Head in the Sand, Steak on the Table

Longtime ostrich breeders Mike and Tsophia van Grevenbroek believe the Israeli market is ready for ostrich meat, which is extremely popular in Europe. Could this be the end of chicken as we know it?

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

Mike van Grevenbroek's silver SUV threads its way among the orangish hills. "We're getting ready for the new egg-laying season that will begin in February," he announces, in a Dutch accent. He takes a sharp right and heads toward a lookout point. It's early afternoon and he is winding his way along the broad paths that crisscross the 1,300 dunams (225 acres) of his ostrich farm. "Look at that, it's just gorgeous," he says as he reaches the top of the hill and gazes down at the thousands of huge, long-necked black and gray birds far below.

Times are good at the Exotic Crops ostrich farm, established 27 years ago in the Besor region of the western Negev. Amid the eucalyptus trees and the loud barking of their Turkish Kangal dogs, Mike van Grevenbroek and his wife Tsophia make their daily rounds. As they pass from one section of the property to another, he waits in the car while she jumps out to open the locked gates, unfazed by the mud and the flock of ostriches that approach on their enormous legs, regarding her with curiosity.

"We're raising 7,000 ostriches on the farm now," says Tsophia, "and we export more than 150 tons of meat each year to Europe, mostly to Italy and France, where ostrich meat is considered a real culinary delicacy. Here it's not appreciated that much."

But the Van Grevenbroeks' goal is to change all that: They are eager to introduce the Israeli public to the special flavor of the world's largest bird, and at the end of this month they'll start marketing ostrich meat to local delicatessens.

"For this purpose, we've prepared a new, easy-to-use package with four 125-gram fillets," says Tsophia. "After years of raising ostriches and selling meat to Europe, we decided to approach the Israeli public as well. It took us a while to take this step, but now we think that this high-quality meat could become part of everyone's menu - not just something you find in fancy restaurants. We definitely intend to offer the Israeli housewife a new alternative."

Tsophia is from Jerusalem; her husband comes from a town in central Holland.

"Mike is a hunter," she explains, as her husband points out a pair of ostriches feverishly mating in a nearby wadi. "Hunting was part of the aristocratic way of life in Europe. His family lived in a town surrounded by forests, his father was a history professor at the university. He continued the family hobby here, too. For years, he would go out with his rifle, for fun, after a day of work. He went around our farm with hunting dogs by his side. Today, the variety of prey is a little smaller. There are mostly wild boars and some pigeons. We hardly buy any conventional food in the supermarket. We fed our children partridge, duck, rabbit and, of course, lots of ostrich meat."

Mike van Grevenbroek describes how he arrived in Israel 40 years ago, after earning a degree in agriculture: "I came to Israel to do an internship, which involved learning about cattle and citrus trees at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai and Kibbutz Nir Am. During my internship, one of my teachers introduced me to Gen. Avraham Yoffe, who was involved at the time in developing the Yotvata Hai-Bar nature reserve. I remember meeting with him in his office in Tel Aviv. He showed me these really impressive plans, magnificent pictures of animals in danger of extinction, and proposed that I join his project."

A few days after that meeting, Van Grevenbroek drove south, but couldn't find the Hai-Bar. "I didn't see anything there. Avraham hadn't made clear that he wanted me to establish this project. I naively thought that it was already underway. That's how he roped me in, with beautiful pictures. When I returned to his office in Tel Aviv and complained that there was no Hai-Bar in the Arava, he said to me: 'This is precisely your assignment, to help me establish one.'"

The Dutch student became a protege of Yoffe. The latter's dream was to create a nature reserve that he would populate with wild animals which are mentioned in the Bible, but have vanished from the local landscape.

"He'd begun the project a few years earlier," recalls Van Grevenbroek. "But it didn't take off. I came into the picture in the early 1970s. At the time he had a few wild boars there and some donkeys that were in bad shape. The donkeys didn't adapt, the boars ran off. For some reason, he thought I was the one who could help him make his dream come true."

Like the serious student he was, he assiduously applied himself to the project that had fallen into his lap. In addition to the day-to-day management, he also was in charge of bringing animals to the reserve.

"Little by little, we began to fill the Hai-Bar with white oryxes and addaxes that we brought from the United States, and ibexes we caught in the Judean Desert. I traveled to just about any place you could think of in search of the biblical animals. In 1973, for example, I brought 50 ostrich chicks from Ethiopia. The ostrich disappeared from Israel during the 1920s. Later on, I also brought wild asses from Ethiopia. We got assistance from the air force in transporting them here. With permission from Motti Hod, its commander at the time, we left Ben-Gurion airport with two Hercules planes, carrying a jeep and lots of cash. Millions were spent on these trips. For the wild asses, for instance, I paid $25,000 per animal. On that trip, I picked up 12 of them."

For 10 years, the Van Grevenbroeks used the funds Yoffe raised to travel around the world in search of animals for the southern Arava nature reserve. One of the trickiest operations took place in Iran.

"One of the main problems then was that all the animals we wanted to bring in were in Arab countries. Since I had a Dutch passport, I was able to enter all those countries. From Iran, we really wanted to get a certain type of wild donkey that once roamed the Judean Desert, but became extinct here. I arrived in Iran just a few days before the revolution broke out, and it was clear that the window of opportunity was about to close and that I had to hurry. When the revolution started, I was in the north of the country."

As soon as he heard about the political upheaval, Van Grevenbroek decided to head back to the Israeli embassy with whatever he'd been able to catch up until then. "In the truck I had four female wild donkeys, several bears that I found along the way, an Asian cheetah and an Asian tiger. But when I arrived at the embassy, they wouldn't let me bring the predators in. So I took all the animals, except for the wild donkeys, to the palace of Shah Mohammed Reza, who was a friend of Israel. I know that the next day, the revolutionaries shot the animals in their cages. At the last minute, we managed to smuggle the wild donkeys from the embassy to the airport, inside a truck full of chicks."

It was around that time that he met Tsophia, who was working as a guide at Hai-Bar. "During my military service in the Nahal [paramilitary brigade], I was on Kibbutz Yahel," she relates, sitting in the living room of their home, built from three wooden train cars, with dozens of large ostrich eggs suspended from the ceilings. "I started working at the nature reserve right when it opened and that's where we fell in love. After a while, we felt that it was enough for us there, we wanted to try something new."

Thank you, Ariel Sharon

In 1979, the couple moved to South Africa. "We didn't know what we wanted to do and we eventually ended up at an ostrich farm owned by a Jewish businessman," Tsophia continues. "We were there for just 10 months, but during that time, big things started to happen for us. The Jewish farm owner got us caught up in his dream of establishing an ostrich farm in Israel."

This was no easy feat. "At the time, you weren't allowed to take ostriches out of South Africa," her husband explains. "The Africans knew they had a gold mine and didn't want to share it. In those years, they were the only ones in the world who raised ostriches, primarily for feathers and the leather industry, and they didn't want any competition. But we were already swept up in the fantasy, and felt there was no other way except to smuggle some eggs to Israel. And so one day, I put a few eggs that were almost ready to hatch in a carry-on bag - the chicks were really ready - and within a few hours we were on an African Airlines flight from Johannesburg to Tel Aviv."

"While we were waiting to board the plane at the airport, we started hearing the sounds of the chicks hatching," remembers Tsophia with a broad grin. "On the plane, there was lots of excitement, all the chicks hatched and we had to take them out of the carry-on bag. At the back of the airplane, we built a little cage out of soft drink crates, and that's how we spent the flight. When we landed, we were very worried about getting caught going through customs, but somehow Mike managed to pass through with the carry-on bag full of chicks without anyone stopping him."

The search for a site for the farm took more than a year, she explains: "For a long time, we couldn't find the right place to breed the ostriches. At first, we took them to an area outside Eilat, and then to Kibbutz Urim in the Negev. Meanwhile, they kept on growing and growing. Mike thought of setting up the farm in the Arava; he fell in love with the dry plains. I wasn't so crazy about this region. It was an exhausting process trying to find a place, but we got through it thanks to Mike's drive. He had this very European notion that a private farm is a totally normal thing. He didn't know that the land here belongs to the state. At the time, there weren't really any isolated farms. [The authorities] didn't quite get what we were after."

The establishment of the farm in the Besor district was finally made possible due to her husband's connections: "At one point, when I was about to give up, I decided to go to Avraham Yoffe and ask him to help me in dealing with the bureaucracy," he says. "I told him that for a year I'd been running around between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Israel Lands Administration, and that everyone was very nice to me, they wanted to help, but no one ever managed to get anything done. They still hadn't allotted me a place to breed ostriches. Avraham contacted Ariel Sharon, who was then the agriculture minister, and Sharon immediately found land for us to start the project. Sharon was the only one who understood us and who had the power to help us."

In July 1981, the couple moved onto the land. In Spartan conditions - without electricity or running water - they began building Israel's first ostrich farm. The initial goal was to create a breeding farm that would supply live ostriches to Europe, Japan and the United States. But the animal-loving couple soon decided to make the switch from breeding to slaughtering.

"In the first years, we mainly sold eggs and chicks to the United States and to farms that started popping up in Israel, like the one at Kibbutz Ha'on on the shores of Lake Kinneret, which planned to build a slaughterhouse for ostrich meat," says Tsophia. Indeed, in the 1980s, the demand for ostriches began to increase and many more farms were established in Israel.

"In 2000, at the peak, there were 20 ostrich farms in operation in Israel," she notes. "In those years, all kinds of revolutions occurred in the industry. For us, the most significant change was when then-agriculture minister Avraham Katz-Oz decided in 1989 to halt the export of ostriches. The decision stemmed from pressure from kibbutzim that complained that we were selling them eggs and chicks at a high price."

That year, she adds, the couple almost decided to shut down the farm: "Katz-Oz's decision meant that we were confined to a small local market and there wasn't really such a high demand for what we were selling. Basically, it was a kind of dirty trick. It prevented us from selling abroad and we had to lower our prices in Israel. In the first years of the farm, we would sell an egg to the United States for $300. In Israel, we had to sell the same egg for $200. And so the idea that we would make a living exclusively from breeding steadily faded. We realized that we had to get into the slaughtering end of it."

So, just like that, you switched from being breeders and preservers of animals to meat traders?

Tsophia: "We approached this with mixed feelings. We weren't eager to deal with slaughtering because we wanted to raise animals, not slaughter them. It was simply a matter of survival for us. We had no choice, we had to make a living. We didn't do it happily."

'Sweet, spicy, savory'

The slaughterhouse began operation in the early 1990s, she says. "The slaughtering business wasn't an easy thing to get into. We had to learn how to remove the skin, how to preserve it - things we weren't familiar with. In South Africa, we'd learned how to cut the skin, but the whole business of cutting the meat was totally new to us. [South Africans] usually sold the ostrich meat as a single block. We decided to try something new and slice the meat, dividing it into muscles, something the South Africans didn't do at the time. In fact, we were the first to offer high-quality and treated ostrich meat to Europe."

The first customers for Israeli ostrich fillets came from Holland and Switzerland, and later from France and Italy. In the peak years, the couple exported the meat of 30,000 ostriches per year. But the Israeli boom in the industry, which brought the meat to a handful of high-end (and nonkosher) restaurants and delicatessens, evaporated almost as quickly as it started: Because of the rapid increase in the world's ostrich meat supply, there was a steep decline in demand and in prices, and the industry in Israel, as in other countries, fell into a serious crisis. One after another, local ostrich farms closed down, and the Van Grevenbroeks soon had the field practically to themselves once again.

Although it is a bird, the color, texture and flavor of the meat of the ostrich is similar to veal, but much less fatty. The meat comes only from the thigh and leg of the ostrich, so that an average bird, weighing 90 kilograms, can supply about 25 kilos of meat for consumption. The recommended retail price of the new package on offer, containing four fillets, is NIS 90.

Chef Shaul Ben-Aderet of Kimmel restaurant in Tel Aviv is one of the Van Grevenbroeks' regular customers.

"I've been working with ostrich meat for more than 10 years," he says. "I love it, because it has a unique flavor, and it's very juicy. The great thing about this meat is that it's very easy to work with. You don't have to clean it because it's already clean, without fat, and it absorbs any sauce: sweet, spicy, savory. It suits all different styles of cooking. For those who've never tasted ostrich meat, I can tell them that it's like chicken with the taste of meat. It's a very popular dish at my restaurant. There's something exotic and special about it: Sear it quickly on the grill, cook it a little in the skillet, add sour cream and Roquefort sauce, berries, curry, salt, pepper, and you've got a truly delectable dish."

The question is whether the Israeli family is ready to take a bite. The Van Grevenbroeks are aware that ostrich meat faces other hurdles besides being nonkosher. "We know that the average housewife is used to making chicken her way. Maybe she makes turkey sometimes, too," acknowledges Tsophia. "But our plan is to appeal to the public that isn't concerned with the dietary rules and wishes to vary its menu with a healthier meat."

In Israel, the ostrich is known as a well-loved, wild creature - not as an animal that's eaten. How will you overcome this?

"Our rationale is that, given the increased awareness of healthier products now, there will also be room for ostrich meat. We believe that the moment the product hits the shelves, we'll be able to market it by emphasizing all of its advantages. To people who are put off by the idea of eating ostrich meat, I can say that if they do eat meat; it has excellent nutritional qualities, such as percentages of cholesterol and fat that are significantly lower than that of beef. This is what makes it more relevant than ever."

Did you personally have to overcome a certain reluctance the first time you sat down to a plate of ostrich meat?

"I have to tell you, it's tough to get attached to this creature. It's not an animal you can pet, and it's not an animal that forms a connection with people. If we had to slaughter goats, which do create some kind of interaction with people, I think it would be a lot more difficult for us. It's hard for us to develop feelings for an ostrich. But we breed the ostriches in natural conditions, they breed and develop on a spacious farm that resembles their natural breeding habitat. And this is important for us because we know that up until the end, our ostriches live a very good life."