The thought of braised crocodile meat, or throwing some kangaroo steaks down on the barbeque may raise some eyebrows or it may cause some recoil in horror.
But exotic meat, wild game and other "alternative protein," as it's known, is a growing niche and Coquitlam's Mark Hills is a pioneer in the business.
Now into its 25th year, Hills Foods boasts a substantial product list of high quality meats not in the typical North American's diet.
"We provide everything from alligator to musk ox and everything in between, we like to say," Hills said on a tour of his Coquitlam warehouse. "We've probably got the widest selection under one roof in the country. Providing that variety has made us stand out, absolutely."
Hills and his team are getting ready for a busy few days of handing out samples of his exotic fare, including ostrich sausage and smoked duck, at the Vancouver Men's Show being held at the Abbotsford TRADEX from June 15-17.
Hills' lifelong interest in food has taken him through culinary arts college and a career as a chef and restaurant supplier, but it was Expo 86 that caused him to focus his business on rarer meats.
"All these European chefs were coming and asking for things that locals hadn't asked for and a lot of it was game related - rabbits, buffalo, musk ox, caribou - indigenous species the Europeans thought we must have, but we didn't have the system set up for it," he said. "The light bulb went off in my head and I thought, 'Here's an opportunity.'"
Since then, Hills Foods has grown to 25 employees who not only distribute imported exotic meats, but also process locally farmed game and certified organic beef, chicken and pork.
Hills said most of his business is in supplying high-end restaurants, and some retail outlets though he also has a cash and carry business to sell directly to consumers.
But selling to individuals presents its challenges. How do you convince a person to eat an animal that our culture has never been conditioned to think of as food?
Education, which usually starts with getting restaurant chefs to add meats to their menus. Twenty years ago meats like buffalo, venison and ostrich were considered exotic but are now widely available in restaurants and supermarkets, Hills said.
And now a new group of eats that appeals to the arket's desire for healthy nd sustainable foods is inding their way onto restaurant menus and backyard barbeques via Hills' business. Kangaroo meat is one of the fastest growing in terms of popularity.
Hills spent 20 years lobbying the federal government to allow the importation of kangaroo, which
paid off in 2007 when Parliament amended the Canadian Food Inspection Agency Act. The result has been delicious, healthy and environmentally responsible, Hills said.
"The meat is highly nutritious and quite flavourful, comparable to fine venison," he said. "And quite affordable compared to some of the other game. It's half the price of buffalo or regular venison."
Kangaroos are so prolific in Australia, they're considered a nuisance species that must be culled occasionally, meaning all imported kangaroo meat is wild and grass-fed, not farmed. And unlike cattle and sheep, kangaroos don't produce methane, which means even after having to transport the meat across the Pacific Ocean, there is still less of a carbon footprint than there is for cows.
"It's probably the best meat available on the planet, environmentally speaking," Hills said.
Also increasing in popularity is camel and crocodile, which Hills also recently just began importing. Crocs by the way, are probably the tastiest of the reptiles, including snakes and alligators, which are often bland, though Hills cautions never say that to a Cajun chef.
hat to a Cajun chef. Hills said his custom-
ers usually come to him looking for a novelty or small culinary adventure but they wind up as fans who have just broadened their horizons.
"Ninety-eight per cent of the time, I can throw that out there. People are a little hesitant when they bite into whatever protein we might be serving. They say 'Wow, I've never had that before. It's really good,'" he said. "We get a lot of converts."
Hills Foods' full product list can be found www.hillsfoods. com.