Eat American: As international foods get pricey, domestic delicacies fill in

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As tight budgets push foreign delicacies beyond the reach of many American consumers, several companies are stepping into the breech with products that fuse domestic production techniques with the distinctive flavors of the rest of the world. While this trend has become a major factor across the food spectrum, it has particularly played out in the meat market.

Among hard-core carnivores, Wagyu has long since remained the gold standard of steak. The Japanese beef -- often referred to as "Kobe," after one of the areas where it is produced -- is richly marbled, incredibly tender, and famously tasty. Perhaps more importantly, it is also high in monounsaturated fat, which means that, compared to other beef products, it is lower in cholesterol and higher in vital Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.

A large part of the Kobe mythos lies in its breeding and treatment. While Wagyu cows are genetically inclined to produce well-marbled meat, the Japanese have developed several techniques to encourage this trait. Traditionally, the animals are fed beer or sake, which helps keep them lethargic and less likely to exercise. Further, they are often massaged, to help reduce muscle cramps and better marble the meat. Overall, the process produces a steak that is, allegedly, tender enough to cut with chopsticks.

Four years ago, Iavarone Brothers, a New York butcher chain, began selling an American version of Wagyu beef. While the domestic cows aren't massaged, they consume large amounts of hops and milk, they are encouraged to graze, and the majority of their diet is very similar to that of the Japanese Wagyu.

One major difference, however, lies in price. Whereas Japanese Kobe beef routinely sells for upwards of $100 per steak, Iavarone's American Wagyu strip steaks sell for just under $30 per pound. Hamburger patties are even less, retailing for roughly $4 apiece. According to Joe Iavarone, head of the firm, the meat is a very big seller.

While Japanese cows are famed around the globe, when it comes to pork, Spain's hams have pride of place. Priced at $1,300 apiece, the nation's jamon Iberico de Bellota is the world's most famous -- and expensive -- preserved pork product. Jamon serrano, a lesser-prized ham goes for approximately $220 per unit.

The success of iberico hams lies in three key aspects of their production: breeding, feeding, and exercise. The hams come from black Iberian pigs that have been allowed to roam, free-range, through oak forests. In their final stage of production, shortly before slaughtering, the pigs are fed a diet of pure acorns, which leads to a unique flavor and a rich, oily texture.

While it is impossible to completely imitate the production methods of jamon Iberico, one of Virginia's leading ham manufacturers, S. Wallace Edwards, has created a ham that is designed to have a similarly luxe texture and flavor. Its "Surryano" ham is made from purebred Berkshire hogs that are pasture-fed, allowed to graze, and raised without artificial hormones. Perhaps most importantly, their diet is rich in peanuts. Like the jamon Iberico's acorns, the Surryano's peanuts contribute a rich fat to the flavor of the ham.

Edwards' president, Sam W. Edwards III, is quick to point out that Surryano hams are not a direct replacement for jamon Iberico. However, the combination of careful breeding, free-range pasturing, and nutty diet produces a "well-marbled, oily and rich" meat that can be served in much the same way as its famed Spanish competitor. Beyond this, Edwards argues that the "low-stress" lifestyle enjoyed by his hogs improves the flavor and texture of the finished pork.

And, if flavor and texture don't offer a sufficient argument, it is also worth noting that Edwards' hams cost $148 apiece. At just over 10 percent of the price of a jamon Iberico de Bellota -- and over 30 percent less than the cost of a comparable jamon serrano -- Surryano offers a delicious, reasonably-priced dish for American tables.

This is not to say, however, that every American alternative delicacy is cheaper than its European competitor. In fact, Marcus Henley, the farm manager at Hudson Valley Foie Gras notes that his company's duck livers are, in some cases, higher-priced than their French and Canadian competitors. However, unlike French manufacturers, Hudson Valley's approach is decidedly low-tech. Rather than use the feeding machines that are generally employed by French companies, it feeds its ducks by hand. Similarly, rather than keeping ducks in cramped cages, Hudson Valley allows them to live communally in large pens.

According to Henley, Hudson Valley's more traditional duck rearing methods produce a foie gras that is better suited to American palates. Whereas most French foie gras is processed into paste-like pate, American diners often prefer their duck liver cut into slabs, sauteed, and served with a sauce accompaniment. In this regard, many find the smooth, delicately-flavored Hudson Valley liver to be superior to its competitors. In its relatively short tenure, Hudson Valley has received accolades from the James Beard Foundation, the American Tasting Institute, the American Academy of Hospitality Services, Anthony Bourdain, and thousands of chefs, diners, and foie gras fans.

With plunging discretionary income making eating out an untenable expense, it's nice to know that American consumers will be able to enjoy their favorite foreign flavors. Moreover, with domestic companies stepping in to fill the high-priced delicacy gap, there is a growing opportunity for high-end foodstuffs to emerge as a solid part of the domestic economy.

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