We agonise about the right cut and how to cook it to perfection, but how often do we think about how a steak even gets into our kitchen? It’s a subject so vast, complicated and, frankly, political that it can be daunting to contemplate. And that’s before we ever posit the question of whether we ought to be even eating quite so much of the stuff…
With that in mind, provenance and traceability are more important than ever – and as a result, a certain amount of nationalism understandably creeps in. Every country feels their beef is the best, whether it’s British, Argentinian or USDA Prime.
The story actually begins with the gene pool the animals come from. Cattle are destined for either the dairy industry or the beef industry. Dairy cows are bred with big udders and are around eight years old at the point of slaughter, when their productive life is over. As Richard Tufton of Meyer Natural Foods in Austin, Texas, says: ‘Beef breeds have thick muscles, a good conformation [meat-to-bone ratio] and a superior eating quality. If you cook a dairy steak, it can be really tough.’
After that, it’s a question of breed. ‘In the UK, we have a long tradition of rearing cattle with ancient breeds that go back centuries,’ says John Pallagi of Yorkshire-based online butcher Farmison & Co, which specialises in heritage breeds like Dexter, Gloucester and Lincoln Red. He’s recently invested in a herd of White Park, which was farmed some 2,000 years ago by the druids. Pure-bred is always preferable in his view. ‘Crossing a Hereford with an Angus is like adding Müller-Thurgau to Chardonnay,’ says Pallagi; ‘the yields are better, but you lose the flavour. It waters down the quality.’
Pete Hannan, who supplies upmarket London retailer Fortnum & Mason with Glenarm Shorthorn, agrees. ‘Traditional native breeds tend to be fatter and more docile. They’re easy to keep outside. They don’t get too excited and never suffer high stress, right up to the point of slaughter.’
Most US cattle, by contrast, are Aberdeen Angus or Angus crosses – black cattle, as they’re known. But the biggest transatlantic difference is the way they’re reared, largely on corn rather than grass.
Many of us will have an image of cows – or rather, steers (most beef cattle are male) – grazing contentedly in lush green fields. It’s fair to say that’s still the norm in the UK, which is why there is some anxiety about the possibility of trade deals with the US that might admit the importing of beef reared to less exacting standards. ‘The majority of cattle in the UK spend their lives on grass, finished off for the last couple of months on wheat or other grains grown on the farm,’ says Tufton, who has worked both sides of the pond. That’s not the case, however, in the US. ‘In the US, animals start their lives on grass, but the majority move to feedlots, where they are fed a corn-rich diet for the rest of their lives.
‘After World War II, the US paid heavy subsidies to farmers to grow corn as part of a bid to get the country back to work. Excess corn was fed to cattle, but cows are designed to eat grass not corn, and it made them sick. Then they had to use antibiotics and other digestive aids to counteract that. And because they were “harvested” younger, they were also given growth-promoting hormones to put on extra weight. They became like bodybuilders, basically.’
That’s not necessarily a disadvantage when it comes to the look and texture of the meat. Corn (and rice, which is what Wagyu cattle are often fed on) tends to promote marbling, which is the basis for the USDA grading system. It also promotes greater consistency than you can achieve with grass-fed beef. As Hannan succintly puts it: ‘There’s no point in having a great steak this week and a lousy steak the next.’
Tufton argues, though, that corn-fed cattle are not good for humans. ‘The fat an animal creates after eating corn is high in cholesterol and hard for humans to digest. It clogs up the arteries. If an animal is on grass most of its life, the fat it lays down is much easier to digest. It’s also a different eating experience. If you eat animals that have been fed on corn, you can feel the fat on the roof of your mouth. It’s very rich.’
Attitudes are changing on both sides of the Atlantic, with a new generation more concerned about provenance than price
The character of the cattle will also depend on the type of grass. The land in the Yorkshire Dales near Arncliffe where Pallagi sources much of his beef is particularly rich in limestone and fosters a diverse selection of plants and grasses that are rich in vitamins and minerals.
The sun-blasted plains of the US Midwest, by contrast, resemble hay more than grass (although farms in New England would have more in common with those in the UK). ‘The quality of grass is also enhanced by rotational grazing,’ says Tufton. ‘If you split your farm into smaller lots and move the animals around, you are encouraging them to eat the top, most nutritious bits of grass, which means the animal gets more energy and lays down more intramuscular fat.’
The downside economically is that it takes longer for grass-fed cattle to get to get to full weight, says Tufton. ‘An animal in the UK takes roughly 30 months from birth to slaughter – it was the same in the 1950s in the US. But if they’re raised on corn, that’s cut to 16–17 months. Grass-fed beef [and to be called that in the US it must be 100% grass-fed] is almost twice the cost, so it takes twice as long to get your money.’
The US model is also an issue so far as animal welfare is concerned, with cattle going at a young age into an industrial feedlot or CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation), where they take on as much food as quickly as possible while expending the minimum energy. ‘Ninety per cent of American beef is produced in this way,’ says Tufton.
So, surprisingly, is most beef in the land of the pampas, Argentina, according to chef Santiago ‘Gurí’ Garat at Corte restaurant in Buenos Aires. ‘There’s a lot of marketing of the pampas,’ says Garat. ‘But most of the beef served in Argentinian restaurants and parrillas comes from feedlots or from cattle finished with grain in feeding pens or corrals. We are one of only a few restaurants that can offer and guarantee traceability.
‘Fortunately, people are starting to understand and appreciate this and are slowly changing their preference to the purely grass-fed beef. This beef comes mainly from British breeds reared in the Argentinian provinces with the best grass and on an extended field, where the animal will walk in search of the grass. In general, we have British breeds, particularly Aberdeen Angus and Hereford and their crossbreed, known as Pampa.’
Dry ageing, where a carcass is exposed to air, deepens colour and intensifies savoury flavour
Tim Gould, CEO of UK steakhouse Hawksmoor (which, I should declare in the interests of transparency, is co-owned by my son Will), has just opened a branch in New York. He has a slightly more optimistic take. ‘It was a big challenge to find beef of fantastic quality that ticked all the boxes from an ethics point of view,’ he says. ‘We didn’t want antibiotics. We didn’t want any hormones. It made us realise how high the standards are here [in the UK]. But we’ve found some amazing suppliers, like Dave and Jeannie Gottenborg of Eagle Rock, who farm high up in the mountains of Colorado and put an extraordinary amount of care and expertise into raising their animals.’
The other big factor that contributes to flavour and tenderness is ageing; older carcasses develop a gamey character you don’t get from younger beef. Dry ageing, where a carcass is exposed to air, deepens colour and intensifies savoury flavour more effectively than wet ageing in a vacuum-sealed bag. ‘The big difference is in the chew,’ says John Pallagi. ‘The British public likes soft meat, so flavour comes second to texture,’ he continues. We also have different expectations in terms of the colour of the meat – Marilyn Monroe lipstick rather than a deep, rich ruby red. We had a customer complain that the meat wasn’t the same colour as that in Tesco, but there it’s slaughtered early and butchered way too early.’
Attitudes are changing on both sides of the Atlantic, with a new generation more concerned about provenance than price. ‘The shift will be driven by consumers, not producers,’ says Tufton. ‘People start to watch documentaries on Netflix. They care about the food they’re putting into their bodies.’ He continues: ‘In the States, there’s a definite movement towards sustainable regenerative agriculture. Organic, grass-fed beef has been increasing by 30–40% a year and has done for the past five or six years – but it’s still only 4–5% of the total sold. Rearing beef is a slow-moving process: it takes three years to grow an animal. But change is definitely coming, and we’re going through it right now.’
Four wines – and a spirit – you might not expect to reach for with steak
- Aged Bandol rosé
Provence rosé may be associated with summery dishes like a salade niçoise, but an aged Bandol rosé has the structure and complexity to stand up to a steak.
- Oak-aged Chardonnay
White wine with red meat might seem strange, but oak-aged Chardonnay picks up nicely on a chargrilled steak, especially one accompanied by an unctuous Béarnaise sauce.
- Red Burgundy
Many would feel this was a little light for steak, but its silky tannins work particularly well with fillet. (The same is true, obviously, for other cool-climate Pinot Noirs.)
If you’re an Amarone fan, you probably reckon it goes with everything – and in the case of steak with a rich red wine sauce, you’d be spot on.
Pretty good on the rocks – even better as a Manhattan or an Old-Fashioned. Try it.