Salt is good with meat . . . but 15 tonnes of it? That's how much Himalayan sea salt that has just made the voyage by sea from Pakistan to the town of Moira in Northern Ireland, where the huge, hand-cut salt bricks are now being fashioned into a 12ft high wall – in a wholesale butchers premises.
Welcome to Hannan Meats and its dry-ageing Himalayan Salt Chamber, where premium cuts of beef are matured in an environment where the temperature, airspeed, light, and humidity are strictly controlled. The salt plays a significant role in the process.
"People's perception is that the salt extracts moisture from the meat, but it's nothing to do with that, it's a process called ionisation which creates the perfect balance in the room," Peter Hannan explains. Hannan is a veteran of the meat trade, having held key roles in the Seamus Purcell meat export empire in the early 1980s.
The result is sweet and clean-tasting beef, with very little spoilage. Crucially, there’s no trace of the slightly gamey, sometimes unpleasant tang that long-aged beef can acquire. “What we’re really trying to do is keep moisture out – bad bacteria can only survive in moisture – and even at 60 days our meat had no bad smell, or mould on it.”
The beef was voted product of the year at the recent Northern Ireland Food and Drink Awards, beating another Hannan Meat product, guanciale (cured pork jowl), which was named best food product in the UK and Ireland at last year's Great Taste awards.
The salt chamber is opened only for 10 minutes once a week, to rotate stocks. When I visit, Hannan tells me I will be only the fourth person to enter it. What should I expect? I ask. “A smell of ripening, but not overwhelming.”
There are hundreds of loins – the main, centre part of the beast, which yields the most lucrative cuts – arranged on steel racks. The massive slabs of dark ruby red meat have at least an inch of butter yellow fat on them. It looks a bit like a scene from an episode of CSI , graphic but sterile. And the smell is sweet and fruity, with a vague hint of nuttiness.
Hannan built his first salt chamber last year, big enough to accommodate 350 full loins of beef, and the reaction has been so good that he is building a second, far larger chamber that will hold 2,000 loins in rotation. At the moment, the majority of the beef makes its way to the London restaurants owned by chef Mark Hix, though you can also buy it at the factory shop in Moira.
When Hannan met Hix outside his Oyster & Chop House four years ago, he told him he had “a lovely restaurant, but your meat isn’t very good”.
The two became friends and when Hix decided to open The Tramshed, a Shoreditch restaurant serving only chicken and steak, he knew the meat would have to be a standout, and Hannan had just the thing, his salt-aged beef. This was a process he had been researching for a decade, working with a university in the US to perfect the ageing process. He believes there are four similar operations in the world but claims his process is unique.
“I think he thought we were joking,” Hannan says of the reaction when he first mentioned the idea to Hix, but the chef became a believer. “Mark walked in to lay the last brick [in the first chamber] looked around, asked what it could hold, and said ‘I’ll take it all’.” Hannan now supplies a tonne of sirloin a week to The Tramshed.
There is sea salt widely available in Ireland and Britain – Hix himself produces a brand of Cornish sea salt – so why did Hannan trek to the Himalayas for his source? “Himalayan salt is the purest salt known to man. I thought it would be nice to use Irish sea salt, but we looked at all the salts and analysed them, and the Himalayan has 82 trace elements and minerals that aren’t in any of the others.”
The meat is matured for 28-32 days. “We have aged for up to 60 days,” Hannan tells me. “But our research showed that nothing improved between 40 and 60 days; it’s at its best between 28-40. With dry ageing you can get to a point when you’re actually displacing some of your succulence. It would have been lovely to say: ‘The premier cru goes to 60 days’, and it is sublime, but it wasn’t, so let’s call it as it is.”
The second salt chamber, once completed – as early as next week – will increase supply, but this will still be a niche product. “I know it sounds like a big jump, from 350 loins to 2,000, but we nearly have commitment for everything that it’s going to produce,” Hanna says. It launches in Fortnum & Mason in London on April 17th and there are plans to have an online shop by mid-summer. In the meantime, you can buy the beef, guanciale, Moyallon pork, and a range of well-chosen deli items, from the factory shop in Moira, called The Meat Merchant.
Early on a Saturday morning, it is thronged. On-site chef Eamonn Donnelly is passing around samples, including the fragrant, melt-in-the-mouth guanciale, fried to a fragrant crisp, and baskets and trolleys are filling up quickly. The meat is sold at wholesale prices, which, in addition to its undoubted quality, might explain why, in the three and a half days a week the shop is open, it does incredible numbers.
"Last week, in three days, we had 1,872 people. We'll get 440 people through this morning, in five hours. We've created a monster," Hannan says, with a touch of well earned pride.