The truth about what makes great meat

Before deciding to open Heckstall & Smith, I knew a reasonable amount about meat. But, even with above average knowledge, I was often intimidated by and confused about buying meat.

During the last year, I have spent lot of my time talking with other butchers, those campaigning for better food, and farmers. What I have learnt really surprised me. The effort that goes into producing proper meat is colossal and the number of pitfalls are even larger.

The reality is that by the time carcasses arrive at our shop, there is very little we can do to improve the quality of poor meat. So, about a third of my job is making sure that we know exactly what we’re buying.

If we are to change the meat industry for the better, then we need to raise awareness of the factors affecting the quality of meat so that people can start asking food retailers and butchers questions that will ensure they’re getting the best quality and are supporting those trying to do it right.

So, here is a basic guide to what to look out for.

Traditional and rare breeds

Breed is the basis of all good meat. If you’re using the wrong breed, then you’re stuffed before you even start.

A Charolais bullock, one of the very commercial ‘continental’ breeds.

Because of the larger size and leaner meat, ‘continental’ breeds have become very popular. Continental breeds are any from mainland Europe, strictly speaking, but are in reality a catch-all term for breeds that have been bred to bulk out as rapidly as possible.

To make things even more confusing, ‘native’ breeds, like Aberdeen Angus and Hereford can be newer strains of the breed, created to compete with modern continental breeds. Aberdeen Angus in its various strains is one of the most popular breed of beef cattle in the world. However, the original strain of the DNA nearly became extinct.

All these commercial breeds sacrifice flavour for faster growth; you can’t get something for nothing in farming. They also struggle to gain weight on pasture feeding, so need grain feeding, can’t live on rough land and often get ill because the continual tweaking of genetics has messed up their health.

However, many small farmers have made a real effort to revive the traditional breeds. For example, our Herefords come from one of the champions of the reintroduction of the traditional strain of the breed.

A Red Poll, one of the slower growing and hardier traditional breeds.

These breeds are far slower growing, can live on rough land and almost solely on grass. They also have a better fat covering, so can be dry aged. These things are all hugely important for the other factors we’ll discuss.

‘Rare breed’ is a term that is banded about a lot. Sometimes traditional breeds are also rare, but an increasing number have been moved out of the danger zone by the growing awareness around the importance of breed.

Grass and forage feeding

Farmers making silage so animals can still be grass feed if the need to be taken inside.

Traditional breeds are able to live in extremely tough conditions very happily, so can spend much of their life foraging for food, which in the case of cows and sheep is grass, whereas for pigs it can be variety of things.

On the occasions they need to be brought inside, for events like calving, they are fed on the same food they’d have access to outside, things like haylage and silage (dried grass, basically).

The only substitutes they need access to are mineral licks, to give them anything the soil in the area lacks, and some of the leaner breeds are given a little grain to fatten them up for slaughter.

The alternative is feeding grain based diets that are designed to get the animal to gain weight as quickly as possible. This works, really well, but results in pappy meat due to their unnaturally fast growth rate. In some cases, these feeds have antibiotics in as a matter of course to keep down the spread of disease that are so prevalent due to genetic issues and confined conditions. For example, the vast majority of commercial pigs I have butchered have had damage to their lungs from pneumonia.

Slaughter

People are, generally, squeamish about the slaughter process. I sympathise, I have been to many abattoirs and they’re not enjoyable places. However, it is very important that consumers know their meat has been looked after correctly during the process.

Animal welfare need to be the top priority. Good abattoirs make sure that live animals are held separately from the sights and noise of the abattoir, and then kept calm whilst they’re being dispatched. Not only is this imperative morally, it does affect the final product. Stressing out animals causes them to dump lactic acid into their bloodstream, which needs to stay in the muscles to help tenderise the meat during the aging process.

As you can imagine, you need to use a hose during the slaughter process to make sure the carcass is free from things you don’t want on your final product. However, many poor abattoirs get over zealous with unnecessarily powerful hoses and push water in between the muscles of the carcass, which means the carcass won’t age properly, you’ll get a damp flavour in your meat — imagine wet cardboard.

Lastly, many abattoirs do a bad job at removing hides. This rips apart the connections between muscles, meaning that off flavours develop in the seams of the meat rather the aging process developing the wonderful rich and smooth flavour you want.

Dry aging

We forgot to mention this when we first listed the important factors, but on reflection, feel it deserves a mention.

The most common aging method is wet aging. This is where the meat is placed in a vacuum pack after slaughter and kept there for a week or so. This allow the lactic acid to work on the muscle and tenderise it. It does nothing, however, to develop the flavour. The advantage for the retailer is that it doesn’t lose weight through water loss, there is no drying of the flesh exposed to the air and you need less cold-room space for the aging process, because you don’t need air around the carcass and the meat spends less time in there.

In dry aging you hang the carcass in a reasonably dry cold room until the natural bacteria in the meat and air matures it to its peak, which is around four weeks for beef, two for lamb and one for pork. Another benefit is that during the process the carcass looses water, which concentrates the flavour.

Admittedly there is a lot of wastage because of the lost water and the need to remove the exterior deteriorated muscle, especially on beef as it aged for so long. However, its flavour is vastly better than meat from a wet-aged carcass.

So, it’s a minefield out there. But, if we start asking about these factors then things will slowly change with more meat retailers and butchers going the extra mile, and buying whole carcasses only. This way they can work directly with small farmers and abattoirs, rather than going through wholesalers, which will guarantee quality and an unsurpassed flavour!

Callum is the owner and founder of Heckstall & Smith.

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