On a recent afternoon, close to sunset, there weren't too many visitors at the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of South Africa. I had the blustery beaches nearly to myself, save for a small colony of penguins and a capering pair of ostriches.
These ostriches were the first I'd ever seen in the wild. The one with black feathers, I later learned, was male; another, gray-plumed, a female. I was delighted by their odd, loping gait; their small heads jutting about at the end of long, twisting necks; and their protuberant eyes. They manifested a quite dignified clumsiness.
Looking at ostriches was a delicious surprise. Soon enough, I discovered that dining on them was surprisingly delicious.
Dan Wecker, executive chef and owner of Elkridge Furnace Inn in Elkridge, agrees. Wecker always features ostrich on his restaurant's fall and winter menu and finds it quite popular with customers.
"I like to serve ostrich medium-rare, with a bright sauce, maybe made from pomegranates or cassis, as this complements the ostrich's wonderful earthiness," he said. "Ostrich has a much deeper flavor than beef. You'd never know it is poultry."
"Everybody assumes ostriches are large chickens. They are not," said Dianna Westmoreland, director of the American Ostrich Association in Ranger, Texas. "Ostriches are prehistoric. They are more closely related to dinosaurs than any other animal still on earth."
Though their lush feathers have been prized for centuries by milliners and couturiers, and their hides make an exceptionally tough leather, what's new -- at least in the United States -- is a growing enthusiasm for eating ostrich. It is red meat, not white like most poultry, and is unusually low in fat, calories and cholesterol.
The American Cancer Society and American Heart Association both have recommended ostrich for its health benefits.
"People are happy to have something that eats like a beef steak but doesn't have all the cholesterol and fat," said Wecker.
Ostrich meat is not inexpensive (filets are priced similarly to prime cuts of beef). But because ostrich flesh has approximately one-third the fat of cow flesh and half that of chicken flesh, it shrinks far less in cooking. Adding to ostrich's current appeal is that it is typically raised organically, in free-range settings, without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones.
Most of the ostriches being bred in the United States are descendants of South African birds, imported either as eggs or chicks in the 1980s. Back at the source, then, I had my first taste of ostrich later the same day I spotted the birds at the Cape of Good Hope.
I was fortunate enough to be visiting the Steenberg, a magnificent old hotel and vineyard behind Cape Town's Table Mountain. Here, in addition to world-class wines such as a sauvignon blanc reserve and a Bordeaux blend, there is a gorgeous restaurant, Catharina's. Chef Garth Almazan that evening had prepared ostrich, grilled rare and served with an onion-and-red-wine marmalade, alongside ravioli stuffed with shiitake mushrooms, thyme and Parma ham.
Ostriches are foraging animals -- they eat seeds, shrubs and whatever other vegetative matter they can find -- so their meat is sometimes infused with flavors such as wild thyme, lavender and rosemary.
When I complimented him on the ostrich breast he'd prepared, Almazan quickly corrected my mistake -- a commonly made one. "Ostriches don't have breasts," he said. "Even to say 'filet' is not technically accurate. What you are really eating is the rump."
That, he said, is the tenderest part of the animal. The legs and neck are tougher and usually are sold to be ground up into ostrich burgers.
Unexpectedly, this conversation led Almazan to suggest that I visit Oudtshoorn, a town that's known as the ostrich capital of South Africa and boasts game farms where the intrepid can take a ride on top of ostriches. "It is like bull-riding in America. The birds are kept in an enclosure. You get loaded onto them," he said. "It's good fun."
Thanks, but no thanks.
When I visited Fossil Farms in New Jersey a few weeks later, I also decided I wasn't brave enough to try raw ostrich served in the style of "hunter's sushi."
Fossil Farms is owned by Todd and Lance Appelbaum, two brothers in their 30s who tasted ostrich for the first time on a skiing trip to Breckenridge, Colo., in 1997. They came back to their home state of New Jersey fired up with a plan to try raising these peculiar creatures themselves. Since then, their company has grown to be the largest breeder and distributor of ostrich meat on the East Coast, and among the top two or three breeders in the United States.
As Lance Appelbaum proudly showed me around his 550-acre farm, he explained that the ostrich's mating season was swiftly coming to an end (the birds breed from March to October). Fall and winter are the primary seasons for ostrich consumption, however, which led Lance to observe that, in his opinion, the absolute best way to eat ostrich was raw, in the form of carpaccio, or even ostrich tartare.
I wondered what Andre would think about this. Andre is Fossil Farms' main rooster -- or, with apologies to Sesame Street, the big bird. He rules this bit of the Garden State, getting his pick of eligible females and first dibs at all feed. Todd Appelbaum guesses that Andre is 9 feet tall, and weighs in at 450 pounds of "pure muscle."
"Andre kicked out the windshield of a four-wheel tractor once," Todd said. "That was a fun time."
When it comes to ostriches, it's funny what some people consider fun.
Where to get it
Ostrich meat can be purchased at selected Whole Foods stores, as well as online at fossilfarms.com.
2/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
1 tablespoon rosemary, crushed
1 tablespoon thyme (leaves)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds tender ostrich steaks (approximately 1 1/2 inches thick)
Combine marinade ingredients in plastic bag; add meat, turning to coat. Close bag securely and marinate in refrigerator 1 hour, turning occasionally.
Remove meat from marinade; discard marinade. Place meat on rack in broiler pan so that surface of meat is 3 to 4 inches from heat. Broil 26 to 31 minutes for medium-rare to medium doneness, turning once. Carve into slices.
Per serving: 118 calories, 3 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 50 milligrams cholesterol, 49 milligrams sodium, 1 gram carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 22 grams protein
Recipe and nutritional analysis courtesy of the American Ostrich Association