Cooking Over Fire
It’s Wednesday, it’s April, it’s mid-afternoon, and I’m cajoling the summer into an early appearance with two coal- filled “chimneys” sending smoke signals to the gods, as I prepare for some outdoor cooking.
So far, despite the new norm for topsy-turvy weather conditions, the sun is playing ball, and it’s officially “not too bad” outside. I do an appreciative cap to the heavens, tip the coals (white hot) into the big repurposed oil drum (rusty brown) and look in awe at the meat that awaits this clement afternoon. It’s spectacular, a collection of finest cuts, deep blood red, marbling in all the right places – the entire bounty delivered to my door just a day earlier by the good people of Turner & George.
For those who don’t know, Turner & George is a high-end butchers shop on St John Street in Clerkenwell. The “Turner” part of this equation is Richard H. Turner – chef, restauranteur, cook book writer, he of the mighty Hawksmoor – the “George” is James George, one of the country’s finest meat experts. And the “&” part, as I later find out, is Mat Kemp, the third musketeer, a devoted meat enthusiast who lives and breathes great produce.
The plan was to road test their wares, and to see if restaurant-quality steaks can be achieved without too much in the way of restaurant-quality experience (I figure a six- month stint at a pizza chain over 20 years ago doesn’t really count). Just one man (me), one massive barbecue (it), a collection of hungry mouths (my wife, kids, and a photographer), and expertly sourced meat from Clerkenwell’s finest. In this case, beef exported directly from sunny Spain.
“Good meat is about breed, it’s about good stock, it’s about husbandry,” enthuses Mat. “Has it been well looked after? Has it lived a good life? Has it eaten naturally? It all really matters. Then after that you need a talented butcher, because you can grow a cow, look after it, cuddle it, love it all you like, but then if some moron with a blunt knife hacks it to bits, it’s ruined.”
Thankfully, the butchers from Turner & George are clearly the exact polar opposite of morons with blunt knives, I notice, as I rifle through my box of meat, known as the Spanish Old Cow, marvelling at their handy work. It all looks so lovely, and would clearly, in normal circumstances, feed a small family for well over a week – eight steaks portioned with surgical precision, ribeyes the size of your plate, bone- in sirloins straight from The Flintstones. Even the burgers look far too majestic for my unsophisticated palate.
It’s then that I start to get nervous. Really nervous. What if I destroy years of nurture and craftsmanship by haphazardly torching the lot to a cinder? Can I, a man whose culinary pinnacle was making fairy cakes from scratch as a toddler, really be trusted to give this sacred livestock the send-off it deserves? I thought about the cow – its years spent in Galicia, grazing on the village green, looking at me with big eyes, mooing gently in Spanish, telling me everything will be okay – and I made a vow: I will cook you to perfection, amigo. First, I just need to learn how.
THE ACTUAL COOKING PART
“Keep it in the fridge wrapped in paper, not plastic,” Mat tells me, as I scribble down notes on a piece of paper. “… get it out of the fridge at least half an hour before cooking… sit it on a plate… get it to around room temperature… pat it dry… before it goes on the grill, cover it in sea salt… honestly, get loads on, it draws out the moisture.”
The plan with each steak was to aim for a nice char on the outside, then generally a good medium-rare in the middle. The way to cook your steak can often divide a room. We all know that “well done” is a faux-pas you’ll never bounce back from, but should we really be listening to the oafish dick-swingers demanding that everything to be ash-fried to a still-beating rare?
Personally, I’m relieved when Mat sets me straight: “ideally, you want the fat to render down, you want it a bit crisp on the outside, and you should aim for medium-rare in the middle so it’s got a bit of bite. Our message at Turner & George is that you shouldn’t eat cheap meat every day, you should have really good meat once a week instead – savour it, take your time, cook it really well.”
By now my coals were really sizzling (both figuratively, and actually), and the meat was at the optimum temperature. I tentatively lowered the rst slab of steak onto the grill…
THE SPANISH OLD COW MEAT BOX VERDICT
2 x 200g Basque Fillets
The leanest cut in the box, and one Mat swears blind you could eat raw if you wanted to. I didn’t want to do that, it would look insane, so instead I cooked it to somewhere just above rare, nervously prodding and squeezing it roughly every two seconds for a few minutes. I needn’t have worried – as a first bite on this journey towards meaty heaven, it was soft, gentle, kind- hearted, and magnificent.
2 x 200g Galician Rumps
This came with a strip of fat at one end, so I heeded Mat’s words about rendering it down, before I realised that I wasn’t entirely sure what “rendering down” actually meant. I took it to mean “really cook it for ages, cook it hard” and I possibly left the steaks on the heat for a touch too long. Even so, one of the best I’ve ever eaten. Top ten anyway.
2 x 400g Galician Bone-in Sirloins
These looked spectacular – like something you’d imagine a sophisticated caveman to eat using his hands. I smeared sea salt (the flaked stuff) into each side, and put them on the grill for a few minutes, where they sizzled happily, while my stomach rubbed its hands together expectantly. The difference in taste between these and the steaks you get at a supermarket is like comparing apples and oranges- only in this metaphor, the oranges are rotten and you shouldn’t ever buy them again.
2 x 400g Basque Bone-in Ribeyes
Astonishing. By now, I had officially anointed myself King of the Grill, such was my poise and expertise with a set of tongs and some hot coals. Ignoring all of Mat’s warnings about not cooking on naked flames, I howled to the heavens while this one roared amidst the lapping fire for a couple of minutes on each side, before I closed the lid and left it on a cooler part of the barbecue for about five minutes or so. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this might have been the best steak anyone has ever cooked, EVER – crispy on the outside, a perfect medium-rare in the middle, seasoned inadvertently to absolute perfection. I should really go down in history for this one.
4 x 180g Old Cow Burgers
Full disclosure, with a belly full of steak, we decided to leave the burgers for another day – but when that day came (the following day, to be precise), it was magnificent. No barbecue, just frying pan, a cheese topped bun (genius move on my part), some American cheese, an onion, a tomato, and a gherkin. You could taste the quality of the meat instantly.
“Oh my, we have to do that again” said my wife, as we polished off our cheeseburgers, marking the end of our bovine odyssey. And she’s absolutely not wrong. That Old Cow hasn’t seen the last of me yet.
Visit the Turner & George website www.turnerandgeorge.co.uk. For a fire-cooking extravaganza, get tickets for this years’ Meatopia – taking place at Tabacco Dock at the end of August. Full details at www.meatopia.co.uk