Is that camel on the menu? Yes, in Virginia Beach
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The shawarma shop in the United Arab Emirates mall offered a standard menu of slow-roasted meat on a stick: beef, chicken, lamb.
Then Zach Love, a Virginia Beach Navy man on deployment in the Middle East, spotted camel.
He ordered. He ate. Love fell in love.
"I got up and got another one," he said.
After that, Love craved camel. Those cravings are responsible, in part, for a sign that recently went up touting camel patties and ground camel at the Country Butcher Shop & Deli at the Virginia Beach Farmers Market.
In some countries, consuming camel is as common as eating beef stateside. Country Butcher Shop owner Johnny Hardison said he was pressed by members of South Hampton Roads' military population to find a supplier for camel and other exotic meats.
"It started with buffalo and deer meat, goat," Hardison said. "Then I got asked about elk. Then it was kangaroo. Ostrich. Then here comes the camel."
Hardison hunted down a camel meat supplier in Reno, Nev., ordered two 20-pound cases, priced it at $14.99 for a three-pack pound of patties and $13.99 a pound for ground, and "sold out immediately."
Grilled to medium and served burger-style on a bun, the meat tastes like beef but is leaner, denser and a bit sweeter. Some, including Love, get a hint of lamb or wild game on the finish.
Durham Ranch, a bison ranch in Gillette, Wyo., distributes camel meat to Sierra Meat & Seafood, Hardison's Nevada supplier. The ranch began importing feral camel from Australia last year, said Stephen J. Flocchini, the ranch's brand manager. The company sold 3,000 pounds, "but raw material is in short supply, so we could have sold more.... We cannot keep it in stock."
Camels are raised for meat in many parts of the world, including Egypt, Iran, Kenya, Mongolia and Morocco, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Hundreds of camel breeders operate in the United States, but few, if any, raise the animals for meat, said Don Strobel, who has had camels for 15 years at his Stro-Bull Farms in Clinton, Mich.
"In the United States, camel is worth more 'on the hoof' than on the plate," Strobel said. "That's why you don't see it very often."
In the U.S., camels are usually kept as backyard pets and zoo animals. Occasionally, they are rented out for Christmas Nativity scenes and pageants.
A baby Dromedary male — the species with one hump, as opposed to the two-humped Bactrian — can fetch $5,000 at market, Strobel said. A pregnant female might go for $15,000, and a "ride camel" can bring $25,000, far more than a head of cattle. Camel prices have held steady for about 20 years.
At $14 a pound, the price for ground camel locally rivals the cost of the finest cut of beef. In countries where it's more common, consumers also can choose camel tenderloin, flank steak and brisket. The hump is filled with highly prized fat, Flocchini said.
So no hump for South Hampton Roads.
But at the Country Butcher Shop, the upright freezer next to the lowboy marked "dog bones" holds camel patties and many of the butchery's other exotic offerings, including elk medallions from California, and ostrich and kangaroo from Australia. In the case next to the fresh-cut rib-eyes and beef filets, the butchery stocks alligator tail from Louisiana.
Next up? A Latin American treat.
"We're waiting on iguana," Hardison said.