by Nick Neely | Photo © USPWS
Dating its consumption in North America back thousands of years before European settlement, bison arguably holds the title of the true American food. Native American tribes would use every part of the bison. Their bones would become shovels, their bladders would turn into medicine bags.
Montana, home to many of these tribes, is still one of the top producers and consumers of bison meat in the United States.
James Beard semi-finalist for “Best Chef” in the Northwest, Andy Blanton, uses bison often at his restaurant, Cafe Kandahar in Whitefish, MT.
“Bison has been a fixture of our dinner menu for some time now,” said Blanton. “We also do game paté and game sausage fairly often too, which has both bison and elk.”
A new addition and Blanton favorite at Kandahar is the Grilled Bison Tenderloin, served with Humboldt Fog cheese, sage, demi-glace, smashed baby red potatoes and sautéed spinach.
Andiamo Italian Grille at Big Sky Resort also offers a bison dish. The Chianti Braised Bison Shank, or “Montana Osso Buco,” is slow roasted bison accompanied by local organic heirloom polenta and a red wine demi-glace. Plenty of other Montana restaurants offer bison entrees, ranging from burgers to lasagna.
Bison not only offers a delicious taste but a nutritious one as well. The healthy array of fatty acids in bison gives the meat a natural and deep flavor. The meat supplies protein on par with beef, with less cholesterol and only one-fourth of the fat.
Despite the numerous advantages of bison meat, the industry faced serious issues at the turn of the century. In 2003, the American government bought more than $10 million dollars of frozen bison meat to keep the bison business alive. And the bison market has continually risen since.
There are now several ways to purchase bison meat, both in person and online. Rancho Picante provides all cuts of bison, which you can order on their website. If you’re looking for a more hands-on experience, visit Broken Willow Ranch in White Sulfur Springs, Montana, where you are allowed to hunt and harvest your own meat.
Cooking your bison can be difficult at first. Because of the low fat content, it takes a third less time to cook than beef. To fully experience the unique properties of bison, prepare the bison rare to medium. This maintains the natural flavors and moisture of the meat.
Bison vs. Buffalo
The words “bison” and “buffalo” are often used interchangeably. However, bison and buffalo are two different species. Bison roam Europe and North America. Buffalo live mainly in Africa and Asia. Visually striking differences exist between the two. The American bison has a distinctive hump on its back as well as a far larger head than the buffalo.
The Resurgence of Bison
In the 1880s, Bison were nearly hunted to extinction, a population of 30 million brought down to a few hundred. However, due to the efforts of individual herd owners, the species was brought back from the precipice. In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt formed the American Bison Association to ensure the continued survival of bison. As of now, the American bison is off the endangered species list. Ironically, the new demand for bison meat is what’s keeping the bison population growing and returning to their former numbers. All but five percent of bison in the U.S fall under private ownership.
Sources for Montana Bison:
To learn more about Montana bison, visit Montana Bison Association, montanabison.org
Restaurants: Many restaurants throughout Montana and the Northwest are now serving bison. Two excellent choices in Montana are:
>> Cafe Kandahar, Whitefish, cafekandahar.com
>> Andiamo Italian Grill, Big Sky Resort, bigskyresort.com
Purchasing Montana Bison From The Rancher:
>> Rancho Picante, ranchopicante.com
>> Broken Willow Ranch, brokenwillowbisonranch.com