Monday, 15 February 2010

As a youth I used to weep in butcher's shops.....

It's funny, initially this post was going to be a raving diatribe about butchers being a bunch of sarcastic, argumentative buggers but a certain recipe came along which knocked the wind out of my sails. One minute I'm thinking "I should really write about how I should have smacked a certain trenchant git with a blue stripped apron in the mouth" but then my mind turns to the success of a romantic evening. Do I witter on needlessly about the bad experiences I've had in butcher's shops, the subsequent fear that has developed and the panic that I'll look like a plonker whenever I walk in? Or do I give credit where credit's due? I think I'll do both because for all the stress and confusion I endured when purchasing some meat the other day, Mr Jonathan Brown's latest effort deserves to be championed.

Let's talk about the problem first. Whenever possible, I try to buy my meat from butchers and the reasons are straightforward. It's better to support small independent businesses, provenance and quality will be high on the agenda (well usually) and these are places where you can go in and talk to someone, confident that the advice you seek is coming from a professional. And not some spotty Saturday schoolboy.

Er so what is the fricking problem? Well for every friendly, presentable, rosy faced gentleman that I've met who practises the fine art of dismemberment, you do occasionally come across an obstructive piss-taker. I ventured into one local butcher once to buy some skirt steak, a cut I'd never come across before but wanted to try out after finding a recipe for barbecued bavette. After hearing my enquiry, the owner, a heavy set man with a corned beef complexion blinked at me and said "Whatugonnadowiththat?" I told him and what followed was some kind of mexican standoff as the proprietor argued that this was totally the wrong cut to be grilled on a barbecue and that perhaps I should go for some nice sirloin or fillet. I held my ground for about 5 minutes until he brought his toothless mate from out back to try and convince me that I was making a mistake so I just yelled in a high pitched voice "look please, I just want some fucking skirt!" to which he smirked "steady on mate, only trying to help."

For a short period, I went through a stage of making terrines and made regular trips to another butcher for pork shoulder as required by a lot of recipes. All was fine and dandy until my, I suppose fourth or fifth visit and the cost had more than doubled. When I asked why, this normally amiable old soul just leaned over and snarled "I think you've been doing pretty well with the price so far" which I found very odd. Then I saw what I took to be his wife emerge through the chains hanging in the doorway behind him. The phrase 'rottweiler chewing a wasp' came to mind and as it was the first time I'd seen her, I could only assume that this hike was due to the presence of his missus. Shame, if he had just given me a subtle roll of the eyes and nudged his head gently backwards in her direction, I would have paid up with an equally subtle wink and tap on the nose. Instead, I simply walked out, fairly disgusted.

And now comes my most recent episode when I visited a farmshop that came highly recommended for it's butchery department. There was indeed a fine selection of meat on display. I was very excited to see ox cheeks as they seem to be one of the 'in' cuts at the moment and I hadn't tried them before so I bought a kilo. Feeling pretty pleased with myself and continuing to peruse, I decided to strike up a conversation with the fella behind the glass counter.

"What's the difference between braising and stewing steak?" I asked.

To which he replied "weeell, you see this" (points to braising steak) "you braise in the oven, and you see this" (points to stewing steak) "you stew in the oven." In a manner as if he were addressing a very young child.

I stared back him with a thoroughly perplexed frown, wondering "did I just ask him a really stupid question? Or is he just treating me like a simpleton? Or is that in fact his answer?" So I waited for the laugh, the smirk, the wink, the anything. But I got nothing. He just stared back at me blankly. So I just slowly walked off, feeling like the biggest plank ever, clutching a bag of ox cheeks tightly by my side.

And herein lies my problem. Sure I cook a lot and I eat a lot of the damned stuff but there are times when I feel like I am in the dark about the fundamentals, the different breeds and where the different cuts come from on the animal (let's not get started on the 'forgotten cuts'). Coupled with this self imposed image of being a fully paid up, badge wearing, flag waving foodie and well you start to feel like a bit of a fraud. Perhaps I should do one of those River Cottage courses. Perhaps I should read a book or two! Or maybe I am just being too hard on myself. Either way I have to do something to conquer this nagging doubt in the back of my head otherwise one day I am going to make a lunge for that smart-arsed butcher. Which of course would be even dafter, those guys could cut me up into chops in seconds.

"Yes madam, this mincemeat is very fresh, we made it only half an hour ago. Oh yes these glasses are new. Yes, just like what that Harry Hill would wear, ha ha ha"

Still there is the fairytale ending that I alluded to at the beginning of the post. After shaking off the embarrassment of my visit, I came home and set about looking for recipes for ox cheeks. As fate would have it, Mr Brown of Around Britain With A Paunch had just posted his recipe for Ox Cheek Open Ravioli so I decided so have a crack at that for a Valentines Supper last Sunday. Interestingly, this is the first time that I have used a blogger's recipe. Sure I've looked at loads for inspiration before but this was the first one I adhered to word for word. A little tip here, it's handy to keep your laptop next to the place where you are preparing your ingredients. I spent a good while to-ing and fro-ing between the front room and kitchen, spilling wine and dropping chopped onion everywhere before it dawned on me. And as I don't own a slow cooker I went for the Le Creuset in a very low oven for 5 hours method instead. I was very pleased with the end result. The meat came out beautifully, supremely tender and packed with flavour. The sauce itself was fantastic, rich and intense. And the pasta! Mama mia the pasta! I finally made some bloody pasta that I was happy with. In future I shall take the cue to make it little and often as it was infinitely more manageable. Like I said, I didn't really intend for this post to be a swoon over Jonathan's effort and I would have been happier if he'd called it "lasagne" rather than open ravioli. But the success of a good meal definitely perked me up after my last bout of carnophobia (or should that be catagelophobia). So I think a pat on the back is in order. And maybe, just maybe Mr Brown will hold my hand the next time I make a trip to The Ginger Pig?

Separating the cheeks

Straining the wine

Making the pasta

Ox Cheek Open Ravioli (or Lasagne as it should be)

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Blokes Eat Beef

Like a good responsible citizen, I am registered with the NHS as an organ donor so that in the event of my timely or untimely demise, I may just be able to help out my fellow man. Whether or not my organs are worth giving away remains to be seen. A decent surgeon probably wouldn't give my liver a second glance but I reckon my heart and lungs are good for a second outing. This is all of course rather speculative and lets face it, I won't really have a say in the matter. So it is quite possible that I'll end up as a cadaver to be carved up on the slab in front of some medical students. I can just imagine it now as the lecturer goes over my digestive system in front of a crowd of eager eyes.

"Ah yes, now here we have the typical traits of a male intestine, fetid and scarred after years of abuse, largely down to a carnivorous diet and.....what do we have here? that steak?...... Why it's totally undigested with no signs of mastication or anything!...... There's got to be over a kilo of meat in here. Good grief!"

And after Blokes Eat Beef on Monday night, this is how it could have all quite possibly ended. I don't ever think that I have eaten so much cow in one sitting before and I don't think I will again.

Blokes Eat Beef was organised by a Mr Simon Majumdar in response to the formation of a "girls only" steak club over the twittersphere. You see, it's alright for you ladies to have your coffee mornings with cupcakes and doilies whilst watching Loose Women but profess the love of a good steak and well you shake the foundations of the male ego to it's absolute core. And so his Maj in response sent out the rallying cry on Twitter "right who's up for some boy's only meat action then?!" Well not quite like that but I signed up straight away, especially when I heard the word "Goodman" getting thrown in the mix. By all accounts there are only really two good steak restaurants in London, the first being the aforementioned Goodman. And secondly Hawksmoor, which is where the ladies were headed to the following night. Why no-one thought of going to an Angus Steak House is beyond me but I decided to keep that to myself and go with the flow.

Pre-dinner drinks were taken in the basement bar of Hix in Soho. Cocktails were the order of the day although after spending 10 mins frantically walking backwards and forwards past the establishment (yes it was my first visit) I could have really done with a beer to quench the thirst. But as all the decent chaps lining the bar were supping Martinis and the like, I opted for a Negroni which soon enveloped the back of my skull like a steaming hot towel. Aha now I see, sod the beer, real men drink cocktails, very strong cocktails. Thankfully though I had just the one and was soon trotting off with my fellow compadres to our destination. Details had emerged earlier in the day highlighting that we had 36kgs of prime quality beef set by so I was fairly buzzing with the prospect of a meatathon as I walked down Regent's Street. (I hasten to add that 25 blokes were in attendance for this evening, that works out to an allocated allowance of 1.44kgs of meat each!)

On arrival, as I surveyed the interior of the restaurant with it's shades of brown throughout the woodwork and leather upholstery, it did strike me as a fairly masculine environment but there was also a simplicity to the decor that sort of said "we only care about the meat". Which was very encouraging and so off I sauntered into the back room where we were to have our frenzy. Drinks to kick off with came in the form of Chapel Down Sparkling Rose and Argentinean Chardonnay. I plumped for the latter, lovely, there was no smack in the face of oak from this drop of plonk. Although I did start to think that the whole blokish aspect of the proceedings may have been a bit of a misnomer. Perhaps it should have been more Sophisticated Gentlemen Who Eat Beef but maybe I was still hankering after that beer. Still all elements of doubt soon evaporated when 4 huge sides of beef were brought into the room to roars of approval. Things it seemed were going to get rowdy after all.

Head Chef, John Cadieux, took to the stand and immediately proved his credentials by giving us a thorough overview of the four different breeds that were to be served up. USDA from Nebraska, Belted Gallway from the Lake District, Charalais/Limosin from Scotland and Black Angus from Ireland. Like wine, it seems that the terroir is very important when developing beef of this quality, not to mention the physical and emotional well being of the animal, it all counts for delivering the best steak possible. A sad cow that has led a life of hardship with a poor diet will just not taste good. Quite obviously really and worth remembering the next time you sniff at your £5 steak (with a pint) at Wetherspoons. John also went into detail about the different aging processes, prodding, caressing and sniffing each hulk of meat. Which was quite unsettling really. Yes, John seemed like a smashing bloke but I couldn't help but wonder what kind of cellar he had at home. It was all his talk of corpses and buzz saws wot done it I think.

We were also treated to a quick series of talks from David Strauss, Goodman's general manager, a lovely young lady from Catena who supplied the wine (and who's name I didn't catch - sorry) and also Frank Hederman, Irish salmon smoker extraordinaire who personally flew over some salmon for our starter. Frank is quite a character and very passionate about his fish. It was joy to listen to him extol the virtues and techniques of smoking salmon but also slightly sobering when he touched upon the subject of sustainability (wow far too much alliteration there, oops).

But enough of the chitter chatter, it was soon time to get down to hard task of eating and drinking and being a bloke. Frank's salmon was brought out two ways, for the first dish it was simply sliced and presented with red onion, capers, mayonaise and soda bread. For the second, the salmon was finely diced and formed into a quinelle with cucumber and crème fraiche. Both plates were stunning, delivering a deft combination of juicy beechwood flavours with wonderfully light textures. Really good.

And then came the beef. The BEEEEEEEF! All four varieties were served up at once on large platters numbered 1-4, the idea being that we were to tuck in as part of a blind taste test and come up with our favourite steak. And we're not talking about receiving tiny slivers to sample here, we're talking about great big fat wedges of meat. Initially on my table, there was a collective widening of eyes and hushed awe but then some imaginary starter pistol went off somewhere. And so we just piled in taking 4 chunks apiece. It didn't stop there either. Side dishes piled with creamed spinach, fries, onion rings, and jugs of bearnaise and peppercorn sauce were crambed into every available space. As our glasses were charged with some fine Malbec, the whole scene in the back room turned decidedly Dionysian as grown men simultaniously started to bawdly growl, chomp, laugh and gulp their way through the meal. A token bowl of salad was also placed on each table but that was just met with howls of derision. There was a slight calm as plates were cleaned but the furor soon started up again as a second round of steak was brought in. I thought that this would separate the men from the boys but from my observations, everyone got stuck in again with glee. We were behaving like greedy pigs. In other words we were behaving like blokes.

Eventually plates were cleared and it was soon time to make a show of hands for our preference of steak. In my mind they all tasted fantastic but I opted for number 3 as to me it was the most tender, the knife through butter adage definitely applied. So it turned out that I picked the Scottish Charalais as my favourite. What was interesting was the fact that the show of hands for each steak showed a distinct clumping pattern around the room. Some of the ladies reading this, could point out that this is a stick in the eye for independent thinking in men but I just like to think that we all became really good mates on each of our tables.

There were still two more courses to go and at this point I have to admit that my own personal alarm bell started ringing in my head to slow down but I was caught up in the moment and starting to feel pretty pissed so ploughed on regardless. A crème brûlée was dealt with in the most severe fashion (thank you very much Catherine Phipps) and when the cheese plate of Stinking Bishop, Keen's Cheddar and Stichelton arrived, I had resorted to using my fingers to scoop lumps into my mouth. The night from there does desend into a haze somewhat and I point the finger of blame at a bottle of sickly sweet American Port. Yes the yanks are getting in on the act. I vaguely recall going down to the kitchen and into the aging room with some others to meet John again to stare at more big lumps of flesh but his lyrical waxing on funky smelling meats started to give me the heebie jeebies, so I ran back upstairs. I also remember Mr Tim Hayward taking on the role of debt collector and it did go through my drunken mind to challenge him to an arm wrestle instead of payment but he's a big fella so I just handed over the cash. Overall I am just glad that I didn't end up fast asleep with my head in my plate (and that's happened before)

And therein lies the problem, etiqutte and social graces go flying out of the window when groups of men get together, things do go on the slide somewhat. Or maybe that's just my own personal experience. So ladies, next time you want to go out on a jolly, take us blokes with you, we need looking after.

That aside, big thanks to Simon, John and David at Goodman and the waitresses who were fantastic for organising and putting on a magnificent spread, it was a really enjoyable evening.

Blokes Eat Beef Menu


Frank Hederman Smoked Salmon

Four Steaks

John and the Aging Room

Charcoal Oven (I would love one of these in my kitchen)

One greedy bloke