The hungry fire crackled in the night as I fed it another small log under the stately fir trees along the shores of Hat Creek. Flickering firelight danced on the rough barked boles of the trees, and lit the foliage of the aspen and alder trees in the dense understory around us.
It couldn’t be a large fire, as Mark and I were cooking ribeye steaks to a primitive state of perfection on the tiny grill balanced over the rocks. All we had was the single mantle Coleman lantern light to guide us visually, so the rest of discernment that would lead us to pink perfection hung in the balance of the experienced hand and probing finger of Mark Schatzker, world renowned steak expert.
I had spent a lot of time grilling over coals in rustic settings. But this guy took me to a whole new level of stress. It had to be right. On the rough 15 miles of bump and hump road that took us here at the screaming speed of an average 6 miles an hour, he told me about his quest. He was assembling ideas, documenting facts, and researching stories about steak, the world over. His quest was to find the world’s tastiest piece of beef, and he had come here to Hat Creek to learn not only of the steak, but the story of the steer. He had left the comforts of urban Toronto, Canada behind, and travelled for two days to find us here.
Thankfully, I had not forgotten a little bit of red wine to mitigate the bone jarring arduous trip into the Idaho granitic rockpile we call the Salmon River Mountains. He, daughter Linnaea, and I would ride horseback all day the following day to find Alderspring’s herd and move them into the next 8600 acre forest and meadow wild pasture above us in Hat Creek. I poured Mark and myself a glass by firelight while the steaks caramelized quite perfectly over the small fire of lodgepole pine.
“So…how often do you run across rattlesnakes?” Mark queried as he took a sip of cab from a graniteware cup. We had run across an unexpected camp companion as we unloaded gear and horses in the dusky dark just an hour earlier. “I absolutely hate snakes. They really freak me out…especially the venomous kind.”
I grinned a non-patronizing and a little concerned look back at him across the fire. “Ah…I wouldn’t worry about it. They are actually quite rare at this elevation. A friend of mine I used to work with said you’ll never find a rattler above 7000 feet.”
“How high are we now?”
“Six thousand.” The firelight allowed me the benefit of not reading subtle facial expressions in my new friend—and seeing the truth of how concerned he was.
I changed the subject. “What do you think? Are those steaks done?” I turned the closest one with tongs. “I’m hungry. Caryl’s dutch oven of baked beans are ready and looking good…” The dutch sat simmering along the edge of the fire-ring rocks.
Mark took a look at the one closest to him. “They look perfect. I think we are ready.”
Linnaea grabbed the plates, and we served up a ribeye to be rested in the lantern light for each of us. Mark looked up at me as I plated. “Do you have any salt? We’ve got to have salt.”
I looked at Linnaea…a little frantically. I couldn’t remember. Steak without salt…well, it’s almost half a steak. Linnaea, only 13 at the time, yet quite capable by kitchen or cook fire, saved my frenetic searching with her typical calm complete closure: “Dad. We have no salt.”
“Crap. How could we forget salt?” I looked back at Mark, who had gotten up from fireside. His mind was trying to make lemonade out of lemons. My steak sampling for this man, the definitive world expert on grilled steer, was going to go south in a hurry.
He looked up, focused, unsmiling, from across the fire. “Wait. What about the cattle? Don’t they need salt? Isn’t there anything for them?”
My stress evaporated. Of course. As usual, I had brought some boulders of mined rock salt up with us to plant in strategic locations across the grass ranges. I grinned. I ran to the back of the dusted and rusted robin-egg blue Chevy truck and stock trailer and proudly held up my trophy of Utah Redmond rock salt. I placed it on the hood of the truck, and Mark and I went at the stone with pocket knives, hacking off flakes of the speckled brown gold before our steaks cooled.
I was saved by a rock mined from the Precambrian sea floor in the Utah desert. All would be well. Mark loved the steaks, and his book, several months later, described my steak in glowing terms. Orders from our little family operation backed up for months. And in spite of what I put him through up on our remote range, we remain friends.
We like salt. We need salt. Our ancient ancestors lived most often along seacoasts where salt was plentiful; it was easily evaporated from the saline seas that surrounded them. For interior dwellers, the salt trade defined much of trade movement across continents, made cities around ancient salt mines, and founded and broke economies of civilizations. As far as the animals that lived throughout the interior of continents, they found saltlicks rich in ancient seafloor sediment rock or in salt bearing plants. It turns out that all mammals, especially lactating ones, need the continued input of salt in their diet to maintain optimum functionality and electrolyte balance, which are critical even for the rhythm of heartbeats.
But there is more to the mineral than the elements of sodium and chloride, because in nearly all natural forms, salt is plural instead of singular, meaning that there are many other mineral salts associated with sodium chloride. They are abundant exist in ocean waters, minerals like potassium, magnesium and sulfur. These minerals, many of them “trace” or hard to find yet critical to cellular function, are also why sea salt is considered a boon to human health. The diversity of minerals gives sea salt- both that manufactured from evaporating sea water and salts from mined ancient sea waters like our Utah sourced salt- an elevated flavor that I think we crave because these minerals are good for us.
Natural sea salt is why we don’t bother with mineral supplementation for our beeves. Between the minerals found in the salt and the high mineralization of our volcanic soils that is taken up by the native plants our beeves graze, we have not found any need for it. The ancient bison, the native bovine that roamed here, found enough salt and minerals in the plants and exposed soils here to thrive, roaming in huge herds across the continent. The direct ancestors of our Scottish highland Angus cattle, the aurochs, found enough salt to thrive on the European continent and fill the large herbivore niche in prehistoric Europe.
These ancient strains of bovine, with fairly similar genetic profiles, and all within the same taxonomic tribe Bovini, all thrived without mineral supplement packages offered by agriculture materials giants Simplot, Purina and Cargill.
They also imbibed salts free from any industrial by-products that may contaminate sea salt. Because our oceans suffer from human pollution, sea salt produced by evaporation today may be contaminated with everything from industrial heavy metals, radioactive isolates from the likes of Fukushima, and plastic microfibers suspended in today’s ocean waters.
So we stick to the mined ancient salts for bovine consumption (and our table as well), and also allow them to choose from hundreds of native plants on wild rangelands to self-regulate for additional needed minerals. It’s one of our unfair advantages over other grass fed and natural beef producers: wild soils and plants on intact landscapes offer our beeves a wellness package no university trained animal nutritionist can compete with, because given free choice on 70 square miles of wild landscape, the beeves know best. Unlike most humans, our Black Angus beeves still have the ability to listen to what their body needs as defined by appetite. It hasn’t been bred or trained out of them.
I believe Bovine’s ability to choose on Alderspring is the reason why our beeves have an illness rate of under 1 percent per year. That’s not just illness causing mortality. It includes any illness, from foot rot to pinkeye. We have a few bottles of antibiotics in our veterinary shed cupboard, just in case. And occasionally, we have to use these to save a life, so we keep them on hand. But we throw away our insurance of antibiotics as they expire more often than we use them. (Just so you know, the occasional beef we do give a course of antibiotics to in order to save its life (usually as a very young calf) are never sold as Alderspring organic beef- the organic rules do not allow it.)
In contrast, feedlots can be disease factories, facilitated by poor breathing and confinement conditions with absolutely no bovine choice available for food. Feedlot rations are selected based on university research and the least expensive available feed.
At Alderspring, one of our core values is husbandry. Husbandry connotes a close relationship, almost a marriage to that which you are charged with caring for. And that means serving up the best possible options offered by nature for beeves to make their own choices about what to eat when.
It’s because the beeves know best. And that makes the best beef.
In the early part of the summer, the beeves graze low elevation native grasses that grow among drought resistant native shrubs. Many of these shrubs accumulate salts and minerals, and we find our beeves nip a few bites from these plants every day. In these areas, the salt we put out for them usually goes untouched. Higher elevation plants contain less natural salts, and the beeves gladly enjoy their salt lick in cow camp every night.
I threw another log on the fire for light by which to enjoy our ribeyes. Each of us had sprinkled coarse chunks of the reddish-brown rock salt on our steaks which we began to enjoy with a late night big appetite satisfaction. We supplemented it with Linnaea’s Dutch-oven au-gratin taters and Caryl’s beans, and washed it all down with a robust Snake River cabernet. Linnaea finished it all off with a fine Dutch oven smoky buttery peach cobbler that filled every crack in our expanded and satisfied stomachs. We enjoyed it all in contented silence, forgetting about snakes, the rough and jarring roads, and long journeys across continents.
The stars twinkled through the fire lit canopy above as cool air coasted down the canyon, baiting us to our bedrolls as the fire died. Mark and I talked as we spread out across the pine-duff ground.
“That was a great steak.”
“Yep. It sure was.”
“Sure glad you had that salt.”
We were saved by a rock. Salt was that humble and rocky mineral richness precipitated from ancient seas that all of our mammalian ancestors, both human and bovine thrived on. Without it, we wouldn’t be here today. Indeed, salt is the staff of life, the stuff of heartbeats.