Mighty meat: Would you eat beef that's been aged for months and encased in suet?

Cheffy fad or real deal? How meat from elderly cows that’s hung for months caught on

 

Almost five years ago, at the international chefs’ conference Madrid Fusión, Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken, a 12-seat restaurant in remote northern Sweden, recounted how he had begun to cook with meat from retired dairy cows, old beasts of seven years and more, which he aged post-slaughter for what seemed like impossibly long periods of six or seven months.

An audience of his counterparts, top chefs from all over the world, listened politely but few contemplated cancelling their orders for prime beef, more usually slaughtered at 30 months or less, and rarely hung for more than 21 days.

But, fast forward to the summer of 2015 and Kitty Fisher’s, a restaurant in London’s Mayfair, is garnering gushing reviews from the British food press for – guess what? – its Galician beef from retired dairy cows, veritable pensioners of 10 or more years of age.

The popularity of this niche product continues to spread and Shane Mitchell, proprietor of Asador, a barbecue/grill restaurant on Haddington Road in Dublin, has just placed his third order for 250kg of Galician aged beef, which he sources in Madrid.

“We spotted the rise in popularity of Galician beef in the London restaurant scene, so we got some in to try and we were pretty blown away by the flavour. Like a good wine, the taste tends to have legs and stay with you for a long time. It has a nutty, complex depth of flavour,” says Mitchell.

Sweet nuttiness, or at the extreme end of the scale, a flavour akin to blue cheese is how some connoisseurs describe the taste of long-aged beef. “It isn’t for everyone,” according to Mitchell, who says he has, however, had very positive feedback on the Galician beef from customers.

In addition to being the seniors of the bovine world – “they can be as old as 14-15 years at slaughter” – the Spanish beef that Mitchell buys is hung for up to 50 days.

Michael Bermingham of The Market Butchers, says 21 days dry ageing is standard, but he has aged beef for longer, on request. “It depends on the customer’s requirements. I have aged Lambay Island beef for 45 days for L’Ecrivain restaurant.”

However, Bermingham says that not all cuts need or benefit from prolonged ageing. For another restaurant client, he was asked to age fillet for 30 days. “We tried it at 10 days, 20 days and 30 days, and for me 10 was plenty.” Kanturk butcher Jack McCarthy agrees. “30 days is quite enough for well-bred, properly finished beef from traditional beef breeds.”

So what happens when you hang a piece of meat in a temperature and humidity controlled environment, and what does it do to the taste? “The muscle fibres contract and break down the longer you age it,” Bermingham says. “I recently cooked 38-day aged beef from the Lambay Island herd. I fried the outside steak separately and the crust and bacteria gave a lovely earthiness to it.”

Chef Gareth (Gaz) Smith, who runs the kitchen at the Clonskeagh House pub in Dublin, thinks that prolonged ageing of beef is something that “lots of people pretend to enjoy, for the cheffy factor”, but he is not one of them.

“I’ve tried to convince myself to enjoy longer aged pieces but I don’t enjoy it; 31-35 days is the sweet spot for me before it gets too gamey or intense.” The best piece of beef Smith has ever eaten was from one of those Galician cows, aged for 31 days, which he describes as being, “like a perfectly ripened fruit”.

Irish butcher develops new way to age steaks

Sean Kelly, an artisan butcher in Newport, Co Mayo, has developed a unique method for ageing sirloin steaks for 56 days. The beef, 98 per cent of which comes from his own farm, spends 28 days hanging, plus a further 28 days encased in suet, and the resulting meat is described by Kelly as having “incomparable richness of flavour”.

Kelly first heard about the process while attending a food fair in Germany and has spent the past year perfecting it in Irish conditions. The meat first spends 28 days hanging in a fridge. “That’s not dry ageing, for that you need temperature and humidity control, and our old butcher shops don’t have that,” Kelly says.

It’s what happens next that is unusual. Kelly submerges the meat in rendered kidney fat, at a specific temperature, and this process allows a crust to form on the steak so no moisture or air can enter. The meat is encased in the suet which hardens as it cools, and it remains there for a further 28 days.

“The steak emerges as a vastly improved product. It is tender and succulent, literally melting in the mouth, and has developed remarkably complex depths of flavour,” according to Kelly, who suggests frying the steak in some of the suet and using more to roast the potatoes to accompany the meat.

Sean Kelly’s Sirloin in Suet went on sale for the first time at the National Craft & Design Fair in Dublin this week (November 30th-December 4th) and will also be available to purchase online. A 10oz steak costs €25.

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