Bucket list beef: 'It costs €65 a steak but this aged treat delights the taste buds'
It costs €65 a steak but this aged Galician treat delights the taste buds, writes Katy McGuinness
Every food lover worth his or her salt has a bucket list. Obvious inclusions might be caviar and lobster, native oysters and white summer truffles. The first asparagus of the season and wild salmon from a particular river. Delve deeper and you'll find goose barnacles and gulls' eggs, sea urchin, abalone and snipe. A particularly decadent list might include ortolan; a reckless one, puffer fish.
Steak fanciers have their own meaty bucket lists. While most of the beef served in decent Irish restaurants comes from grass-fed, pasture-reared Aberdeen Angus and Hereford cattle, occasionally you'll find Dexter, Belted Galloway or other less familiar breeds, each offering something subtly different in terms of flavour and texture. Occasionally, there will be the opportunity - should one wish, given concerns over GMO feed and large-scale indoor cattle sheds - to try corn or grain-fed beef imported from the US or South America.
Wagyu beef, originally from Japan but now also being farmed in Ireland, is a pricey treat for those who like their beef meltingly tender, with a fat content (including a high proportion of healthy monounsaturated fats) that's off the scale in comparison to other breeds.
Chef Gareth 'Gaz' Smith is the chef/owner of Michael's restaurant in well-heeled Mount Merrion, which specialises in steak and seafood. "Our most popular steak by far is the fillet on the bone that I get from butcher Rick Higgins in Sutton," he says. "Cooking on the bone always gives the meat more flavour, and these fillets have a lovely, rounded, bovine flavour but they are still just as lean and tender as a regular fillet." Gaz explains that sometimes his customers send back rib-eye steaks because they don't like the appearance of visible fat, even though it is the marbling in a rib-eye that gives the meat its flavour, and customers can cut off anything that they don't want to eat.
Gaz recently offered Japanese Wagyu steaks to his customers; the response from the non-fat-phobic was enthusiastic. Now he is bringing them something different again: Galician Blonde beef, from the Rubia Gallega breed, imported from Spain by Rick Higgins. Gaz says that the chance to work with this very special beef, rarely seen on Irish restaurant menus, was one that he couldn't pass by.
In Rick Higgins' magnificent shop, its counter the stuff of meat-lovers' dreams, there's a fridge of Thornhill duck (complete with heads, feathers and guts) mid-way through a dry-ageing process, many of them destined for the kitchen of chef Grainne O'Keefe at Clanbrassil House, and huge pieces of whiskey-aged beef on the bone. Higgins sells only free-range pork and makes Toulouse sausages and his own charcuterie on the premises. Rick is a fourth generation butcher who served his time with his father in Portmarnock before opening his own place in upmarket Sutton six years ago. "This is a good area for me," he says, "as there's a good demand for the premium products that I sell."
In Higgins' ageing room behind the shop, two sides of Galician beef from a 12-year old animal slaughtered in Spain on January 8 have already been hanging for a couple of weeks. The sides have been imported with the spinal bone removed, in accordance with regulations which require this of any animal over 30 months of age.
The beef comes from Gutrei Galicia, founded in 2007 by two brothers after 15 years spent working in abattoirs. It is marketed as Vaca Gallega (Galician cow) beef and comes from the Rubia Gallego breed indigenous to the Galician region of Spain, crossed with Friesian to improve the fat yield. The age of the animals at the time of slaughter is a minimum of seven years, and the meat is distinguished by its high level of streaky fat and great flavour. The animals are always free-range, grazing on the famously green pastures of Galicia, which gets nearly as much rain as Ireland.
The cows, some of which have been milked, usually calve in their early years, and spend the last one or two years of their lives at pasture. The meat won gold at the World Steak Challenge in 2018. "This has been aged really well," says Rick. "It smells like Irish 30-to-38-day beef and it's more moist than our 60-day beef, because it has a much higher fat content. Ageing is all about temperature and humidity."
Rick explains that he will get between eight and 12 côte de boeuf steaks and 10 to 12 sirloins from each side of the Vaca Gallega beef. By the time the steaks reach the table in Michael's, they will be close to 80 days old. Most of the steak served by Gaz in the restaurant is aged for between 32 and 36 days, but the higher fat content of the Galician beef lends itself to longer aging.
What makes the Galician beef special is its age at the time of slaughter. Since the BSE crisis of the 1990s, most beef slaughtered in Ireland is under 36 months of age. In the US, it's usual to fatten beef cattle as quickly as possible and slaughter them as soon as they reach their optimal weight, as the preference is for the very tender meat that this method produces.
The specific Galician cow that customers will be able to try at Michael's was aged 12 at the time of slaughter and was never milked. Its meat displays the intense marbling that comes with age and gives the beef a deep colour and flavour. In effect, this flavour develops as the animals grow old and fat. "Most people like a steak and a good bottle of red wine on a Saturday night," says Gaz, "but this Galician beef is for those who like to experiment and push the boundaries. The Wagyu was a learning curve for me and I'm keen to broaden my horizons."
Given the cost of feeding the animals into their ripe old age, Gaz says that if he was taking a full margin, the steaks should be triple the price of the regular steaks on the menu at Michael's, but that he's prepared to take a smaller margin to bring the experience to his customers. Anyone interested should expect to pay about €65 per head for an individual steak; sharing steaks will cost slightly less.
One afternoon last week, Gaz cooked a couple of steaks for Rick and I and a couple of friends. He seared them in rendered beef fat on the stove top before popping them into the oven for a few minutes to finish.
"Look at the marbling," he said, clearly excited. "It's breaking down like the Wagyu, although the marbling is larger, and it has the texture of foie gras."
After resting for a few minutes, we got to try the meat. The flavour was magnificent, the meat slightly chewier than Wagyu, but with an incredibly luxurious mouthfeel from the marbled fat that has rendered down during the cooking process. Even the fat on its own tasted wonderful.
"I'm scared that it won't sell," says Gaz, keenly aware of the preference of many of his regular customers for very lean meat. "But I don't care. I'll eat it all myself if I have to."
Having tasted it, I don't think there is any danger of that. Michael's is about to be mobbed by gourmands wanting to tick another eating experience off that bucket list.