According to legend, King James I once knighted a steak. He was so filled with adrenaline—and, likely, wine—after a hunt that at the table he tapped a delicious cut of meat twice with his sword, proclaiming it “Sir Loin.”
While the veracity of that tale is questionable (records show that the word is derived from French, and that it predates King James), we still eat sirloin today, and some of the best, most difficult to find steaks in the world come from the same breed that King James hunted at the turn of the 17th century. Ancient White Park cattle have white coats, black ears, and long, tipped horns that curve toward the sky, and they once roamed feral across Northern Britain.
The cattle are now considered threatened in the U.K., but on this side of the pond, Alec Bradford, the chef-owner of Herd Provisions, a restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, keeps a herd of 240 of them. His ranch, Leaping Waters Farm in southwestern Virginia, supplies meat from those cows to some of America’s best chefs, including Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin in New York City and Wolfgang Puck at his places in Washington, D.C. And last year, with so many restaurants closed during the pandemic, Bradford made his Ancient White Park steaks available for retail purchase online and at a new Herd Provisions butcher counter.
“I could pick his steaks out in a blind taste test,” says Rising Star Chef Nathan Anda, of Red Apron Butchery in Washington, D.C. “The meat has a terroir, much like a fine wine. There’s depth and minerality and a grassy, almost herbaceous note that’s so memorable.”
Beyond the quality of the meat, the provenance of those cows makes for quite a story. “ The history is incredible,” Bradford says. “When Winston Churchill became concerned that the Germans were going to bomb Britain, he shipped 10 of them to the Toronto Zoo in 1939 for safekeeping.”
The Brits, ever polite, let Canada keep those cows, and from them a handful of American herds were cultivated, including Bradford’s. Among the 42-day-dry-aged cuts he now sells are a Featherbone rib eye, a sirloin tip roast, and a 4-pound toma-hawk. Perhaps the most gratifying part of working a butcher counter, Bradford says, isn’t the $30 price per pound he makes on the meat but the opportunity to educate his customers about it. “I butcher such a small quantity that customers now understand, if you process one cow, you get one hanger steak,” he says. “There’s a new appreciation for this really magical, historic breed. I love seeing that.”