Scots shouldn't have to change what we do with our beef just to protect lovers of steak tartare
THERE is only one thing for it – bring back hanging, or at least stop Europe from banning it. There were fresh reports yesterday that the European Commission wants to drive through plans to restrict the hanging of Scotch beef that is then turned into mince.
This tale of Eurocrats challenging "our mince and tatties" goes back 18 years. The issue was first raised in 1990, then shelved, then resurrected two years ago, and now it seems to have surfaced again with reports that Europe does really mean to push it through this time.
At this point, I should declare an interest, having spent at least some of the Easter weekend enjoying a home-made lasagne that I lovingly prepared around a pound of prime Scottish beef mince.
The meat came from a small herd of Black Galloway cattle in Dumfriesshire and, crucially, was hung to mature for three weeks by the producers, Busby Lamb, before being minced, packaged and sold on to me.
Reports yesterday warned that the European Commission wants to ban the sale of beef mince that has been hung for more than six days, apparently because of the danger of poisoning those who like steak tartare, which is basically raw mince with embellishments.
Back in 1990, when the idea was first mooted, I was backpacking with three friends round eastern Europe, watching the Communist Bloc disintegrate. Arriving ravenous in a small town on the shores of Lake Balaton in Hungary one warm summer evening, we had enough money for either a decent meal or a night's accommodation, but not both.
We had sleeping bags, the weather was good, so we went to a restaurant, peered at the strange words on the menu and ordered four steaks, confident we couldn't go wrong with that. I can still feel the utter disappointment as four plates of raw mince, each with an egg perched on top, arrived at our table. We picked and scratched at it and left hungry and determined never to order steak tartare again.
That we ended up sleeping on sun loungers in the grounds of what we thought was a hotel but turned out to be a mental institution, and were chased out the next morning by angry men in white coats and even angrier alsatians, only added to our feelings of injustice.
So while I admit I may not be entirely objective when it comes to steak tartare, I do believe that when faced with the choice of 1) banning the way meat is prepared in one country, or 2) issuing a warning to those who choose to eat it raw in another, Europe is wrong to have chosen the former.
Meat, particularly beef, is hung to improve both its texture and taste. Enzymes in the meat soften the muscle tissue, making it both tender and more flavoursome, but this takes time and it has to be done under refrigeration. Many butchers survive the pressure from the supermarkets simply because they still prepare their meat in a traditional way and refuse to slap it on the counter only days, or hours, after slaughter.
Just compare two similar cuts of meat, one from the cheap end of the supermarket range and one from a local high-street butcher, and taste the difference. I know the meat I ate at the weekend was hung for three weeks because I know the farmer, Alistair Busby, who is also the producer, packager and salesman.
Beef in Scotland is produced to be eaten after it is cooked, particularly mince. After three weeks of hanging, there may be bacteria in the meat, but this will be eradicated by the cooking process. Well-hung Scotch beef mince is not designed to be eaten raw.
I have no problem with people in eastern Europe who want to eat it raw, but we should not have to change the way we prepare meat just because of the way they want to eat it. It is a typically bureaucratic response from the EU. Rather than telling those who like steak tartare that they eat it at their own risk, we have to change our ways to fit in with them.
It hardly matters that this concept has been proposed, dropped, delayed, changed and proposed again – that says more about the commission than anything else. What matters is this: if all mince in Scotland is made from beef that has been aged for six days or less, it will be much the worse for it.
Yesterday's tabloid-driven furore over "meddling Eurocrats" may have been a classic example of ramping up a story for a quiet bank holiday, but at least it has drawn attention to the importance of maturing beef.
If it means just one consumer realises how good meat is that has been aged and tenderised, then maybe we can move a little way in persuading the supermarkets to stop stocking meat that has hardly had time to pause between slaughterhouse and shelf.
Greater disposable income and more environmental awareness have helped create a gap at the quality end of the food market. You only have to look at the way most supermarkets have introduced a range of products, particularly in meat, to see evidence of this, with quick, non-aged "value" cuts at one end, and mature, tender and often organic cuts at the other. This is a clear attempt to exploit the new shopping habits of well-off and more discerning customers.
However, if Scottish farmers are to succeed in this lucrative top end of the market, they need to be able to produce meat that is hung for the optimum amount of time to make it as tasty and tender as possible.
They will never do it if they are forced to conform to rules designed to suit consumers in an entirely different market.