Jake Willis, manager of Peaceful Cove Ranch, walked through the Foothills just north of Boise. The sky was blue, the pasture green, and on a sagebrush-dotted ridge above, a herd of cattle could be seen grazing. It was a quintessential Idaho ranch scene, except for those cattle.
We climbed into Willis' pickup for a closer look. As we approached, the animals increasingly appeared less like domestic bovine than miniature wooly mammoths. They're short, with straight red hair that's long enough to obscure their eyes and nearly touch the ground. On their heads are upright, arching horns that also make them look like costume-party Vikings. They seem both strangely cuddly and slightly menacing all at once.
They're Scottish Highland cattle, said Willis.
An ancient breed, Highland cattle were shipped to the United States as early as the 1850s but never gained the popularity of a more famous Scottish cousin, the Angus. With only a few thousand purebred Highland cattle in the country 20 years ago, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy declared the breed endangered. But thanks to a recent explosion of interest in unique and heritage varieties of farm animals--from chickens to goats to cattle--there are now closer to 50,000 registered Highland cattle in America.
Willis said Peaceful Cove Ranch brought in its first four pair in 1999 and now has about 80 head roaming the ranch. He said some ranchers buy Highland cattle for their novelty or to enter in cattle shows. They're also docile and relatively easy to care for. But Peaceful Cove bought its herd for a more fundamental reason: They make good, lean beef.
"They've got independent studies out there showing that these are less in cholesterol and fat than even chicken," Willis said in a slightly prideful cowboy drawl.
Tom Newton, president of the Northwest Highland Cattle Association--a chapter of the American Highland Cattle Association--made his own protein comparisons.
"The fat content and, therefore, also the cholesterol that's generated is less than you find in buffalo. And, in fact, less than you find in codfish," Newton said.
Raise them on good pasture, he added, and Highland cattle are about as healthy as beef gets--and they deserve their increasing popularity.
Newton, who lives in McCleary, Wash., said the secret to the lower fat content in Highland cattle has to do with that long, rug-like outer layer of hair that protects an unseen, downy undercoat.
"The air gets trapped between those two layers" Newton said. "It insulates the animals, keeps them warm, and as a result, does not require biologically the development of a thick layer of fat to survive winter. So you've got an animal that is extraordinarily lean. We don't have to do anything to it to make it that way. We don't have to feed it differently. It's that way because that's the way God made it."
Well, God and some long-ago cattle breeders trying to create an animal capable of surviving the harsh winters and poor forage of a place like the Scottish Highlands.
Which also makes them suitable for a good chunk of the American West.
Currently, 93 farms in Washington, Oregon and Idaho are members of the Northwest Highland Association. Fifteen of those farms raise Highland cattle in Idaho, all the way from Bonners Ferry to Murphy. Some sell their Highland beef to the public. Peaceful Cove Ranch raises much of its cattle herd to be served at the nearby 36th Street Bistro in the Collister neighborhood of Boise.
"We've got on the grill, right now, a Highland beef burger," yelled chef Joe Leseberg over the din in his tiny kitchen. "It's going to be our bacon bleu. This is one we sell a million of every day."
Leseberg also serves braised Highland beef over polenta and, for kids, Highland hot dogs. Of the taste, he said, "It's very clean, it's very flavorful, and to me, it's one of the best meats I've ever worked with."
There may be a scientific reason for that. Food writer Mark Schatzker traveled the world in search of "the world's tastiest piece of beef" for his 2010 book Steak and declared a Scottish Highland rib-eye one of the best he ate on his odyssey, "an A-plus." Schatzker said Highland cattle are slower growing than more popular, industrial breeds of cattle and have a much higher percentage of "slow-twitch" muscles than fast-growing breeds. That makes them finer-grained and flavorful, even with their low fat content.
Leseberg is less concerned about beef science than the opportunity to try something new.
"It's a lot of fun to see people's reaction," he said, spatula in hand. "People ask, 'Where are you getting your beef?' and we get to tell them, 'Oh, we get it from three miles away.' It's nice to hear that. It's nice to see something new and be able to work with it."