Anya Fernald, chief executive at Belcampo Meat Co., thinks a lot about how her company's meat will taste. And she should, as head of a sustainable meat supply chain that includes a 10,000-acre organic farm and Temple Grandin-designed slaughterhouse up near Mt. Shasta, and now a butcher shop and restaurant in Larkspur, the subject of this week's full review. If successful, Fernald plans to expand her empire into points in Northern and Southern California over the next year.
As I mention in the review, the beef tastes different than the corn-fed, factory-farmed stuff -- it's gamier, more complex, and much more interesting. That's by design, Fernald told me. "I think that Americans have gotten used to proteins being the bland thing that you slather in satay sauce. A lot of American meat is just like a texture; it doesn't really taste like anything," she says. "We [Americans] have a lot of meat in the category of what supermarket tomatoes used to taste like 15 years ago, before people had discovered heirlooms."
The heirloom tomato comparison is apt in more ways than one: Belcampo mostly raises heritage breeds of cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and other two- and four-legged animals on the "marginal grassland" where the farm is located. Heritage breeds are better for the environment and there's a certain poetry to using them, but Ferald is more practical than sentimental: heritage breeds are better designed to survive in the difficult terrain.
"Bakersfield is like big slice of cheesecake. [We need] breeds of animals better suited to thrive in marginal environments," she says. But flavor is never out of the conversation for very long. Heritage breeds also happen to be fattier and tastier, and Fernald muses that the terrain's hardships make them more so: "I think that better-tasting food comes from more marginal environments in general."
Artisan businesses like Belcampo usually buck the idea of expansion because they're worried about losing control of quality or selling out, but ironically, Fernald needs more volume in order for the whole supply chain to make financial sense. "It's not very profitable to raise meat the way you're supposed to. ... The business is more viable with three or four more stores open," she says.
To that end, Fernald is actively courting three or four new leases, though San Francisco is off the table for now (there were rumors of a butcher shop-restaurant opening in the Mission). "I'm more interested in going to areas where there's less product available," she says. So Belcampo's expansion plans have shifted to a restaurant-butcher in Los Angeles and a smaller butcher shop opening in Palo Alto later this summer.
That doesn't mean Belcampo won't move into the city eventually. Fernald is tentatively thinking early 2014, maybe in the Financial District. But for now, Larkspur is only a short, beautiful drive up 101 -- and the braised beef cheek hash at brunch is a more than worthy reward after a ramble on Mt. Tam, looming large and scenic in the distance.