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Game for Some Exotica

Ingram company offers a mix of wild meats taken from Texas ranches and served in upscale restaurants far away
San Antonio Express-News - January 30, 2006


By: Zeke MacCormack

INGRAM — Behind a nondescript downtown storefront, exotic game, including antelope and boar, are processed and peddled to upscale eateries as far away as Hawaii.

Broken Arrow Ranch shipped 85 tons last year of the low-fat "free range" meats, at prices up to $28 a pound for boneless antelope loin.

"We're looking for restaurants that have reasonably high prices since our products are relatively expensive," said Mike Hughes, founder of the company that employs 20.

The complex flavor that appeals to chefs results not just from the animals' diet of native flora, but also from the careful way in which they are killed and how the meat is aged, said Hughes, 66.

The Lodge at Woodcliff in upstate New York features chili made with boar, antelope and axis venison from Broken Arrow. It sells for $14 a bowl.

"We like the quality of the meat. It's tender and extremely flavorful," said Richard Reynolds, food and beverage director at the resort in Rochester.

If chili won't do, guests there can try a pan-seared antelope chop with horseradish crust and cabernet sauce, served with a soft polenta (the Italian version of grits) and braised red cabbage — for $34.

Nilgai antelope and axis deer sold by Broken Arrow are taken from dozens of Texas ranches by two-person hunting teams monitored by a state health inspector.

"Virtually every place we harvest is using us as an efficient form of herd management," Hughes said.

Broken Arrow has been buying game for a decade from the Heart of the Lone Star Ranch, a 2,200-acre spread near Eden that's home to 14 species of exotics.

"Mainly what they take is axis deer," said ranch foreman Dan Whitely, who'd like to see the herd of 600 there reduced to about 250.

He prefers dealing with Broken Arrow to the alternative of trapping live animals and shipping them to other ranches, and he said the teams' marksmanship makes things "very humane and quick."

Shooting deer in the head from a distance kills instantly, so the meat's flavor isn't tainted from stress-induced releases of endorphins and other internal chemicals, Hughes said.

The crews quickly skin and eviscerate the animals, then pass low voltage current through the carcass, stimulating the muscles to squeeze out any blood that may cause a "gamey" taste.

The carcasses are then cleaned and hung in refrigerated trailers that can hold 30 animals. Once in Ingram, they are butchered and aged for three weeks.

Robert Flowers, a state meat inspector who assesses the animals' health before and after slaughter, said, "It's a very clean operation and a quality, all-natural product."

He's a fan of exotic meat, but not a customer of Broken Arrow. "I shoot my own," he said.

Wild boar sold by the company is bought live from trappers.

Before forming Broken Arrow in 1983, Hughes spent two decades building a small deep-sea diving company into a worldwide supplier of underwater equipment ranging from hand-held sonar to remotely operated vehicles.

He's still a member of Oceaneering International's board of directors, but scaled back involvement in the Houston-based company when he "retired" to Kerr County in 1982.

He recently "re-retired" from Broken Arrow, turning daily operations over to his son, Chris Hughes, and to Perrin Wells, the company's longtime manager.

"We revamped our Internet sales strategy last fall, and it's increased dramatically," said Chris Hughes, 29. "We're also starting to market to mid-tier restaurants and independent gourmet shops."

Among Broken Arrow's regular clients is Kilauea Lodge in Hawaii, which just replenished its exotic game inventory with an order for 60 pounds of antelope and 60 pounds of axis deer.

"We offer it because it's not readily available in Hawaii," said Albert Jeyte, lodge owner. "It's a fairly low-fat, low-calorie product, so people are interested in that. It's something unique."

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