The world is your oyster when it comes to sourcing the best meat to keep consumers excited this summer, says Richard McComb
Ask chefs and suppliers to name their popular meat products for 2016 and the shopping list will probably feature shank, shin and brisket. These may be the new kids on the butcher's block, but there is a good chance they were also your granny's "go to" cuts. But, gently apply smoke, and you have the perfect blend of hipster-meets-haute-cuisine.
If this sounds a bit ‘back to the future', there are other elements that lend credence to the culinary revivalist spirit. Operators speak of the return of trolley service, while whole roasts are being served en famille, at the table. The emphasis is on taking customers on a food journey and the experience is as much about psychology as taste.
As always, there is broad agreement that sourcing is crucial, for product integrity and customer satisfaction. At one end of the scale that means going hyper-local, like the Pointer in Brill, Buckinghamshire. This country pub has its own farm stocked with 150 Longhorn cattle, Middle White pigs and Hampshire Down sheep.
The Pointer Farm
The cattle are grass-fed, roam free for a minimum of 36 months and are slaughtered at a small, independent abattoir. Fillets are aged for three to four weeks. "The rest will be dry-aged for up to seven weeks, where it develops the final flavour we are looking for to serve to our guests. The industry standard is 21 days for the hind and seven days for the forequarter," says David Howden, owner of the Pointer.
Howden selects Longhorn because they develop exceptional marbling and intramuscular fat, which produces succulence and flavour. "In essence, their hardiness is ideal for converting grass into meat and their strength produces the marbling," he adds.
Nothing goes to waste. Shins are slow-cooked for a cannelloni starter. Water-bathed sirloin comes with rich, braised brisket to showcase textures and flavour profiles.
At the opposite end of the geographic sourcing scale, the world is your oyster at M in London. Beef comes from six overseas territories, including the US, Argentina, France, South Africa, Japan (Kobe) and Australia (Wagyu).
USDA Prime, both fillet and ribeye on the bone, as well as Argentine rump are very popular. "The Australian Blackmore Wagyu 9++ is also growing in popularity, now that people have come to realise the outstanding quality of the full-blooded Wagyu in comparison to cheaper imitations," says Michael Reid, executive chef.
Cooking takes place on the Josper, a combination grill and oven, and on an open-fire grill burning charcoal and wood. The cooking is split 60/40 in favour of the Josper.
Reid says: "Generally, higher-fat cuts tend to be grilled on the Josper, while the leaner cuts are cooked on the open grill. The Josper helps to render the fat while achieving the nice Maillard crust that you want with steak. The open grill is a little more gentle and we keep it at a lower temperature for a soft cook."
There is big demand for more unusual, globally-sourced products. Galician steaks, for example, are reportedly "flying out the door" at JW Steakhouse at Grosvenor House in London, and restaurant general manager Simon Brencher keeps a list of clients who expect a call when the next delivery of mature Spanish beef arrives at Park Lane. At £35 for a 10oz sirloin of the unique aged Galician Blond it is an unashamedly premium product, but demand is robust. The beef, whether it's from cattle aged seven to 17 years old, is aged for 28 days. "It can be aged for 60 or 90 days, but we like it best at 28. The flavour is there anyway," says Brencher. "This is how beef used to taste. It brings back childhood memories."
At London's Macellaio RC, it is all about the Piemontese Fassone beef. A natural genetic mutation in these cows, known as muscular hypertrophy, produces meat with a very low fat and cholesterol content. Creating a sense of theatre is important, as founder Roberto Costa explains: "I normally choose female animals over the age of three. I then display the meat in Macellaio RC's ventilated cellars in the front windows of each site, keeping the meat at 0°C-4°C to help to dry and soften it."
John Rutter, head chef at Kyloe Restaurant & Grill, Edinburgh, reports brisk trade for his 60-day aged steak. He says: "It is certainly one of our top five sellers. Diners who like to try something different usually explore our aged cuts."
Kyloe Restaurant & Grill, Edinburgh
The offer is kept fresh with different breeds and ‘novel cuts', like bavette and feather. "We served treacle-coated pavé of beef. It was incredible," adds Rutter. Guests also use ‘DIY' methods, cooking steak with fondues or sizzling it on stones.
Jim Wealands, executive chef at Lusso, London, backs the trend of marrying prime cuts with cheaper varieties. The restaurant serves hay-baked Penshurst lamb rump with braised neck cannelloni and charred Sussex feta.
"I find that most of our clients are more interested in provenance and animal welfare than the actual cuts, and many ask for us to use freedom food ingredients," says Wealands.
Lusso's partnership with Surrey Docks farm, which rears free-range pigs, allowed it to use local pork, demonstrate good supply-chain practice and commit to ‘nose-to-tail' eating. "It also gave our chefs the opportunity to learn new butchery skills," says Wealands.
The flavour factor
A timely combination of factors has made it an exciting time to experiment and innovate. The adoption of modern butchery techniques, the use of water-baths and economic realities have helped to deliver new products that promote flavour while allowing chefs to hit profit margins. Unfashionable and overlooked cuts have been reinvented.
Russell Allen, managing director of catering butchers Aubrey Allen, notes how restaurants historically concentrated on selling racks of lamb. But in response to soaring product costs, seam butchery has been used to produce a "cannon" of lamb from the leg, with cooking aided by water-bathing the meat. Breast of lamb is made into a roll, cooked sous-vide and used to compliment a smaller prime cut on a plate, delivering flavour and texture contrasts. "This has enabled chefs to put on a lamb dish that is still cost-effective," says Allen.
Allen recommends delicate new season lamb's liver. Pan-fried in butter and served with mash, it makes a great pub dish.
"Belly pork continues to march on and on. We have never sold so much of it," says Allen. "We have also developed a pork rib-eye. It is a shoulder cut and has fat running through it."
Rhug Estate in Denbighshire, the estate of Lord Newborough, flags up "trendy" cuts of lamb such as short saddle and neck. Boned and rolled shoulder make great mini-joints.
Hanging meat at the Rhug Estate
"The other big growth areas are for really healthy red meat like venison and, in our case, Rhug bison meat. Bison meat is 50% lower in fat, 28% higher in vitamins and minerals and 39% higher in Omega 3 than fish or chicken.
"Other current trends include more grilled food with an increase in grill restaurants popping up in our towns. And then there is the latest craze for bone broth."
When it comes to meat, the ascent of the Americas - Central, South, and definitely Brazil, boosted by the Rio Olympics - continues at pace, according to Funnybones Foodservice development chef Tom Styman-Heighton.
"There's no doubt that the Olympics offer a window of opportunity for restaurant operators," he says. "The excitement of the games teamed with a feel-good factor of the summer means customers are more receptive to trying something different. So there's no better time to trial a particular type of dish or sample a different style of cuisine.
"The Olympics also offer up a chance to mix up firm menu favourites such as burgers, charging a premium price for meats from specific areas. Wagyu beef burgers, from Australian-certified Wagyu cattle, and Iberico pork burgers, made from meat sourced from Iberian black leg pigs, are both great examples."
How about revisiting a traditional trolley service, where food is cooked, finished or presented at the table? "Carving a chateaubriand will always be a showstopper, but how about carving brisket or a hot pastrami joint?'' adds Styman-Heighton.
Rob Owen, executive development chef at Creed Foodservice, points to the popularity of "on-the-bone" cuts, such as spare ribs, chicken wings and short rib of beef, and an appetite for cured and smoked meats as well as marinades.
With food chain transparency in mind, Bidvest Foodservice has launched its Farmstead brand across beef, pork, lamb, game and poultry. Chicken continues to rule the roost for protein and Andy Small, Bidvest meat category manager, sees no let up.
Chicken lends itself to being flavoured with a wide range of seasonings and sauces, and street food concepts lend themselves well to chicken and Korean, Vietnamese and American flavours all work really well, says Small.
"Operators can introduce bowls of whole- grains, leafy greens and avocado topped with sliced, grilled chicken breast for a nutritious, one-dish meal that can be charged at a premium due to its 'superstar' status," he says.
Michael Laity, category manager, meat and poultry at Brakes, believes it is more important than ever before to engage with customers and take them on a food adventure.
"Giving customers something new and different is vital to boost interest," says Laity. "The key to getting the most out of provenance is, and always has been, effectively marketing the benefits to consumers. If you can sell food with a conscience, then you can easily justify the price increase compared to competitors lacking provenance."
The main event
To make meat the 'hero' of the dish, Unilever Food Solutions' pub food expert Chris Barber encourages restaurants to present roasts at the table so customers can serve themselves.
"It's important not to leave off the finishing touches," he says. "Pair your gravy to your meat by adding ingredients such as apple and cider for pork. It'll enhance the flavour of your food and help the meat stay warm."
Emma Warrington, senior food buyer at purchasing company Beacon, says butchery supplier Fairfax Meadow has identified growing demand for pork belly and shoulder, duck wings and duck bacon, and so-called exotic meat items such as kangaroo meat and ostrich.
Nigel Parkes, purchasing and marketing director at Flagship Europe, sees huge value, in both cost and flavour, in using cheaper cuts, with slow-cooking and sous-vide enhancing succulence and flavour.
"World cuisine continues to influence British menus with American and Asian flavours holding sway," says Parkes. "In meat and poultry dishes, these flavours can be introduced during the preparation or cooking of a dish via a marinade, glaze, cook-in sauce or crispy coating."
Jacqui Mee, director of food at Olive Catering Services, urges chefs to go "low and slow," for cost-effective dishes like pulled pork and beef brisket, or "fast and fierce": "Most red and white meats can be seared quickly, stir-fry style, creating a dramatic restaurant scene that will add value for any caterer."
- Aubrey Allen www.aubreyallen.co.uk
- Funnybones www.funnybones.co.uk
- Creed Foodservice www.creedfoodservice.co.uk
- Bidvest Foodservice www.bidvest.co.uk
- Brakes www.brake.co.uk
- Unilever Food Solutions www.unileverfoodsolutions.co.uk
- Beacon www.beaconpurchasing.co.uk
- Flagship Europe www.flagshipeurope.eu
- Olive Catering Services www.olive-catering.com
- Rhug Estate www.rhug.co.uk
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