A mustachioed gaucho, big and burly, dressed in leather chaps and a faded poncho, unwraps a hunk of beef which he’s grilled in the asado style. The giant slab of bone-in steak, fresh from the charcoal-burning parilla, drips bright red juices onto the lush, wild grasses of the Pampas. Nothing could be more Argentine. The gauchos of the Pampas are a huge part of Argentine history and culture and Argentinian farmers today keep around 50 million head of cattle, over half of which is Aberdeen Angus.
However, it’s actually a country in another hemisphere, famed for its deep-fried Mars bars, that we have to thank for Argentina’s most famous export. Cows that would become today’s Aberdeen Angus cattle have been roaming the Scottish Highlands since at least the 16th century, possibly even as far back as 600AD. They were known as Angus Doddies by locals back in the day, and perhaps weren’t fully appreciated. Now however, Aberdeen or Black Angus beef is famous throughout the world and commands a premium price tag.
Three pioneering farmers are credited with developing these wild beasts into the world-beating meat-producing cattle they are today. It started with Hugh Watson of Keillor Farm in Angus in 1808. Hugh gathered the best cattle he could from the local area and started to breed the animals to produce cattle of reputedly ‘outstanding quality and character’.
20 years later, William McCombie took on the farm of Tillyfour in Aberdeenshire and founded a herd made up predominantly of Keillor’s stock. His close breeding programme and diligent documentation produced excellent cattle and allowed others to continue his work in other regions. He showed his cattle widely in England and France and started to build the reputation of the Aberdeen Angus breed internationally.
This paved the way for Sir George Macpherson-Grant, who on returning to his inherited estate at Ballindalloch from Oxford in 1861, took up the task of refining the breed. This would be his life’s work, lasting almost 50 years. In those early days, Britain was regarded as the fount of Aberdeen Angus genetics and leading world breeders travelled from all corners of the globe to the small island to source stock.
Fortunately for us, cattle breeding is a highly documented endeavour. After all, breeders need to be able to show the pedigree of their herds. We know that in 1879, Don Carlos Guerrero imported a bull and two cows to his Estancia Charles, located in Juancho in the province of Buenos Aires. The bull was called Virtuoso, and the cows, Aunt Lee and Cinderella. These three animals were the progenitors of an entire generation of Argentinian Aberdeen Angus cattle.
The Argentinians found the even temperament, excellent maternal abilities and lack of big horns favourable and decided to preserve the heritage of the breed. Unlike Hereford and Shorthorn cattle, also introduced from the UK, which were interbred with local herds to improve their qualities, the Angus line was kept pure. This turned out to be a good business decision.
The hardy Scottish breed thrived on the lush Pampas grasslands, no doubt enjoying the fertile landscape, a world away from their origins on the rocky Highlands. The temperate climate and high rainfall on the Pampas give it some of the best quality grass in the world which lends the meat a richness and complexity of flavour. The sprawling plains also allow the cows to roam freely and widely, developing their muscles to be naturally marbled and tender.
The coming together of these environmental factors and unique characteristics of Angus cattle has proven a winning combination and Argentine beef is now exported to all corners of the globe, and grass-fed Angus beef from the Pampas is the most prized meat of all. These cows have come a long way and one can only hope they raise a hoof every now and again to their Scottish cousins, as they sun themselves on the lush plains.