Alpaca dinner features locally grown rare meat treat

Chef Robert Weickel got a reputation when he worked at Table Three Ten as "the guy who would buy the 'weird stuff,'" he said. Here, he served alpaca strip loin with smoked rye granola and turnip.
Chef Robert Weickel got a reputation when he worked at Table Three Ten as "the guy who would buy the 'weird stuff,'" he said. Here, he served alpaca strip loin with smoked rye granola and turnip.

The talk of last year's Kentucky Proud Incredible Food Show wasn't beer cheese or ice cream or jelly. It was the alpaca chorizo from River Hill Ranch in Richmond.

Alpaca, best known for silky soft wool, is developing a reputation in foodie circles for tender tasty meat.

Chef Robert Weickel refers to it as "buffalo that doesn't suck, because I don't like bison."

Weickel, who used to work at Table Three Ten in Lexington and now operates a pop-up restaurant called Hill, said the meat is lean without being tough. He got acquainted with alpaca meat through River Hills Ranch's Alvina Maynard, who was looking for an outlet for her meat.

"When I was at Three Ten, I got the reputation as the guy who would buy the 'weird stuff,' and she was shopping her alpaca samples around. I said, 'I'm in,'" Weickel said.

The restaurant bought three animals and had them cut to their specifications. They offered customers an alpaca tenderloin that quickly sold out.

"Alpacas are native to the Andes so proportionally to most mammals have larger lungs, and their muscles are super oxygenated," Maynard said. The resulting meat is high in protein, high in iron, lean and low in cholesterol "but still quite tasty. It's sweeter than beef. It tastes like it been marinated in fruit or sugar."

Maynard raises her animals for fiber production, but after a few years, when the wool drops off, she culls her herd for meat and looks for ways to use as many parts as she can.

"That intrigued me," Weickel said. "She was approaching this animal in a way I could be on board with. She takes very good care of these animals. It's a very holistic approach to raising farm animals. And the trend recently of nose-to-tail cooking, I think is an absolutely necessary way to approach food. Not to is irresponsible."

Maynard, who has 80 to 100 alpacas at a time, said that she doesn't think people should think of alpaca any differently than other farm-raised animals.

"It's so much more humane to move an animal onto the meat market than let it wither away in the field," she said. "And as a business, I can't afford to have my farm turn into a rescue, where the animals cost me way more money that they are making. ...

"It is more difficult to look your food in the eye, but at the end of the day I feel better knowing that the animals were humanely treated."

Maynard takes her animals, a few at a time, to Marksbury Farm's abattoir for slaughter and makes sure they are treated respectfully.

"I really do think this is the right thing to do," she said. "There's a whole hell of a lot of thought and emotion that go into it."

While the end result is much-sought-after meat, Maynard said it will remain "a rare treat."

To that end, Weickel is planning a special five-course farm to table dinner this weekend that showcases both the meat and the farm. He'll cook some of the dinner on an outdoor fire, near tables set up on the Richmond farm.

Maynard will have an "open house" of the farm to talk about what she and her family do with the animals, and there will be an informal fashion show of clothes made with the wool.

The Kentucky Proud dinner, paired with wine from Grimes Mill Winery, will include alpaca in several dishes, including liver substituting for butter in a custard.

The food will be served family style on platters, Weickel said.

"We want it to feel very much like you're going home to the farm for dinner," he said.