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Navajo rancher chooses customers as carefully as she tends her flocks

WINSLOW, Ariz. -- In late September, I met Colleen Biakeddy, Navajo, for a
meal in the Turquoise Room at La Posada Hotel, a historic landmark that was
once a Spanish hacienda. As we traversed the lobby on the way to the
restaurant, we passed the stairs to the ballroom and a wide gallery leading
to a Mediterranean-style walled garden surrounded by guest rooms. The
modern art collection of the inn's current owners added splashes of color
to the adobe walls.

According to a note on the Turquoise Room's menu, Biakeddy is the sole
supplier of lamb to the restaurant, which is separately owned and managed
by British chef John Sharpe. The eatery caters to locals, tourists
traveling nearby Route 66 and -- because Sharpe used to own successful Los
Angeles eateries -- the occasional Hollywood celebrity. Recent sightings
include Harrison Ford, who was passing by in his private plane and put down
at the local airport so he could stop in for some of Sharpe's fare.

Sharpe's personal style -- casual, classy and creative -- matches that of
his food. Sometimes Sharpe actually resembles his food. When I visited him
in the restaurant's kitchen, I noted that the confetti pattern on his
trousers looked just like the imaginative dishes he turns out, with their
decorative sprinklings of yellow corn kernels, green chili strips, and
narrow ribbons of red and white tortillas.

At that moment, he was up to his elbows in what he calls "Southwestern
cassoulet," an adaptation of a classic meat, sausage, and white bean dish
from southwestern France. He stirred a liberal helping of artistic license
into his version: it showcased Native ingredients, including earthy brown
Tohono O'odham tepary beans and Biakeddy's Navajo churro lamb.

The meat was a revelation. Its texture was fine and the flavor was clean
and fresh, with bright, grassy overtones and none of the pungency usually
associated with lamb and mutton.

"Churros are a product of their environment," explained Sharpe. "They even
taste different from one ranch to another. Navajos manage their animals the
way farmers back home in England did. The sheep only graze, so a farm's
distinctive groundcover -- its particular mixture of grasses, wildflowers
and herbs -- flavors the meat of its animals. In contrast, commercially
raised sheep from New Zealand or Colorado are fed pellets, grain and a
standard blend of grasses, so they all taste the same."

Absolutely right, said Biakeddy as we enjoyed our meal: "An animal is what
it eats. In my area -- Big Mountain -- we're blessed with varied soils,
from clay to sand. This allows many types of plants to grow. We also have
springs and natural formations that collect rainwater and snowmelt. So our
sheep drink pure water and eat a wide range of vegetation."

The Spanish brought the small, hardy churro to the Southwest in the late
16th century, and Navajo people began herding them shortly thereafter. In a
misguided attempt to improve churros during the mid-20th century, the
federal government encouraged Navajos to crossbreed them with larger,
heavier animals. Some families, like Biakeddy's, held on to a number of
purebred churros and now have churro flocks. In 2002, Slow Food, an Italian
gastronomic organization that identifies fine foods around the world that
are worthy of special preservation efforts, awarded the breed a spot in its
Ark of Taste.

Churros are well-adapted to the Navajo homeland's arid climate; however, to
be at their best, they require a vigilant shepherd. To produce
fine-textured meat, Biakeddy encourages her sheep to get just enough
exercise: lots of walking up and down hills, with no running allowed. To
guarantee good flavor, she helps them avoid physical stress -- from
injuries, for example -- and watches their diet.

"They're picky eaters, which is fun to observe," said Biakeddy. "When cheat
grass is in season, that's all they want. When the wildflowers bloom, they
try to eat them exclusively. Right now, some have discovered prickly pear
fruit. You have to be in their care continually -- persuading them to eat
other plants." She laughed and added, "They keep me busy."

Biakeddy's flock, which varies in size from about 60 to twice that after
the lambs are born in the spring, is both a small-scale commercial venture
and what she describes as her contribution to the world. "I don't take
credit for my sheep," she said. "I owe everything to my people, who kept
them alive. The animals, in turn, were the backbone of our survival. This
is the most profound thing I could do, given my ancestry. There are things
within our tradition that cannot be taken for granted; they are so
important you must cherish them every day."

As a result, Biakeddy manages the economic side of the operation -- called
Biakeddy and Family -- with great caution. John Sharpe is the only chef she
currently supplies. "He understands the significance of this sheep and
conveys it to his customers, who are the kind of clientele that expect
something special," she said. "It would be easier to load up the animals,
take them to market and not know what the outcome is. Working with John, I
do know. I follow my sheep from breeding season to the plate. I have upheld
my responsibility."

When Navajo churro sheep were placed in the Ark of Taste, they became a
fad, and prospective purchasers started contacting Biakeddy. She proceeds
with care in these situations. She considers the person's experience and
capabilities -- and his or her character -- before parting with an animal.
"You don't make a lot of money with churro sheep," she said. "They have to
function as part of your daily life, as a way to manage your terrain. You
can't buy your way into them. But for people who comprehend this -- Navajo
or non-Navajo -- they're wonderful."

Going forward, Biakeddy will expand her enterprise modestly. She may sell
goat meat or beef, since she also has small herds of angora goats and
cattle; and there are also sheep byproducts, like cheeses, to consider.
Supplying another restaurant is a possibility, as is selling via the
Internet.

"I don't live with modern amenities, which is fine for taking care of
sheep, but difficult for business," she said. "Buyers have a hard time
getting hold of me. So, I'm looking into marketing online." Because she
produces a limited amount of meat, she would offer it seasonally -- leading
up to Easter and Christmas, for example.

As demand grew, she could then increase supply by helping her neighbors
develop flocks. There's some room for growth in the size of her herd -- but
not a great deal. "There's the weather and my physical strength to
consider," she said. "I'd say keep it close, keep it local."

Always, her goal is finding demanding customers: "I want to market to
people who push me to keep up the quality of the meat -- people who won't
let me have a day off. Which is exactly how my parents and grandparents
taught me."