Four steaks in prospect – 23, 55, 79 and 98 day aged Dexter sirloins carefully and lovingly looked after by an amazing butcher – Nathan Mills from www.thebutcheryltd.com and the great man himself on hand to share all of his expertise and knowledge. Three wines in prospect – 1990, 2000 and 2008 Chateau Cantemerle 5me Cru Classe, Medoc provided by one of only 300 Master’s of Wine in the whole world, James Handford, from his personal cellar and him too sitting with me and generous with his expertise. A group of hand-picked food and wine enthusiast friends as company.
Me, operator of one small pub in North London, sitting there disbelieving that I get to call this work and wondering when I wake up…
Like so many of the other great things that happen to me these days, including meeting many of the guests last night, the idea for the event came out of a brief exchange on twitter. I spotted a tweet from the lovely Oliver Thring (@oliverthring – Writer. Often on food, often for the Guardian) asking if beyond a certain point aging meat added any value (or if alternatively it was simply competitive macho posturing he either implied or I remember reading into his question). I think he was researching for a potential story. I had attended a beef butchery course at a well-known butcher of good repute who I liked to buy meat from for my own use at home and had a vague recollection of one of the butchers telling me that after a while the additional time was not worth it. No real flavour development and additional wasteage were cited, I vaguely recalled – so I tweeted back to that effect.
Now normally that’s where I would have left it – after all I’m the person who told a dentist’s son that brushing your teeth couldn’t cause your gums to recede; who without having seen it told people who’d been to and enjoyed Forrest Gump they were wrong and that it was a bad film (I’ve seen it since and I was right obviously)…the list goes on but uninformed and strong opinions have always been a forte. I’ve recently found, however, that the great thing about doing something you love is that actually it is interesting to delve deeper, to increase your knowledge, to work on it where it lacks; so in an uncharacteristic way I added ‘but why don’t we ask @*********ltd (the butcher I went to). They tweeted back to say that with the right quality and cut of meat aging could make sense for really quite a while and cited some 80 day old steaks they had done recently.
I was struck with a growing curiosity about the process of aging meat. What does it do – is it about taste? Texture? Ripeness? Richness? Being familiar with the idea of ‘vertical tasting’ of wines when you simultaneously taste different vintages of the same wines I immediately thought – why not do a vertical tasting of different ages of meats so we can see for ourselves? I suggested this to Oliver and to the butcher. Oliver sadly was unable to find people interested in the story and had to move his focus and energy on to the next pitch. Interestingly the butcher said that they’d discussed it internally and because of the close relationship between them and a large steak and burger chain they didn’t feel that they could be linked with an event like this with anyone else. Hence the tortuous reference to them as ‘the butcher’ for which I apologise.
Although I find that approach to business perverse I am heartily glad they adopted it – because it gave me the impetus to get in touch with Nathan. I had been increasingly aware of his amazing pictures of meat on twitter (@naththebutcher), his passion, skill and enthusiasm for meat shining through, and the fabulous butchery classes which looked intense and thorough. I had been meaning to get in touch so grabbed Head Chef James and dragged him down to South East London to meat Nathan, see his work and see if we could interest him in the event. Nathan was immediately engaged, genuinely pleased to help, he had amazing beef and as well as lining up the event as soon as he could construct the ‘flight’ we started to buy as much meat from him as we could pretty much the next day. Even though it means that there will be less to go around for us I suggest you do the same. I’m also thinking about doing a butchery class with him.
Now my staff will attest to my interminable sadness about people failing to match the aspirations they have for a meal to the quality of wine that they select to drink with it. Too often I see a group of three people sitting down to have the roast forerib on Sunday (£55 so basically £18 per head) with a bottle of house red wine between the three of them - £16.50. Now while we do everything we can to have a decent, drinkable, clean and honest house red, for less than another £10 or £3 per head they could have the Perrier Pinot Noir we get from James Handford. I feel quite strongly that change will make the meal balanced and make sure the money they spent on the whole event is money better spent. So…intent on avoiding hypocrisy, having been inspired by the idea of a vertical tasting of wines anyway and never having participated in a vertical tasting of Bordeaux vintages I had a brainwave – why not do both at the same time. Call it a greedwave if you prefer.
James Handford (MoW!), like Nathan, was enthusiastic, supportive and on board immediately. How lucky am I to have his support for our business. In the end the wines he brought came in part from his personal cellar at home as well as the shop he owns in Kensington.
So finally the meat was ready and our small team assembled. James carefully prepared the wines. After some discussion we went with the meats in youngest to oldest order – there was a suggestion that we should mix it up and bring them blind but I wanted to see the development of the meat over time to understand what was happening rather than indulge in a game to see if I could guess what we were having. Notwithstanding that we were going to be eating a great deal of meat I didn’t feel like charging in headlong so we had some lovely Duchy native oysters, sourced from Wright Brothers, together with a Sancerre Silex from our list which we get from James. Lovely wine, lovely oysters.
I don’t mind people who do and I enjoy their pictures, but I’m not a great one for taking pictures while I eat. So far the pics Chris Pople posted in his twitter feed are the most comprehensive I’ve seen of the cooked meat but here’s one I took of the meat before we ate:
Head chef James roasted and rested the sirloins sending them out one at a time on platters with chips and horseradish. That meant we had a little wait for the first meat once we were all assembled and seated, but I don’t think there were any complaints once it arrived. As an aside I did once or twice in the past suggest that we consider sous-vide-ing our roasts like some other busy on a Sunday places do and I am glad that Head Chef James resisted – while you can knock out large volumes just finishing off the meat briefly in hot ovens whilst maintaining tenderness across the meat I simply don’t find the look, smell, texture or taste anything like as rewarding as properly roast and rested meat.
After my first mouthful of the first steak I wondered how it could get better – the beefy flavour was all there and rich, intense, remarkably tender meat had a lovely crunchy/juicy layer of fat. The meat had some ‘chewyness’ but was pretty tender and as someone who loves onglet, bavette, rib-eye over fillet every day of the year this was at a level of tenderness I could luxuriate in. Head chef James’ chips meanwhile were attracting almost as much praise as the meat
I was surprised by the way the next two steaks maintained their moistness – but perhaps that was partly the liquid fat swooshing around in my mouth. Nathan said that the level of moisture retention was significant after the initial loss over the first few weeks so dryness shouldn’t be a factor with aged steak. Both steaks were a progression in tenderness and intensity. We were all interested to note that the length or persistence of flavours was greater with age – in the same way that it is a valuable characteristic of fine wine. With the 79 day aged steak there was a noticeable hint of gameyness that I could imagine a queasy-vanilla-fillet-eating and non-grouse-bone-sucking person might have begun to have an aversion to. I loved both…in fact I just paused to have another look at Chris Pople’s twitter feed from last night to look at them again and I’ve got a bit of a craving. I like to make sure there’s a good bit of fat with each mouthful and the flavours therein were overwhelming. For me the 79 day shaded it and I was one of only three of ten who opted for that age as champion – but I’d eat the 55 day all day until I burst if it was offered to me now.
The 98 day was interestingly suddenly quite different; the slice that I had had much less fat on it, although that wasn’t the case for all of the steak. Nathan explained that as the fat cracks so the mould penetrates deeper and you need to trim more off. I think if one of the consequences of aging to this point is that you lose the fat coverage to a significant degree then that counts heavily against it for starters. The colour and texture was different – the meat was denser, more grainy but even softer so that you could pull pieces off with a fork. Definitely gamey, strong and long.
I hadn’t really thought much about ‘the result’ but it occurred to me that we could quickly score the steaks and see what the general view was. Each diner including Head Chef James ranked the four steaks in order of preference and I gave one point for first ranked, two for second….and the results were (lowest score is the winner)
· 23 day aged 29 points and favourite by one person
· 55 day aged 15 points and favourite by six people
· 79 day aged 21 points and three
· 98 day 31 points
The wines were terrific. I expect you know more about what to expect with wine than you do with meat – the structure, notes, balance and fruit adjust over time in a way that can be great over a long period for great wines but is not really very helpful for wines that have less potential. I’ve got a photo of an illustration that James Handford drew for me below. The, ahem, pointy thing represents cabernet sauvignon bringing fruit. The soft dome the merlot bringing structure and texture. In the early days the texture of the merlot is expected to dominate the fruit of the cabernet sauvignon but over time the merlot softens and comes into harmony with the fruit – the wine opens, becomes balanced. At least that is what I think he said.
What is interesting in this of course is that us non-experts haven’t got to hand the grid or framework of previous wines drunk in our mind ready to bring to the fore as a reference point. Give me one of these wines today and I would like it – I liked them all. Give me another tomorrow I’d like it but I wouldn’t necessarily have the toolset for remembering the prior wine and comparing them qualitatively in detail. Drinking them together allows one to observe what is going on and (begin to) grasp what aging and development does to wine that has the potential to benefit from it. The oldest wine, like the oldest steak, was quite different – the rich purple intensity had begun to fade to brownish hues and the richness to fade away. I quite like what I think of as a thinning elegance in older wines but James, along with pretty much everyone else preferred the 2000 to the 1990. I didn’t capture as many scores for the wine but they were:
· 1990 14 points
· 2000 7 points
· 2008 15 points
And so our guests drifted off into the night as we moved onto a bottle of Bourgogne pinot noir James has on our list. I felt exhilarated by the evening – great company, amazing food, a sense of having learnt something, sensational wine. It doesn’t all come together as well as it did last night very often.
I would love to do this again (and again and again.) Judging by some of the reaction on twitter some of you might like to try it too. Getting the ‘flight’ of meats ready takes a little time but I have asked Nathan to have a look at getting it together again for us. If you would like to be told of a future vertical meat event please email me your details on email@example.com and I’ll let you know when we have a plan. We will do what we can to keep costs affordable.
Many, many thanks again to Nathan Mills, James Handford and James de Jong – a talented chef we are lucky to have.
As an addendum here are James Handford’s tasting notes I recovered from the detritus on the table – I’m glad to see a Master of Wine starts out with good intentions and then chucks it in and gets boozed up, for these were the only one’s I could find. I think it is interesting how he applies his palate to the characteristics of the meat:
“2008 soft, vanilla, closed, almost [minty], greenish, cool, plummy, no [cassis] but not too yielding in fruit, more textured, rounding, crunch”
“23 day steak, rosy pink, textured fat & a bit chewy”
“55 day fat tastes the same but longer, [sounder], richer, steak more even, long”
You can find Nathan at www.thebutcheryltd.com and James Handford at www.handford.net .
More on the evening on @hrwright @rocketandsquash @chrispople (including pics) and @eatlikeagirl