French livestock farmer Francois-Xavier Craquelin believes a little pampering goes a long way when it comes to producing meat prized for its melt-in-the mouth tenderness.
Cattle at his farm in northeastern France enjoy classical music, a special massage machine and even regular tipples of Normandy cider.
In Japan, Kobe cattle – one of the Wagyu breeds recognised worldwide for its quality – are treated to sake or beer. But in Normandy, cider is king.
So, in his quest to produce ever better meat, this farmer and organic cider producer has been putting the Japanese technique into practice at his farm not far from the banks of the River Seine at Villequier, between Rouen and Le Havre.
Six animals get extra-special special treatment with music, massages, organic food and plenty of fresh air. And when Craquelin, 40, fills up a bucket with about 15 litres of cider for his cattle, there is never a drop left.
“I give them 150 litres four months before slaughter,” he says. “For an animal of nearly a tonne that represents the equivalent of 1.5 litres for a human.”
The alcohol is said to help create highly marbled meat with the muscle finely interspersed with monosaturated fat, giving the meat moisture and tenderness.
Meat with marbling – or intramuscular fat – is especially high in oleic acid, a monosaturated fat also prevalent in olive oil, and commands the highest prices.
Experts say the lower melting point also gives the meat a distinctive flavour that tastes better to most people.
Craquelin, who took over the family farm a decade ago after studying at business school, has around 100 Normandy cattle of which six have recently had the “cider treatment”.
Fed on organic food and put out to graze on pasture for seven months of the year, the farmer sends the cattle for slaughter after three years.
Then from March onwards the meat from his “cider beef” cattle starts to find its way onto the plates of some Normandy and Parisian restaurants.
Two animals are slaughtered each month with everything consumed by the end of May.
Some restaurateurs like Christophe Mauduit, from Jumieges in Normandy, reserve early to avoid missing out.
“This is a good product, with beautiful marbling,” Mauduit says.
But it’s not just this beef that Craquelin feels passionate about.
As well as promoting this niche product, he also wants to promote the Normandy breed from which the region’s famous butter and Camembert cheese is made.
The breed won a blind test organised by Gault Millau, one of the most influential French restaurant guides, said Cindy Lebas, quality manager for the Rouen-based firm Grosdoit, a meat wholesaler that promotes the breed.
And now, backed by the region’s Pays de Caux-Vallee de Seine tourism office, Craquelin would like to see it get its own “appellation d’origine controlee (AOC)” label, of the sort awarded to wine certifying its geographical origin.
Despite being famed for its other produce, Normandy has yet to be recognised for its beef.
It won’t be an easy task, admits Craquelin, adding however that he is determined to work towards his goal over the “long term”.