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Fort on food: meat

Fort on food: meat

by Matthew Fort 01 May 2014

Matthew Fort raises the issue of quality and the animal welfare of the meat that we eat here in the UK. He discusses our native breeds and heritage along with giving some guidance of what to buy and when.

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Matthew is a source of infinite wisdom in the world of food.

Bacon

The Italians have pancetta, the Germans have speck, the Poles have boczek, the French have poitrine fume, but we have bacon.

Good bacon is simply one of the finest foods in any form on the face of the earth. The smell of frying bacon would tempt an anchorite, and possibly even a vegetarian, to err. 'There were Paddock's crisp sausages and fragrant shavings of bacon and shapely poached eggs' a hungry Richard Hannay fantasizes in John Buchan's The 39 Steps. 'Fragrant shaving of bacon'. 'Shapely poached eggs'. It's always been one of my favourite food quotes. From this I think we can deduce that he was referring to dried cured bacon here, not the coarse, vulgar and flabby wet cured bacon that oozes unpleasing white liquid all over the frying pan, and which never seems to get crisp, let alone fragrant.

It's actually very easy to make your own dry cured bacon. You just bury whichever cut you use - usually belly (aka streaky) or loin (aka back) although I'm fond of cheek (aka jowl; very rare) - in salt and spices of choice for 5-10 days to draw out much of the water on the pork used, remembering to pour off the water every now and then, before smoking it or hanging up in a cool place to dry further.

Wet cured bacon, on the other hand, means the flitches have been immersed in, or injected with, brine for a week or so to cure. This is a method preferred by mass production bacon industry, because the customer ends up buying a disproportionate amount of water with their bacon, and that's the white goo the rashers exude when they fry it.

I also like my bacon, streaky or back, to have some fat on it, so that after cooking, I have some splendid medium in which to fry eggs and bread. Incidentally, the fat of the Hungarian Mangalitza pigs is particularly delicious, while the old British Lop, Tamworth or Oxford Sandy Black are considered the finest bacon pigs.

Beef

For the record, probably the best steak I ever ate in open competition at a blind tasting turned out to be an 8-year old Friesian milk cow

Every caring cook should dread the phrase ‘killing weight’. It means that animals, eating cattle in particular, are raised to ‘killing weight’. In other words, they are brought to the point of slaughter as quickly as possible (12 to 24 months, usually) with no regard to their natural development. They aren’t allowed to mature quietly, develop fat and flavour, at their own pace.

In practice this means we are eating adolescent animals. This may suit most fast-growing Continental breeds, such as Simmental, Charollais and Belgian Blue, but traditional British breeds, such as Belted Galloway, Red Devon, Gloucester, Highland, Welsh Black, are all slow-maturing beasts. It takes them 6,7,8 years to come to full maturity.

Some cows will live as long as 30 years, although I wouldn’t necessarily want to eat one. And then there’s the hanging and butchering, which can ruin a decent carcass. There’s a fabulous amount of rubbish talked about what breed makes the best steak, and how long beef should be hung for. Until we routinely grow our own animals to full maturity we’ll never know. For the record, probably the best steak I ever ate in open competition at a blind tasting turned out to be an 8-year old Friesian milk cow.

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Black pudding

I wonder how many people would be happy to tuck into black pudding if you called it pig’s blood sausage? The German blutwurst sounds a bit brutal by comparison. Boudin noir in France is just as evasive as black pudding, while the Tuscan buristo is frankly deceptive, although in Southern Italy they do have sanguinaccio, a hefty tart of pig’s blood and chocolate. As for the Spanish morcilla, well, what clue does that give the unwary?

Bury, of course, is famous for its black pudding, but so once were Dudley and Ramsbottom, Stretford and North Staffordshire. Stornoway and Kilcullen still are in my book. Black puddings hark back to the days when slaughtering a pig was the year’s big social get-together, and no part of the animal was wasted. Not surprisingly, every country has its own particular pig’s blood culture. English black puddings tend to be rather stiffer than their French counterparts, perhaps not surprisingly as traditionally they contained oatmeal and groats, while the French do not. Incidentally, according to the invaluable, never-been-bettered Book of Sausages by Antony & Araminta Hippisley Coxe, West Indian black pudding has sweet potato and pumpkin in it, while the charming-sounding Karvaviza Po Banski of Bulgaria adds spleen to neck and belly as well as the usual blood.

Spicing also varies widely, but I don’t have enough space here to go into all of that. Suffice to say that the most gastronomically famous black pudding of these islands, Paul Heathcote’s black pudding - that helped him win two Michelin stars way back when, used no spices other than salt and pepper, but did include champagne, vinegar sultanas, sweetbreads, thyme and bay leaves. He served it in crushed potatoes with baked beans and a bay leaf sauce, and memorably yummy it was, too. Yummy and remarkably nutritious, being high in in potassium, calcium, iron and magnesium. And just a few calories. Although Paul Heathcote used dried pig’s blood for practical reasons, I feel fresh is preferable. The trouble with pig’s blood – but that’s another story.

 

Chicken

We used to be in thrall to the French when it comes to high-end chicken. Poulet de Bresse and Poulet de Landes, those were the birds, which traditionally have set the tone for the serious chef. These are blacked legged beasties, long-legged with narrow breasts, closer to the jungle chicken from which all chooks are descended.

But in the last few years we have seen the rise of serious homegrown chicken producers. There are the Goosnargh chickens of Reg Johnson in Lancashire, Laverstoke Park in Hampshire, Madgett’s just outside Chepstow and the more universally available Label Rouge. These pioneers have taken the more traditional, muscular-thighed, bountiful-breasted British bird, and bred fully flavoured fowls through careful husbandry, meticulous feeding, natural growth, maturity at slaughter, careful hanging and dry plucking.

There are of course, an infinite variety of chickens, most of which are now raised for showing, but once we prized for the flavour such as Sussex or Rhode Island Red or for their egg laying capacity, such as Orpington and Leghorn, but it takes a dedicated gastro-sleuth to track birds of precise provenance down.

 
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Duck

There are wild ducks (teal, mallard, widgeon), which are shot between 1st September and 31st January. These have highly distinctive flavours, densely textured meat and very little fat. And then there are domesticated ducks (Aylesbury, Barbary aka Muscovy, Rouennais, Goosnargh, Challans, Gressingham among dozens of breeds). In fact, most of these breeds are offshoots of mallard/Pekin Duck crosses.

The Pekin duck, the familiar farmyard duck with white feathers and yellow beak and feet, and long appreciated by the Chinese for their plumpness and tenderness of the breast meat, was introduced into the UK in 1870, and transformed our native duck production. There are variations in flavour and texture, fat to meat ratios and the like. However, these differences may be more evident to the breeders than they are to the consumers. Husbandry, feed, age at slaughter, hanging and plucking method (dry or wet; dry is better but labour intensive and therefore expensive) probably have a greater say in the quality of the final product than anything else.

 

Pigeon

There is a world of difference between the suave velvet-and-suede texture of a farmed squab (young pigeon) pigeon, which is usually the one you’ll find on restaurant menus, and the taut muscularity of the wild bird. The differences in flavour are equally marked. Squabs have a mild, civilised, almost cultured gentleness. Wild is much more minerally and hard edged. It’s not hard to see why. Your wild bird leads a very active life, feeding as he may. Connoisseurs prefer the autumn birds, which have grown fat on beach mast, autumn veg and berries. Even so, they take a bit of cooking as that chest meat is pure, working muscle. That’s why most people braise them.

Squabs, on the other hand, are fed to put on weight as rapidly as possible, and are killed at around a month. Not much of a life, really. In the wild, pigeons will generally live for 3-4 years, but can live for up to 15. And then there’s the difference in weight: industrially raised squabs weigh 1.3 pounds (0.59 kg) when of age, as opposed to traditionally raised pigeons, which weigh 0.5 pounds (0.23 kg). There’s nothing new about pigeon farming. The ancient Egyptians were at it, and raising ducks and geese, too, for foie gras, for that matter.

 
Pig to watch: Mangalitza, a native of Hungary, but related to the sadly extinct Lincolnshire Curleycoat

Pork

The gingery Tamworth is an interesting pig. During the 18th and 19th centuries, all native breeds of pig were crossbred with foreign varieties (the Black Pig of Naples and the Chinese Pot-Bellied pig in particular), to improve them. Only the Tamworth got away unscathed. Consequently, it still has the long, narrow carcass of the wild boar. That’s by the by.

The trouble with contemporary pig production is that fat is regarded as Public Enemy Number 1 when it comes to the eating public. And yet, no fat, no flavour. According to Harold McGee, ‘It’s largely the contents of the fat tissue that give beef, lamb, pork, and chicken their distinctive flavours.’ Not only does fat give flavour, but it also helps lubricate the tightly knit fibres of the meat it surrounds or runs through during cooking. And was there ever an animal designed to carry fat better than the pig?

Sadly, contemporary pigs are grown to minimise their fat content. That means that traditional varieties such as the British Lop (aka the Cottage Pig), Middlewhite, Large Black, Berkshire, Tamworth and Welsh, with their greater layers of fat and individual qualities, are either endangered or at risk according to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (see https://www.rbst.org.uk). Luckily, some enlightened chefs are realising the potential offered by these animals. Pig to watch: Mangalitza, a native of Hungary, but related to the sadly extinct Lincolnshire Curleycoat. I know of three farms now raising them.

 

Lamb

Lamb is lamb for the first year of its life. Then it becomes hogget in its second year. In its third year, assuming it lasts that long, it becomes and remains mutton. The eating qualities of individual breeds vary considerably, but overall, the older the animal, the stronger and more distinctive the flavour.

Spring lamb and new season’s lamb is not necessarily the same thing. Traditionally, the lamb season does kick off in spring, or even before, in the South West, where lambs fatten up quickly on the lush pastures of Devon and Somerset. Then the season moves gradually northwards through the sheep-producing counties of Britain, finishing in October/November in the far North of Scotland. This pattern has become blurred in recent years as farmers in the Midlands and elsewhere bring on lambing early to take advantage of the demand and premium prices around Easter.

Swaledale or Lancashire Lonk? Welsh Badger-faced or Blue-faced Leicester? Romney Marsh or Devon? The breeds of lamb still currently being bred are a reminder of how regional farming practices used to be. Each breed became specialised around a type of grassland and environment, for wool or meat or both.

These days, almost all lamb is for eating. Those that feed on the richer southern pastures tend to produce a sweet, rich flavour with a softer texture. Hill sheep have to work harder, and so have a more distinctive, herby flavour and a bit more fibrous texture. Some connoisseurs rate the rare breeds, such as Manx Loughtan and Jacob. And at the more rarefied end of the scale there are the sheep of Soay and St Kilda, shoreline foragers which feed on seaweed. They have muscular, small carcasses, very low in fat but with a wonderful gamey, almost minerally flavour.

Many cuisines have embraced lamb and therefore your options with the meat are plentiful. You could use lamb in a Moroccan style tagine, or, the Turkish way, using a soy-based marinade and served up with flatbreads. Indian chef Vineet Bhatia encrusts a rack of lamb with a mixture of fragrant spices – the wonderful, gamey flavour of lamb is often flattered by strong herbs and spices.

For a lamb dish with a difference, see this Robert Thompson recipe which uses lamb in a carpaccio with shallot mousse, pickled walnuts and quails eggs.

There are simpler ways to prepare lamb. Shepherd's pie is a traditional way to make the most of this phenomenal meat, while roast lamb with seasonal vegetables or lamb with Provençal vegetables are also classics.

 
 

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