If you are passionate about knowing where your beef comes from, there is nothing better than lunch with some people who really know their stuff. At a recent lunch hosted by Quality Meat Scotland I got to meet Laurent Vernet, Scotch Beef Master. He is the font of all knowledge to do with Scotch Beef.
Why Scotch Beef ?
Scotch Beef has a worldwide reputation of being one of the highest quality meats in the world. This is wholly due to the care and stringent quality requirements of meat production that results in this superior product.
Quality Meat Scotland has been running their world-leading quality assurance scheme behind Scotch Beef for 20 years. They are responsible for improving the efficiency and productivity of red meat production in Scotland. Scotch Beef is also the first red meat to be awarded the coveted European PGI status.
Scotch Beef is it is defined by the quality in origin. When you see the blue Scotch Beef rosettes and the PGI logo you can be sure that the beef you’re buying has been reared to the high standards required in Scotland and then slaughtered in an approved abatoir. Don’t confuse this with anything that says Scottish Beef as this is a completely different product. It could be meat imported into Scotland and processed and therefore not bred to the same stringent requirements.
Farmers and processors are regularly checked to make sure that they meet the high standards of care and welfare for the beef to be labelled Scotch.
About 82% of Scotland’s agricultural area is grass and rough grazing, not suitable for crops but perfect for cattle and sheep. This forage based livestock production system is an efficient way of producing protein as 1 kg of beef needs only 0.92 kg of protein suitable for human consumption.
Scottish beef farmers also help to manage Scotland’s landscape by allowing cattle and sheep graze, thereby helping to maintain many hill and upland habitats.
A Steak is Not Just a Steak
When you buy a steak or eat a steak, you don’t really think much about its origins or breeds. I am one of those people who like to ask where the meat comes from and most of the time, the restaurant doesn’t really know.
About Cattle Breeds
Scotch Beef comes from mainly a few well-known breeds like Aberdeen Angus. As the Aberdeen Angus are relatively small animals it’s usually crossbred with other species like Charolais and Limoussin, which increases yield and productivity.
Nowadays, due to more discerning customers restaurants there is a higher demand for rare breeds like the Galloway and Highland. Unfortunately for us down in England, meat from these breeds are not readily available.
I was surprised to learn that there was no market in veal as there is no demand unlike what I saw in the Jura mountains where there was high demand for veal from male calves from Montbeliard dairy cattle.
Meat from Male and Female animals taste very different
One other thing that affects the taste of meat are hormones. Bulls, Cows, Steers (castrated), Heifers (never mated, under 3), Calves, Young Bulls (never mated) are all at different stages of maturity.
Meat from animals that had mated and had different levels of hormones like the Cow tastes acidic, a bit vinegary. Meat from bulls tastes metallic from the testosterone. In a taste test the QMS ran, young women liked the taste of meat from Young Bulls the best. Nature eh?
How Feed and Welfare Affects the Taste
Most beef in Scotland are grass fed as they have an abundance of grazing pastures. However in the winter some of the less hardy breeds are kept indoors when they are fed a diet of silage. Silage is made from dried grass and grass crops like corn and other cereals. These crops are harvested in the warm months and then stored as animal feed over the winter period.
Some animals are corn-fed to finish them off as this increases the size of the animal very rapidly that it produces meat that is tender but less flavour than grass fed cattle. This also changes the balance of Omega 3 and 6 in the meat.
Sometimes the cattle is fed draff which is a by product from whisky distilling. This has the effect of sweetening the meat.
The Aging Process Adds Flavour to The Meat
If you watch a lot of cooking program programs it like I do, you’d see chefs going on about 28 days matured beef. The length of the aging does not make it more tender as meat doesn’t get any more tender after 9 days as this is when it has reached 90% of maximum tenderness.
Further maturation does however increase the flavour in the meat as water evaporates, further concentrating the flavour.
There are two different types of maturation: dry and wet. Wet maturation is usually done in a vacuum packed and the meat only loses about 0.5% of its weight. Dry maturation causes a much bigger reduction in total weight, creating a more expensive product.
If you buy meat that has been wet matured, it releases water when you cook it and your steak will steam instead of fry.
At the lunch, we had a masterclass in tasting beef. The taste of beef is influenced by the juiciness, the flavour and tenderness.
Juiciness is about the sensation when you chew a piece of beef and varies depending on the right kind of fat in the beef. The fat in beef coats the mouth which creates the sensation of generating saliva, more juicy.
The flavour of beef is not dependent on the breed but more on the feed, how they were slaughtered and how long the meat had been matured.
Laurent told us that a lot of red meat tastes about the same but it’s the fat from the marbling that actually gives it the distinct flavour. When buying a joint for roasting, do not be fooled into thinking that a joint wrapped with a lot of fat has a lot of flavour. It doesn’t. Only fat in the marbling and not fat on the outside gives beef its flavour.
As the first plates of meat appeared, we were told that these were all nine-day aged sirloin which came from a cow, a young ball and a steer.
When comparing each steak side-by-side it was easy to see the difference. The cow meat was tougher, with a darker red colour and bigger fibres. The cow meat usually has wobbly muscles and the meat is firm and tough. Cow meat is a good one to use in burgers.
The steer steak, which has no hormones, had a pinker colour. The meat was softer, with no sourness.
The young bull was softer than the cow but it had very distinctive sour and metallic flavour. A young bull’s meat has very little fat, so very little flavour and this is best served with some sauces.
We then blind tasted a variety of steaks from different animals and with different maturity and ageing. Next we tried steaks that were matured for 16 and 27 days.
The 16 day Sirloin was my favourite as it was much softer, more tender and a lot more juicy with a rich beef flavour.
The 27 day aged was fed on silage therefore had more acidity but better than the 9 day one. It was probably a Charolais breed.
We then tasted a very mature fillet steak that been forgotten at the back of the fridge . This is extremely gamey with a very strong flavour and was really unpleasant.
We also tried a few different cuts including a heart. By this point we were finding it really difficult to differentiate one cut rom another.
Just when we thought that the never ending platters of meat had ended, the proper lunch of a roast sirloin was delivered. This was truly a meat lovers event.
I learnt a lot and will be asking even more questions of the supermarkets and butchers from now on.
This event was hosted by The Guinea Grill a founding member of the Scotch Beef Club. You can learn more about Scotch Beef at the QMS website and you must get their free iphone app from iTunes. I use it to help me work out what times to cook my steaks. It even has an alarm built in to remind you to turn your steak.
Slow Food Kitchen was a guest of Quality Meat Scotland.