Independence Day in Israel has long been synonymous with barbecuing. Spring begins, and the ubiquitous mangal comes out. Every green open space becomes a prime site to light the coals, open the cooler and begin the ritual of stoking the embers.
On the day itself, the sheer number of families outdoors makes finding available spots nearly impossible, so people take advantage of any place they can find – including city roundabouts and public parking lots.
As a rule, Israelis are not big consumers of red meat. However, when Yom Ha’atzmaut comes around, everything changes. During a regular month, Israelis eat 1.45 kilograms of beef per person; but in the month that stretches between Pessah and Lag Ba’omer, the amount nearly doubles, with the average Israeli consuming 2.3 kg. of meat.
According to the Agriculture Ministry, the average Israeli eats 15 kg. of beef a year. In comparison, the average European eats 35 kg., while the carnivorous South Americans eat nearly 60 kg. Israelis, it seems, tend to prefer chicken, leading the world in its consumption per capita.
Unlike chicken, which is mostly grown locally, Israel imports about two-thirds of the beef consumed as mostly frozen meat from Argentina. But in the past two years there has been a marked growth in the production of fresh meat from cows bred and raised locally.
“Consumers are buying more ‘blue-and-white’ beef,” says Chaim Dayan, director of the Israeli Cattle Breeders Association. “In the last two years, we have seen a 15 percent increase in sales of Israeli beef. The people of Israel are learning to value freshness and quality.”
Dayan compares what’s happening in the Israeli beef industry to the change that took place in Israeli wine consumption a decade ago. “The days of people ordering a well-done piece of thawed-out rump steak are over. Today, people want their beef from prime cuts, well marbled, juicy and pink in the middle.”
Dayan says that the growing awareness among consumers has caught the attention of retailers and that more and more supermarkets are offering fresh meat.
According to Dayan, 80% of the cattle grown in Israel is grown north of Hadera, with the main pasturelands resting in the Golan Heights, the Galilee and the Jezreel Valley.
Israelis have been breeding cattle since the 1950s and have even developed a distinct breed called Israeli Red, or Simford, a cross between Simmental and Hereford cows. The main goal of the breeding program was to produce a breed that is an aggressive forager and can graze a native pasture existing in arid zones while being resistant to regional diseases, particularly tick fever.
“There are 240 breeders in the country, as well as 700 fatteners. All the raising and care of cattle is done according to strict protocols that produce animals of the highest standards,” says Dayan.
Yechiam Altschuler breeds cattle in Binyamina. What he does begins the process that ends with a great Independence Day barbecue.
“We help influence the nature and development of the animal that, in turn, will become a great steak,” he says. “On the way it goes through several stages. The quality of the final product depends on the effort and professionalism of everyone who makes up the chain.”
Altschuler raises beef of the Simmental variety. He says he mates his cows with bulls of the highest quality. Breeding is achieved both through old-fashioned procreation and through artificial insemination. His aim, he says, is to help the calves reach 300 kg. and then sell them to fatteners.
The fatteners get the calves up to 600-700 kg., then pass them to agents who sell them to abattoirs, where they are slaughtered, carved, packed and sent to the supermarkets, butchers and restaurants.
“Breeding is only half the job,” says Altschuler. “Once the calves are born, they have to be well taken care of and enjoy good natural conditions in order to grow big and healthy in a short time.”
Israeli calves are slaughtered for consumption shortly after their first year. Altschuler says that the frozen imports are usually of older steers or heifers. As a rule, when it comes to beef, the younger the animal, the more tender the meat.
Dayan says that younger animals also tend to be healthier and less dependent on antibiotics. “Since they receive all the antibodies through their mother’s milk, there is no need for us to inject them with lots of medication,” he explains.
“It’s a tough business to be in. We face many challenges,” says Altschuler. “Droughts, theft and kills by wild animals are all things that plague us regularly. Raising cattle is more a way of life than a job. Over the years, I’ve missed my fair share of Pessah Seders because I was looking after the herd.”
David Levy, chef and owner of Avant Garde, a Tel Aviv restaurant that specializes in fine meats, says he prefers to work with fresh, locally manufactured meat over frozen imports.
“It’s a matter of taste. You can really feel the freshness. Our customers have gotten used to it and can tell the difference. The taste is particularly noticeable in our hamburgers.”
Levy says that the last decade has seen a distinct rise in beef consumption, driven by consumer demands. “Israelis have matured. They no longer want their steaks well done. They know which cuts are good and how they like their steaks prepared. They also know the value of a well-aged piece of meat, which is why we installed a special fridge where we age our own beef.”
According to Levy, there are differences between men and women when it comes to ordering a steak. “Women, for the most part, order filets. The filet is a tender and lean cut that has almost no fat but, in my opinion, also has too little flavor. Men, on the other hand, tend to order rib eye or, as it’s known in Israel, entrecote. Those in the know also order sirloin, which is probably the most flavorful cut.”
In choosing beef, the Israeli Cattle Breeders Association suggests looking for meat that is red in color but not shiny. The shine comes from chemicals that are injected into the meat to retain fluids. Dark edges around the meat indicate that the meat has been dried out in the fridge. Fresh meat will keep in the fridge for up to four days and can also be frozen, but the experts recommend eating the meat within 24 hours of purchase.
Fresh meat can also be marinated overnight in olive oil and herbs, but experts warn about salting the cut prematurely. “Salt draws out moisture and dries up the meat. The best way is to add salt a minute or two before taking it off the grill,” advises Levy.
Dayan urges buyers to look for the veterinary services certification
when purchasing meat. The certification will tell who the producer is,
when the product was produced, the temperature at which the meat should
be kept and the expiry date.
When in the supermarket, he says,
buyers can tell the difference between fresh and thawed-out beef by the
level of moisture. Thawed meat will be wet, while fresh meat will be
dry on the outside.
Dayan says he likes every cut of meat as
long as it’s fresh. But when pressed, he says that at his Yom
Ha’atzmaut barbecue you’ll find properly aged and nicely marbled rib