Flavour like it used to be
Craft butcher gerard King shows just how good mature beef can be
Old cow. It’s a term we think of as an insulting personal epithet, rather than one attached to a prime slab of beef. But Aldeburgh butcher Gerard King has set out to change our perceptions.
Most beef steers in the UK are slaughtered at 24 months, but Gerard is selling the meat from cows who have clocked up a lot more mileage – anything up to 12 years. So is it a tough sell or, perhaps more importantly, tough to eat? You may be surprised to hear it is neither.
In northern Spain, in Galicia and the Basque country, fattening up retired dairy and beef cattle for the table is an established tradition and meat geeks rave about the quality. Last time Gerard put old cow up for sale on his online shop at Salter and King he woke up next morning to find he’d sold out overnight.
“It’s different, a delicacy, something a bit special,” says Gerard, who hangs the meat for a full 12 months, three times as long as average.
“What you get is another layer of flavour. And the other thing that’s important is the texture, it has a little bit more bite to it. It’s still soft and tender but it’s not bland. You get much more satisfaction from it at the end.”
He is working in partnership with Natasha and Richard Mann, whose Yarn Hill herd of Lincoln Reds graze on the lush green water meadows beside the River Alde in Iken. Though Lincoln Reds are on the Rare Breed
Register, they are hardy natives who revel in being at pasture 12 months of the year. Natasha only brings them under cover when they are calving, or if she is giving them a wash and brush up prior to showing.
“They have a fantastic life here,” Natasha says. “They’re out all year round, we don’t get any pneumonia, nothing. They love being out and about. In the spring we bring them down to the marshes and in the winter we take them up to higher ground. A lot of people find that amusing,” she adds with a grin, gesturing at the almost invisible slope between the two. Natasha is a tender-hearted farmer though.
“I think the meat is delicious, but I do have a slight technical problem with eating my own animals,” she confesses. “I love beef and I probably eat it five days a week, but other people’s beef, not my own, because I work with the animals all the time and I know them all.”
She has to overcome her qualms today, though, because Gerard is dragging an enormous barbecue down the track to a grassy knoll across from Yarn Hill and Natasha’s grazing herd. He has invited a select group of people, including local chefs and members of Salter and King’s Good Meat Club, to sample a selection of beef – some old cow, some from young steers.
It’s no ordinary picnic. Aldeburgh-based Fishers Gin have set up a makeshift bar on a couple of straw bales. They’re handing out G&Ts, and the delicious aroma from the sizzling beef is tantalising.
“We’ve got a fore rib, some rump steaks, a bit of rib eye, and some skirt and a rump steak off a fresh piece of beef,” Gerard announces proudly. The reception from the satisfied diners, when the meat is finally cooked, is little short of ecstatic.
“The flavour is actually completely different,” says Nicola Horden, head chef at Darsham Nurseries. “It’s much stronger, it’s the kind of beef that I remember growing up as a child and it’s something we’ve lost in the mass market food chain that’s grown over the years. Things taste of less than what they are.
“This has is a very beefy flavour and the fat and the chew on it is absolutely beautiful.
“It’s quite a privilege to eat it, I think. You really appreciate what you’re eating and how much love and how much care have gone into its production.
“I’d definitely put this on the menu, without a second thought, absolutely.”
James Barber, head chef at Aldeburgh’s White Lion Hotel, enthusiastically agrees.
“It’s absolutely fantastic. I think the comparison is to be made between mutton and lamb and old cow and regular beef. It’s got bags more flavour, there’s a nice fat covering. My favourite today has certainly been the fore rib.
“I think the imperative thing to remember when you’re cooking it is that patience is key. That rib has been on the barbecue for 45 minutes, then rested for 15 minutes, and it’s absolutely perfect. So, you’re looking at a good hour for two people to have a cote de boeuf. But it was worth waiting for, it was absolutely amazing.
“Would I eat it again? Every day of the week!”
RARE AND RARER
Lincoln Red cattle are a rare breed designated ‘vulnerable’ on the The Rare Breeds Survival Trust’s watchlist. This means there are between 250 and 450 animals in the UK.
The UK has 53 native cattle breeds, of which 13 are considered rare. Astonishingly, one of them is the Native Aberdeen Angus, which might be perceived as prevalent in the UK, but is designated ‘endangered’ since there are only 150 - 250 left. In fact, the original Angus population has given way to a longer, taller type of Angus, bred abroad and imported into the UK.
The RBST monitors rare and native breeds of cattle, sheep, horses, pigs, goats, chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese, collecting data from breed societies to produce its annual Watchlist. Importantly, it monitors, and tries to reduce, threats to breeds, factors such as inbreeding and geographical concentration, and saves genetics – semen and embryos collected from rare breed animals – in the UK National Gene Bank. That way, if a breed were to become extinct, it could be revived. In emergencies, RBST buys genetically important stock, placing it in approved breeding centres.
Since October 2016, the RBST’s president has been Jimmy Doherty, who has been farming rare breed Essex pigs at Wherstead, just outside Ipswich for 15 years. He helps to promote the RBST’s aims and encourages people to get involved.
‘The imperative thing to remember when you’re cooking is patience is the key
Old cow on the bbq.
BELOW: Old cow on the bbq.
ABOVE: Richard & Natasha Mann of Yarn Hill with Gerard King.
LEFT: One of the cattle ready for their food.
BELOW: Richard & Natasha Mann of Yarn Hill, Woodbridge, home of award winning Lincoln Red cattle.
ABOVE: Gerard King barbecues the old cow.