By now, you probably think you know where you are with steak. Over the past decade, fastidious UK diners have, variously, swapped fillet for rib-eye, flirted with grain-fed US beef and la-di-dah wagyu, before, it seemed, a broad consensus formed around the idea that some of the best steak you can eat comes from properly dry-aged, grass-fed British rare-breeds, such as Longhorn.
But that was before the old Basque cows reared their delicious bovine heads.
In recent months, a hardcore of British steak enthusiasts has become obsessed with superannuated cattle from northern Spain. Internationally, most beef cattle are slaughtered before they are three years old (in the UK, due to old BSE regulations, most farmers slaughter by 30 months), whereas the beef eaten in the Basque region comes from elderly beasts aged between eight and 18. The meat, almost maroon in colour and edged with distinctive bright yellow fat, is renowned for its well-distributed, granular marbling and savoury flavours of great depth, complexity and length. The difference to mainline young beef is comparable to that between lamb and mutton. This is profoundly beefy beef.
These steaks, served in huge Flintstone-style rib cuts of at least a kilo and known in the Basque Country as txuleta (pronounced choo-letah), are now appearing on menus at London restaurants including Lurra, Chiltern Firehouse, Barrafina and Kitty Fishers, Bellita in Bristol and Levanter near Bury, to an often rabid reception. The tiny Levanter sells up to 25 steaks (1.2kg, £45) every Sunday and demand is such that it has recently started serving txuleta on Wednesday to Friday at its sister restaurant, Baratxuri.
After travelling to San Sebastian to try the txuleta at Bar Nestor, a site of pilgrimage for the faithful, Levanter’s co-owner Joe Botham has become a firm convert: “It has ruined steak for me. I can’t eat it anywhere else now. I go home on a Sunday and, seriously, I don’t even have a shower because I can still smell the txuleton on me. It’s all in my beard, the whole restaurant smells of it. It’s wonderful.”
Confusingly, this Basque beef rarely originates in the region itself. Instead, beef eaten there usually comes from two sources. Entry-level txuleta is produced from ex-dairy cattle imported from around Europe, often from Poland and Germany, and finished on grass in the Basque country for another four years before slaughter. Galician Blond or Rubia Gallega is the prized next step-up. These cows and oxen, which are reared in neighbouring Galicia, mostly in the province of Lugo, are specifically raised as beef cattle (although some Galician Blond milk is used to make tetilla cheese) and, by the time they are slaughtered at up to 18 years old, they are unusually large, muscular animals.
Galician Blond cattle are sometimes crossbred with the Portuguese Barrosã, a similarly elderly cow that chef Nuno Mendes serves at his Spitalfields restaurant, Taberna do Mercado. “It’s incredible,” he says, of beef that he then dry-ages for 100 days before serving. “It is reared on a strict grass diet until 15 or 16 years. This allows it to have a full happy life and also has a huge impact on both the marbling and stronger flavouring of the meat. We usually serve thicker cuts on-the-bone, anywhere between 800g and 1400g – which really benefit from a slow-grilling and basting cooking.”
We have been taught to cook steaks very quickly in smoking hot pans, but txuleta – which, in Britain, you can buy mail-order through butchers Turner & George and Grey’s Fine Foods – requires a different approach. Some fans insist that txuleta should only be cooked over a hardwood charcoal. The renowned Basque BBQ restaurant, Asador Etxebarri, currently ranked tenth in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, cooks txuleta over grape vines. Elsewhere, txuleta (usually 8cm to 10cm thick) are cooked on hot plates but for a patient eight-to-10 minutes on each side, in order to achieve the optimum black ’n’ blue result – all crunchy and carbonised on the outside and still rare in the middle.
There are some key tricks to achieving that, says Botham. “The important bit with txuleta is osmosis. We let the steaks come to room temperature and then, with a very fine blade, scratch the surface and put loads of sea salt on it, which draws a lot of blood and moisture to the surface. When that reacts with the salt – it takes at least 40 and up to 90 minutes – it creates a gooey film, and that goo allows you to get a really crisp outside edge to the beef. With an 8cm thick steak, I cook it for a good eight minutes either side on a plancha at 350C and then you get this really charred, crispy outer-edge and an absolutely blue centre. The fat renders down beautifully.”
Historically, Basque farmers would swap beef with local cider producers, which is why it is sometimes referred to as “cider house” steak. Levanter serves it in the traditional way with few distractions: a tomato salad, fried green Guernica peppers, maybe charred spring onions. The real action is in that Galician Blond beef which, once tasted, is never forgotten.
Food is often seen as central to Basque culture. That a region with only one native cattle breed, Pirenaica, has continued – in the face of global intensive farming – to cultivate such a specialist product, is testament to that obsession. British steak connoisseurs are very grateful for that stubbornness.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010