Above is the most recent steak I have devoured. It’s a 21-day aged, grass-fed Chianina breed T-bone. It came so rare it was almost pulsing, but that’s how they like it in Tuscany. I shared it with my wife at Regina Bistecca (‘Queen Among Steaks’) in the shadow of Florence’s Duomo. On the menu we sere surprised to discover a “my favourite steak ever” tribute from our own Jay Rayner, who reviewed the place in 2019.
Did our own splendid slab of beast deserve such an accolade? I’m not sure. Better than Hawksmoor’s finest Porterhouse? But it was damned good. Outshone in truth by our recent wild boar Barnsley chop at The Edinburgh Castle in Manchester. That boar was not reared but culled from the acorn-rich Forest of Dean, so counts as game. Animal husbandry for the plate is a much more divisive subject. Not without political overtones these days.
Take the event, just across Great Ancoats Street, I attended more recently. The Aussie Beef & Lamb brand hosted a tasting at the Bem Brasil restaurant, where various cuts of award-wining family-owned Jack’s Creek steak were served churrasceria-style to the hospitality trade and a handful of food writers. Not on the menu that day, their grain-fed, wagyu-black angus cross sirloin has just been named the World’s Best Steak in the 2023 World Steak Challenge. Well, but is Jack’s Creek – a family-owned flagship, exporting to 20 countries – symptomatic of what we might expect when Aussie exports to us go up possibly tenfold? What of mass-produced lesser quality products that might monoplis our supermarket chill cabinets?
What we got to taste at Bem Brasil was beef was 60 day wet-aged and grain-fed, with two cuts given a further seven days’ dry ageing. Cumulatively this carnivore charm offensive never quite convinced.
Perhaps I was swayed by my conviction that the controversial, Brexit ideologue-fuelled UK-Australia Trade Agreement benefits them far more than us, selling our farming industry down the river. All at odds with the Aussie mission’s own mantra that its exports “can offer a point of difference for UK consumers looking for high-quality, consistent and sustainable red meat that complements but does NOT compete with British product.”
I brought up issues highlighted by the press (here is Donna Lu in The Guardian) on cattle farming Down Under – growth-boosting hormones, antibiotics, sustainability dilemmas, grass-fed v grain-fed, wet ageing v dry ageing, choice of breeds, price points of mass market v niche and the threat to British farming. Their spokesman’s main response was that the UK can’t supply enough meat of its own to meet demand, so lifting the tariffs makes sense.
To try and make sense of it all I decided to ask a few North West chefs (and a butcher, who supplies them) for their feelings on four key issues…
1 Grass-fed v grain-fed? Does this affect the taste of the end product you put on the table? Do both have their place?
2 Dry-aged v wet-aged? What are the advantages of either and which route do you prefer to go down? And why?
3 Animal welfare. How important is this to you as a chef?
4 Sustainability is a huge issue. How do you address it in your own use of meat and the kitchen process?
James Hulme, The Alan Hotel, Manchester
1 Grass-fed all day, fat is creamier, though in younger animals, however, there tends to be less fat I find. Hence why I use older cows. Although I understand the need for farmers to supplement with grain given the cost of land etc.
2 Not a fan of wet ageing. Meat is watery, less flavour. And doesn’t have a good aroma. Dry, concentrated flavour, stronger “cheese” smell. But high levels of fat are required to keep it moist.
3 The old cliche, a happy animal will produce better meat. Stress etc doesn’t help anything in life!
4 I waste nothing on an animal. Fat, cartilage, bones, marrow all used. When I had The Moor (Heaton Moor), we would take the bones after making stock and then turn them into charcoal for cooking with.
James added interestingly: “Given that we export 150,000 tonnes of beef each year. I’d doubt our supply is short. It probably boils down to a cost POV, meat produced cheaper by using grain which speeds up growth. However, there will be a trade off with quality of meat, flavour and marbling.
“I went to the US Embassy a few years ago for a similar meeting about usda. And have since watched a few documentaries on the subject which I imagine are similar to Australian production. It comes down to weight as to when an animal can be slaughtered, if they can speed that process up to cost less and hence sell for cheaper they will.
“If the grass is of a high quality the time to slaughter weight is similar. From what I’ve seen Oz farms aren’t generally very green. Mass sprawling dessert in the outback, so grain is probably necessary. At the end of the day, mass producing meat for an export market at a cheaper price than homegrown can not be good for anyone.”
Caroline Martins Sampa Project, Ancoats
1 In an ideal world, all produce would be grass-fed because it tastes much better and there’s less carbon footprint. On the other hand, grass-fed beef is not always available from our local butchers. Hence, when working with Littlewoods (of Heaton Moor, see below), I’m always placing seasonal orders ahead of time. So if it’s hard for us as chefs to plan our menus around grass-fed availability, imagine for house-holds? I think both grass-fed and grain-fed have their place in our current society, as long as it’s a healthy balance. But ideally, all should be grass-fed.
2 I never buy wet-aged beef. Mostly because of flavour and texture. Wet-aged steaks tend to get a “liver” texture, and flavours get diluted between the fibres. Dry-ageing steaks, intensify flavours. The same goes for vegetables. Dan Barber (Blue Hill) shrinks his vegetables to concentrate flavours. That’s exactly what happens with dry-aged beef. Less water = more flavour.
3 It’s very important. In fact, in the demographics I’m located with SAMPA, I can’t really get away with serving grain-fed or beef that hasn’t been free-ranged. Guests ask about the origin of our steaks all the time. These last couple of years have had a massive change in the way we eat proteins, hence such a large surge of veganism. Especially with Millennials and GenZ.
4 All our proteins come from within Lancashire+Cheshire. The more local you can source, the better for the environment. I take pride on it, and even mention it on my menus so guests are aware of how we’re sourcing our produce. Regarding availability here I’ve never walked into a butcher or a Sainsburys/Tesco/Aldi that was sold-out of British beef (especially if you’re willing to buy cheap grain-fed beef).
Iain Thomas, The Pearl, Prestwich
1 I feel that grass-fed you get a stronger flavoured meat, less fat, the animal and cuts tend to be smaller but definitely taste better as the animal has had a longer life and time do develop a deeper flavour. In an ideal world no grain-fed would be used and all meat would be grass fed. Unfortunately with the demand to eat out all the time and drive costs down, some restaurants need to use them to get the product at a cost they can afford and in the volume where they can meet demand
2 I would also go for dry-aged. I feel you will always get a much better taste and result. It’s always going to cost more as you will lose some of the blood in the dry ageing process. The smell you get off a dry-aged piece of meat is absolutely incredible. In contrast, I feel wet-aged just sits in its own blood and some almost smells sour and like Its passed its best. I believe it’s a way of big supermarkets pumping out poor quality meat at a lower price point.
3 It’s very important, even though we are going to eat them in the end. I feel animals that have had a good life and been treated well with very little stress will always produce a better quality flavour.
4 By working as closely with the suppliers as possible, using whole carcass butchers that don’t waste any of the animal, treating the meat we get in the kitchen with respect, using native breeds to the uk. Also using different cuts of the animal. You can’t always use the prime cuts that everyone wants. If the butcher has something that needs used up and I can do something nice with it, I’m more than happy to take it off their hands.
“I think what Littlewoods are doing is amazing and it would be good if we could all go back to using the small local family butchers. The passion and knowledge that Marcus and his team have is amazing and is really helping the industry get back to where it should be.”
Over to Marcus (who provided my wild boar Barnsley chop)…
Marcus Wilson of Littlewoods butchers, Heaton Chapel
“I’m not if the opinion that importing cattle/livestock which rely greatly on water for grass/feed from one of the driest continents in the world, or promoting stall reared grain-fed cattle, is a good idea. The UK has the perfect environment to rear cattle/sheep without a cost to the environment and, if reared in a regenerative manner, will increase carbon capture and diversity. The recent deal, was one of the worst trade negotiation outcomes I think I’ve seen in the agricultural sector. The callous disregard the Conservative government show to our farmers is shocking. I object too to the suggestion that we desperately need to import meat from Down Under. UK farms supply 86 per cent of what we require. Every single farmer’s back is up.
“With wet-ageing, supposedly less wasteful, when you cook the on the grill the steak loses weight through the juices sizzling off. After being locked in the vacuum packs it often ha an offaly odour, which is unpleasant. Thanks to being fed on grass and pasture, the meat from our cattle has better marbling and much better flavour.”
Joseph Otway, Higher Ground, Manchester
1 Grass-fed in my experience has a better flavour due to how the grass affects the fat content
2 Dry-ageing increases the flavour and more effectively breaks down the intramuscular fats. The obvious downside is loss of weight, which costs more money.
3 Very important.
4 We take whole carcass as much as possible and utilise every part of the beast throughout our menu.
Adam Reid, The French, Manchester
1 As a chef who values local/British produce I’ve always aimed to use grass-fed stock as I believe it offers a more natural product.
2 I don’t fully understand the wet ageing process. I’ve always aimed to use meat that is very dry-aged as the less moisture the more flavourful and tender the meat. It would take some serious work to convince me otherwise.
3 This is important above all else, happy animals make for tasty meat! On a serious note I’ve always lived with the philosophy that if we intend to consume an animal we should pay it the respect of giving it a happy life. The idea that living things are commodities only bred to serve the end goal of feeding us is quite disgusting.
4 I aim to use produce in moderation, we rely on only using the best quality, so I try to utilise every element of the ingredients we bring in and promote moderation in the way people consume food. I believe a lot of the sustainability issues we have around food are driven but he way society allows big businesses to promote the ‘more is more’ ethos.
Robert Owen Brown, ‘nose to tail’ chef and BBC’s Kitchen Cabinet panellist
1 Grass fed for me… slow grown, higher in nutrients, then grain supplement at the end to add a finish. They both have their place.
2 Dry-aged all the way for me. I understand the wet-aged method, And you undoubtedly lose less weight and it’s way less expensive. But the finished article never seems as good on the palate.
3 Massive emotive subject. For me it has to be the most important part of meat production. Unfortunately high welfare meat is way more expensive to produce .There is always going to be a market for cheap meat.
4 Minimise waste. Dry-aged is notorious for waste because you lose weight in the ageing. You are using more energy and equipment in the process and the trimming of the bark that has built up. It is a lot less sustainable. Offset that by buying local high welfare.
Doug Crampton, chef patron, Eight at Gazegill (read my preview)
1 Grain-fed animals are predominantly feed lot animals fed higher calorific grains over grass – as ruminants take grass in they have a complex process of breaking down cellulose and extracting sugars and nutrients, the latter also results in a slower grown muscle with higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids. Grass-fed is without doubt a better animal with many environmental benefits over feed lot or barn reared. Although indoor animals finish more quickly they do so at a cost in terms of welfare and environment, the equivalent of the bovine broiler hen.
2 Dry-aged is simply better as the air is allowed to circulate around the carcass or primes and this natural drying process breaks down the muscle and results in a stronger flavour and a more tender cut. This does not occur in wet-ageing, which is a process adopted by many large abattoirs as hanging and ageing space is simply not available, unlike in smaller niche operations.
3 Animal welfare is key to every aspect of meat production and this is very important in the kitchen. The manner in which an animal is reared has a huge impact on the taste and quality of a cut of meat.
4 Sustainability is a massive subject. So I’m just taking a narrowed view and focusing on Eight, where all our meat is sourced from our host farm Gazegill Organics or partner farms. They work closely together to make available excellent, well cared for livestock. We will be using kitchen waste in compost and will be installing poly tunnels and a kitchen garden to complement our home-grown meat and dairy. It is a great advantage to be able to talk about the home-grown meat on the menu, adding that layer of information which is generally lost when buying off the peg at a wholesale butchers.
• For the most comprehensive championing of the health benefits of grass-fed, antibiotic-free beef visit the Gazegill website.
The last word comes from Sam Buckley, chef patron of Stockport’s Where The Light Gets In, one of the first UK restaurants to earn a Michelin green star for sustainability, where meat forms only a balanced component of the menu. Surprisingly Sam has wearied of the entire sector’s claims of ethical responsibility, seasonality and the like. “It all often comes down to marketing hype… i don’t buy into it all,” he tells me.
He echoes critics of ‘regenerative farming’ such as George Monbiot. “In our kitchen we don’t waste a single thing, our food tells a narrative. But there is no balance in the food system as a whole. The amount of land we use to graze cattle, the amount of premium energy needed to grass-feed a beast you never get that energy back in. Is it the best use of land for feeding our population?
“Maybe I m a hypocrite because I still eat meat and I can appreciate the flavour complexity created by dry ageing – all that reduced moisture, the fungus and micro-organisms released, but there may be more urgent priorities.”
As a chef who sources as locally as possible, even growing his own fresh produce at a community growing space on the roof of Stockport’s Merseyway shopping centre, Sam’s major beef with the Australian meat deal is the ludicrous import distance involved: “You can feed and treat the livestock as well as possible, you can read the Lord’s Prayer to each cow every day, but you shouldn’t be shipping them 10,000 miles.”