorentina (Florentine T-bone steak), Mollica says each cut responds well to particular cooking techniques. The topside responds well to being diced then braised. Mollica likes to slice it thin, coat it in sourdough breadcrumbs, with lemon rind, parsley and parmesan, and then pan-fry it for a delicious cotoletta.
I briefly pan-fried thin slices of topside for steak sandwiches with onion rings, rocket, and garlic aioli. While we didn’t have juices running down our arms as we ate it (which is probably a good thing) the beef firmly stood its ground against the mélange of other flavours.
Mollica believes the success of Isola Chianina is due, in part, to good timing.
“Part of the reason we are able to be successful is because the marketplace is ready to understand breeds,” she says.
“I think we’ve also been a little more lucky in the sense of timing. Once you reach the point that McDonald’s advertises the breed of cattle and Subway advertises the breed of cattle I think there is a certain groundswell that also has allowed us to be successful.”
However, they’re not planning to scale-up dramatically to cash in on demand.
“We’re not in it to become the next big thing,” Mollica says.
“What I would really like is that customers understand that there is more than one variety of beef cattle. I’d like the marketplace to be more supportive of smaller farmers doing different breeds. What I rally against is the fact that our food is becoming homogenous – that annoys me.”
They are, however, pleasantly surprised by the demand.
“We thought this would be a bit of a hobby for us,” Mollica says. “It’s a hobby gone mad.”