Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The Meat Lecture - What is that smell?

A good few weeks ago we had 'The Meat Lecture” at Tante Marie. I had been looking forward to it since before the fish lecture... and with the fish lecture being so damn entertaining, my expectations were raised somewhat for the meaty version.
I was not disappointed.
Upon entering the demonstration room we were greeted by the sight of a whole lamb and a quarter of a cow. That's still a whole lot of cow. Of the two I was drawn to the beef as it was an amazing looking thing, dark and firm looking with a lovely goey ozziness coating the cut ends of the carcass... the kind that would make 99% of the population recoil believing that the mere sight may indeed kill them. Alas its only food spoilage bacteria and constitutes a very very small risk to human health... besides to me it looks like Mmmmmmmm!
 Would you eat it?  
Our butcher, whos name unfortunately evades me after all this time, excitedly talked to us about how this was the best piece of beef that he had seen in years... was probably of Angus breed due to its marbling and muscle size and had been aged for 5-6 weeks judging by its appearance. Now when we go to the supermarket we are all wooed by the claims of 14 day, 21 day or even the heady heights of 28 day hung beef.... which is all good. Now I am a meat eater, I dare say that I am in fact quite a good one. I have eaten plenty of beef in my time, and even some 28day rib-eye steaks upon occasion as well as fillets of Wagyu beef imported from Japan while working on my first yacht.
Easy when you know how!   
This beef according to the butcher was different to what any supermarket would sell, and not just because of the previously mentioned 'goey ozziness'. His point was made after about 20minutes of him expertly breaking down the carcass, a smell wafted across the lecture room and tickled my nostrils. Was someone cooking some steak for us to try in the adjoining kitchen? Had I failed to notice a joint of beef go into the oven and is now roasting away giving off that amazing succulent sweet roast beef aroma we all know and love?
Lovely looking Sirloin steaks... Mmmmmm
What I could smell was the beef on the table. Raw beef. Beef that had been hung for around 5-6 weeks.... it was truly amazing. It smelt ready to eat...I would happily have gnawed on some scraps if I would have been given half a chance when the man with the big knives wasn't looking. It was a smell I truly believe will stay with me for a long long time, the mere thought of it is making me dribble on my keyboard right now!
Fabulous Rib-eye Steaks... may fave steak... and look at that marbling of fat!!!!!!!    
Despite the outside appearance of the beef once taken apart into various joints it was bright red, just like the stuff you buy in cellophane packets... at least it was a few minutes after being exposed to the air. When first cut the meat was very dark, it then changed to bright red as the myoglobin (I think it was) reacts with the oxygen in the air.... and gives us meat the average UK punter would happily now eat.
 A lovely lamb... the butcher demonstrates a famous break dancing move, a favourite of lambs the country over.  
Next came the Lamb, a lovely lamb in the butchers account, though nothing to write home about in comparison to the beef. He once again took the carcass apart with such ease that would suggest a butchers job is an easy one. However as with most thinks in life that look easy, look that way because of the experience and expertise of the person whom you are watching.
 Various joints of lamb, with the Valentines Chops being in teh bottom right of the picture...if you squint really hard they may begin to look like a heart if you have drunk enough wine before hand!  
We were shown a few new and a few old cuts of meat... one of the old ones was quite apt as it was just a few days before Valentines day so he showed us the “Valentine Chop”. A more modern cut was the “cushion” which if memory serves me correctly was made from a de-boned shoulder that was then folded and stitched into a cushion like shape ready for roasting.... I have a feeling it would look better once cooked.
Of course we were given more information about how to properly store meat, the effects of acidic and alcoholic marinades, the slaughter process and other such things. One of the most interesting for me was the info about something called “cold shortening” which like most, had never heard of.
The lamb shoulder cushion thing... doesn't look all that comfortable to me.    
Immediately after slaughter, many changes take place in muscle tissue that convert the muscle to what we would call meat. One of the changes is the contraction and stiffening of muscle known as rigor mortis. Muscle is very tender at the time of slaughter. However, as rigor mortis begins, muscle becomes progressively less tender until rigor mortis is complete. In the case of beef 6-12 hours are required for the completion of rigor mortis, whereas in the case of pork, only 1-6 hours are required.
So... what's any of this got to do with anything you maybe interested in? Well... if the carcass is chilled before rigor mortis is complete you will have tough meat, and if its then frozen you will have something called “thaw rigor” which is incredibly tough meat.... upto 5x tougher than it should be. So if you have ever cooked a piece of meat and had your teeth bounce off it like you were chewing a rubber ball... chances are if you cooked it well, you are witnessing the effects of cold shortening.
How can you tell if meat has this problem... you cant... until you cook it! As you can guess this is a bit of a problem and so large abattoirs now electrocute their carcasses once slaughtered and butchered. The electrocution causes the muscles to contract, this uses up the left over fuel supply in the muscles (glycogen) to power the contraction of the muscles. Now that the glycogen has been used, there is nothing left for the muscles to use for rigor mortis meaning that problems with cold shortening can be avoided... very useful in these massive abattoirs that deal with huge amounts of animals on a daily basis. Also the ageing process (the hanging can) be brought forward a couple of days as some other processes are made redundant through this process. Follow this link for something that makes sense if you didn't follow ;-)  
All very interesting stuff if you are into that sort of stuff, and explained to me why a lamb curry I made for the crew last summer was just ridiculously chewy after being slow cooked at 120c for 5 hours.... redemption is better late than never!!!
Have you ever experienced cold shortening? Or are you now going to use it as an excuse when you cook something badly????


  1. I am definitely a card carrying member of the Meat Eating Party and I have to say Dylan your descriptions are excellent, you had me smelling that meat!! Mind you since I stopped buying meat at the supermarket and started using my local butcher, I am familiar with the smell, and have never experienced cold shortening (or tough meat for that matter). I am in South Africa currently (the meat is superb) but restaurants advertise 'wet aged' and 'dry aged' beef, wet aged being vacuum packed and resulting in less shrinkage but seemingly inferior to the dry aged process. Was this mentioned at all? I assume it is a process used in the UK.

  2. Firstly... apologies for the layout of this post.. some sort of Meta-HTML error that is beyond my comprehension!

    Brightlight, he did mention vac pack steaks and joints being sold in supermarkets though I cant remember if they had been aged before being packed or aged in the bag. He was quite fond of them... for supermarket meat at least!

    A good friend of mines family have a steak house franchise is SA, I have never been but he assures me the meat quality is amazing... will have to get down there for a try sometime soon i guess... oh and the billtong, the real thick slabs of 'slice yourself' billtong!!! dribbles on keyboard again!

  3. Probably a Spur? He's right about the meat quality. And cheap too, you're looking at less than £10 for a 300g fillet in a decent restaurant.

    Was tempted last night by a Carpaccio of Springbok starter (£3ish) but went for a fish evening with calamari followed by grilled Mocambique prawns. Yum!!

    Unfortunately biltong is no longer allowed into the UK (like all meat products) or I could have brought you some. It's easy to make though (in the summer). Basically the meat is cured in brine with herbs/spices, then hung to dry in fresh air.

  4. All that meat takes me back to my farming days as a teenager. We had a sheep farm in country Victoria, 2 hours from Melbourne. Our sheep were for wool, but we also used them for our own meat supply, so I am much experienced in the traditional methods of butchering your own meat and the aging process. I have gutted and cut up many a sheep in my time, but I did draw the line at killing them and made my brother do that job.

    Although you have taught me that my fails when stewing have been the meat's fault and not mine. Phew!


I look forward to reading your comments whether they are good, bad or indifferent!