The week that was (23 June 2016)

I watched Steak (R)evolution on Netflix this week. It's long, but worth watching - an impressive and in-depth look at one cut of meat through the cultural prism of multiple countries. Not so much exposé, but rather exploration (and celebration). I love understanding the ways culture and terroir change traditions of consumption. I also love how food becomes identity and how identity sells food (or polarises). To cap it all off, the story is told by a Frenchie, Franck Ribière ... Just so much to keep me watching!
 
An early, but perhaps obvious admission, is that the French don’t really do red meat all that well. The wet, lean steaks in the butchers’ shops have oft been a source of my curiosity (especially when compared to their exquisite poultry and pork products). Ribière puts this down to the traditional French breeds - high muscle and thus high in collagen - which is broken down only with long, slow cooking. While others were barbecuing, the French were pot au feu-ing.
 
Comparatively, the British breeds are absolute machines when it comes to converting grass into fat. This breeding stock has become a sought after commodity. As ubiquitous as they are, I did not realise Angus were such a great and, relatively recent, branding triumph (it was only in the '80s, with the breed slipping into obscurity, that the people of Aberdeen decided to brand the Angus cattle. Now, for better or worse, they’re everywhere.) While in the UK, Ribière also looked at the (delicious) flavour attributes of longhorns (which we now have in Australia), with the owner of the Ginger Pig, and the Scottish highland cattle (these genetics have apparently also been sent here). 

Of course the poms, les rosbif as the French have mockingly called them, also have a climate that blesses them (the Pollyanna view of things) with green, verdant pastures much of the year. This means beautiful, consistent grass-fed beef, that can stand up to quick cooking. Since the 16th century the Brits have been roasting beef - it’s become their national dish. The once derogatory term has now been spun around as the Frenchies try to figure out what they can learn from their mates across the water. (A stubborn mistake they also seem to have made with Italian coffee.)

Further afield, he takes the requisite trips to Japan (fatty wagyu, thin steaks), Argentina (who are exporting all the traditional grass-raised gear and eating the feed-lotted steaks - a whopping 60kg per person per annum), and to Tuscany for Dario Cecchini’s bistecca alla Fiorentina (he who gutted that pig on stage at MAD). There's a 22 year-old French woman building a herd to protect a dying breed and three generations of women in NYC running one of the city's best steak houses (they hand-select each steak - before double cooking); I loved the crazy Croat explaining his own version of biodynamics and carbon recycling; and the Joe Beef guys (Canada), singing the praises of small producers while imploring people to step away from the tender trap - Dave McMillan used natural wine trend as an analogy for what should happen with beef (“… we’re still very far away from getting people to feel the same about the beef - natural beef.”)
 
Ribière’s number one is found at Bodega el Caprichio, in Leon, Spain. Rather than being entirely focused on the breeds, José Gordón is all about age and only works with seriously old cows (we're talking 11 to 15 years old). Furthermore, José, a producer and chef, serves only castrated males – he believes the testosterone helps with a 'hormonal cleansing', ridding the beef of saturated fats. However, for José, the most important aspect in the selection of his cows is their temperament “I’m looking for animals with character – they must be docile and noble.” Of course they should be noble. 

There is so much knowledge scattered through this doco - great people, doing great things. How well do you know your steak?
 
- Coincidentally, The Guardian ran this article on the Basque tradition of txuleta – the old dairy cow scenario – it's making its way to London and, despite the huge costs, it's doing incredibly well.

- Further to last week’s look at the controversy surrounding the 50 Best, you might want to read this brilliant interview with Andrea Petrini; a judge for the past decade, Petrini was asked to step down this year. He had some pretty interesting things to say about both the awards and the state of food.
 
On France: “Going to restaurants is a means of expression recognised by popular culture, but the French culinary establishment still hasn’t understood this. France is still seen with that Cold War image, an old-regime that will never change.” 
 
On his dismissal: “… after all the polemic caused when Le Chateaubriand was the number one French restaurant in the list. He (William Drew, head of the World 50 Best) was frightened … because of all the complaints and accusations made by the three-Michelin-starred restaurants and the Relais and Chateaux ones, who threatened to – and did – stop serving San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna ... Drew was worried that San Pellegrino would abandon the 50 Best. Something they did in part, because they are no longer main sponsor.”
 
On trends: “The days of the immutable, drawn-out tasting menu are numbered, and will be collectively rejected … People want to compose their own menu. It won’t be imposed from the top any more.” and “… food is becoming not more elaborate but more cooked. It’s not a coincidence that Bertrand Grebaut, one of the smartest young chefs in France, since two years ago – and without publicising it – has been serving more classic sauces revisited in his own style.”

- Finally, there was a cheeky little re-run in Hospitality Mag of their interview with Massimo after MAD Syd. “I think what Australia has to do is find traditions. And what are traditions? Traditions are innovations that are well done. When people realise that an innovation was extremely well done, it becomes tradition ... get closer to the farmer, the fisherman, the cheese makers, and start with primitivism. So, for example, cook with fire, then after that you start adding techniques and creating new dishes, or through a contemporary mind, you start reinterpreting some plates that are part of growing up. Like that, you create a new Australian cuisine.”

Our culinary culture has much that has been written and much still to write ... exciting times people.