How to cook a whole cow
Ageing beefA process vital to the flavour of the meat, but how long should beef hang for?‘Beef is highly popular with Englishmen,’ wrote the Victorian domestic guru Mrs Beeton. ‘It is, however, less easy of digestion, and seems naturally to require mustard or horseradish as condiments.’ She went on: ‘Beef should not be eaten if it is in the least high.’ I wonder what Mrs Beeton would have made of butcher Ginger Pig, which hangs its beef for a minimum of 28 days, longer if you want. ‘After 40 days you need to trim off the mouldy crust,’ says master butcher Borut matter-of-factly. He holds a piece of exceptionally well-aged beef under our noses and commands us to sniff. ‘Beautiful, eh?’ It’s hard to disagree. But the necessary wastage of outer portions of the carcass makes selling aged meat a costly business. Supermarkets (with some exceptions) prefer to sell it fresh, ie five to seven days old. The problem with fresh meat, as Borut points out, is that it has no flavour, especially the expensive, easy-cook cuts from the loin.
Meat acquires tenderness as it ages, and enzymes (proteases) break down the collagen and muscle fibres – a process called proteolysis. Hanging on the bone is the most popular ageing method, but it’s important to choose an animal that has a decent covering of fat or it will become too dry, losing around 15 per cent of its body weight in moisture. Ginger Pig ‘dry ages’ its meat, hanging the carcasses in a clean, temperature- and humidity-controlled room. With ‘wet ageing’, meat is deboned to form ‘primal cuts’ that are aged in vacuum-sealed packs.
This takes less time and is cheaper, but it’s much less effective: if you prevent moisture loss, you prevent the flavour from becoming so concentrated. But how concentrated do you want the flavour to be? As we shall see a little later on, a 28-day-aged rib roast is a wonderful thing – its taste rich and mellow, its texture meltingly tender. But one person’s gamey is another person’s putrid. Personally, I think 35 days is the tipping point. Beyond that, you need a lead-lined stomach.
Towards the end of our Monday-night butchery sessions with Borut, I took home a piece of brisket hewn from Del Boy, the Time Out bullock. It was quite far gone, but I thought it would be okay if I left it in my fridge until the weekend. It wasn’t. By Saturday it was slug-coloured and noxious-smelling. Luckily for me, my attempt to pot-roast the thing was hampered by the unbidden appearance of a particularly horrible mental image whenever I lifted the lid to check on its progress: scientist Howard Florey and his team beavering away to make the ‘mould broth’ they used to synthesize penicillin in 1940s Oxford. Time for a takeaway.
Thai beef salad for twoMarinate one large sirloin steak in 1 tbsp of soy sauce, a glass of red wine, a grated thumb-sized piece of ginger, and a slug of olive oil for a couple of hours. Finely chop two bird’s-eye chillies, 1 tbsp fresh mint, 5 sprigs coriander, and a clove of garlic. In a cup blend 1 tbsp nam pla, the zest of one lime and the juice of two, and 2 tsps brown sugar. Put liquid and spices together in a blender. Create a bed of salad leaves on two plates, scatter half a dozen chopped red grapes onto both. Cut seared steak into thin strips, lay on bed of leaves and dress.We bought our longhorn, Del Boy, at Ginger Pig. For further information about Borut’s butchery classes, see www.thegingerpig.co.uk.