• West Kerr Current (Jan 5, 2006): "Fare Game"
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West Kerr Current (Jan 5, 2006): "Fare Game"

Broken Arrow Ranch, Inc. supplies fine restaurants around the nation with wild game

West Kerr Current - January 5, 2006

By: Clint Schroeder

An Ingram company has taken surplus exotic game from the Hill Country into upscale restaurants across the nation.

An indication of how far Broken Arrow Ranch has come since its beginning in 1983 can be found in this quote from a story in the Oct. 19, 2005 edition of the New York Times by Paula Disbrowe:

"Over the years, when I have asked chefs from around the country to deconstruct their game dishes, they invariably cited the same source for the meat: Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram, Tex."

More than 2,000 restaurants and thousands of mail order customers have enjoyed Broken Arrow fare. Sales last year were almost 170,000 pounds.

Among the products sold are axis venison, sika venison, antelope, wild boar, a variety of sausages - smoked, Italian, bratwurst and summer sausage - and specialty cuts such as chili, patties, stew chunks, osso buco, filets, cutlets and whole legs.

The game is free-range - meaning the animals eat wild herbs, grasses, berries and browse that is available in the wild - and harvested in a unique way, which are the main reasons for its popularity among chefs, said Chris Hughes, manager of Broken Arrow Ranch and son of owner and founder Mike Hughes.

Venison in general is growing in popularity because of its health benefits - it's nutritious and very low in fat. And Broken Arrow's is totally natural, without hormones, steroids or antibiotics.

"There's really not any other company that we know of that harvests the animals in the way that we do," Hughes said.

"The game that somebody cooks up after strapping it to their hood and driving 250 miles is much different than the game that we sell here," he added.

The way Broken Arrow harvests game animals is a lot like hunting, but the similarity ends there.

"We harvest the game basically in the field, typically by a single shot to the head by a rifle at long distance," Hughes said.

"The reason we do the harvest this way is because it essentially eliminates all stress in the animal during the harvest," which he said "can have a negative impact on the flavor of the meat and the tenderness of the meat."

Most of the venison consumed in the U.S. is farm-raised and imported from New Zealand. When the animals are run into a pen before they are killed, stress causes endorphins to be released into their muscles, creating lactic acid.

"It basically can give the meat an off-flavor," Hughes said.

Broken Arrow employs another technique, electro-stimulation, to improve the quality of their products.

"After the animals are killed, you run a low-voltage electric shock through the animal," Hughes explained.

"While the animal is bleeding out it helps to contract the muscles and gives the animals a thorough bleed out so it removes all the blood from the muscles. Any blood left in the muscles kind of gives the meat an off-flavor," he said. "The other thing that it does is it actually tenderizes the meat 40 to 60 percent more than unstimulated meat."

After Broken Arrow's game is harvested from long distances with a silenced rifle, crews immediately process it on-site in mobile processing units under the watchful eyes of state meat inspectors who have looked over the herd to be sure the animals are healthy. The game is then transported to Ingram in refrigerated trailers.

"This method that we use of going out and harvesting the animals in the field is one thing that really makes us unique," Hughes said.

Hughes took over the reins of Broken Arrow in June, 2005. He attended Ingram schools and is a 1994 graduate of Ingram Tom Moore High School.

He earned an engineering science degree from Vanderbilt and worked for Brown & Root in Bosnia and Macedonia for two years before attending Wake Forest, where he received an MBA.

He said he loves the work at Broken Arrow, with its connections to cooking and restaurants, and time in the Hill Country.

Hughes said his father, Mike Hughes, one of the founders of Oceaneering, Inc., a multinational, publicly traded underwater engineering firm based in Houston, got the idea for Broken Arrow when he was in Europe and saw the big market there for venison.

"Here in the U.S. it tends to be very gourmet or very hunter-oriented, but in Europe itÕs really much more common," Hughes said.

"He came back to the states and saw an opportunity for it here. There really was not a market, but there were plenty of animals," he said.

Because of the abundance of exotic game on many Hill Country ranches, Broken Arrow schedules harvests on ranches that have an overpopulation of game animals, mainly in the Hill Country.

"We work with about 100 ranches or so a year," Hughes said. "A lot of these ranches use us as a means for population control for their herd.

"We're always looking for new ranches to work with," he added.

Harvests are conducted at a ranch's convenience. But they don't always work out as Broken Arrow would like, however.

On a planned harvest shortly before Christmas, a crew drove down to South Texas. Because the ranch is large and too sandy to go off-road, Broken Arrow's sharpshooters were going to shoot from a helicopter. But that day it was too windy, and the helicopter couldn't fly.

"That's why our operation is so much more expensive to run," Hughes said. "Those guys left yesterday, drove down there and stayed the night to go hunting today, and they didn't get anything.

"But sometimes they come back with 35 to 50 animals," he said.

"It's an expensive way to do it, which is one reason why our product prices are higher than everybody else's," Hughes said. "But it's pretty much accepted industry-wide that our products are also the highest quality available out there."

Creating a market here for commercial venison involved some pioneering work in getting exotic game classified as livestock by the Legislature and arranging for state meat inspections.

Broken Arrow products are sold nationwide, primarily to fine-dining restaurants, with the largest markets in New York, California and Texas. Their primary customers are chefs.

Chef Dean Fearing of the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, in a testimonial, said of the antelope boneless loin: "We couldn't take this off our menu if we wanted to. Some of our regular customers order it every time they come in."

Broken Arrow works closely with chefs.

"Once the meat is here, we can custom-age the product to the chef's specifications - not something that a lot of places can offer," Hughes said.

Venison is moving to mid-tier restaurants, he added, and sales to individual consumers are growing, now about 5 percent of the business.

He said a lot of people order game for birthdays, anniversaries, dinner parties and other special occasions.

Many of those sales are from the website, brokenarrowranch.com, which was revamped in June. The site offers a number of recipes and tips for serving wild game.

"We really try to educate people by providing these recipes and providing tips on how to properly cook your game," Hughes said.

Broken Arrow products are available in one grocery store, the H-E-B in Kerrville. With a call beforehand, products can be purchased at the Broken Arrow office next to Ole' Ingram Grocery at the "Y" in Ingram.

Hughes said their products may be available soon at Bernhard's Meat Market on Junction Highway.

Area restaurants that offer Broken Arrow game are Rails, Cafe Riverstone, Comanche Trace and Republique in Kerrville, Elaine's Table in Hunt and Baja Grill in Fredericksburg.

Broken Arrow recently re-introduced Wild Boar Smoked Ham, a product Hughes said they first offered many years ago. It is hickory smoked, with hints of honey.

Hughes said procuring boar is a little different than venison.

Boar is obtained from trappers, and because it is pork, falls under the federal meat act, requiring USDA inspections. Trappers take the animals in the wild and deliver them to a USDA-certified plant where they are processed and returned to the Ingram plant for final processing. It is sent to another plant for smoking.

He said wild boar is getting more and more popular - it is much leaner than regular pork and has a more distinct flavor.

"We sell a lot of wild boar legs," he said. "Slow roast them in an oven and they make a pretty dramatic presentation for dinner parties."

He said it is easy to prepare: roast it in the oven at 250 degrees for a few hours and take it out when the temperature reaches 160 degrees.

"Pull a giant wild boar leg out of the oven, and people are impressed," Hughes said.