About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Monday, February 26, 2007
Where's The Beef?
A couple of weekends ago, we went to a barbeque at my wife's sisters for which we bought the meat, some rump steak and a few bratwursts. When we all sat down to the steaks the compliments started rolling, not for me who cooked the steaks but for the meat itself. It didn't really surprise for we rarely buy any supermarket meat, preferring to buy from butchers that know how to handle meat and in particular beef, properly. By properly, I mean those butchers that age meat their beef for no less than 14 days but up to a month, compared to supermarkets that takes beef from the paddock and has it for sale within the week.

Ever notice how the supermarkets are putting their meat into sealed plastic containers with a little absorbent pad underneath to soak up the blood? Ever noticed that over the last twenty years or so that beef is getting pinker and pinker? The real reason supermarkets are packaging meat this way is that it's better for their profits. As unprotected meat ages it loses weight through evaporation, if profit is your prime imperative rather than flavour, you need to get the cattle processed into cuts and sealed in plastic boxes as soon as possible to retain as much weight as possible and then sold as quickly as possible, this gives the supermarkets a price advantage over High Street butchers. But what happens when the High Street butcher closes? The supermarkets up the price.

Doubt it?

Look what's happening during our latest drought. Farmers are destocking as the land cannot support the cattle and record numbers are being sent to market. This month it's twenty percent higher than the corresponding period last year. Has anyone noticed that the price of meat has not fallen? The farmers are certainly getting a lot less for their livestock, the abattoirs aren't charging any more, so who is making the money? What do you think will happen when the drought breaks and farmers rebuild their herds, sending less to the market? There were huge complaints here when the supermarkets, who control the petrol pumps, didn't drop the pump price for some weeks after the price of crude oil had fallen, but seemingly put up the price of petrol as soon as there is any upward movement in the price of crude.

Now the thing with supermarkets moving meat meat so quickly is that it is no longer aged to allow the cow's enzymes and natural bacteria to soften the meat. So the problem is now, how to get tender beef when aging is out of the question? What about buying younger cattle that have had no time to toughen, say at about one year of age? That is exactly what's happening. In my lifetime the age of cattle at market has dropped from about two years old to one, so that the darker coloured meat that is the sign of well aged, older cattle is no longer prevalent. It is as far as I know completely unheard of in Australia to have cows up to seven years old as they do in France, though not on any large scale. But the point is they do have older cattle.

The way cattle are handled has changed completely to suit the supermarkets and in doing so has changed our perceptions of what good beef actually is, to the point where if there were two identical cuts, one nicely pink and the other a dark, dark blood red colour, how many would know to choose the well aged cut over the meat that was barely out of kindergarten? Not many, one would think. What has happened is that so many people have forgotten what a great steak actually tastes like and when they get one, like at my sister-in-law's barbeque, there are invariably comments about how good the meat is and the thing is, my sister-in-law pays exactly the same as me for rump steak at her supermarket.

I know who I'd rather support.

Labels: ,

  posted at 11:08 am

At 3:47 pm, Blogger MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

But you have to know the difference and know where to find the good stuff and then you have to probably go a little bit out of your way.

At 4:28 pm, Anonymous Zam said...

I absolutely agree Neil. A great butcher (just like a great fish monger) should be your best friend when you go shopping. I've been going to Laurie's here in Perth for just over two years and there is no meat that can beat his (even Mondo's - another Perth meat institution). His shop is really quite unassuming and rather hard to find. He will tell you all the stuff that he doesn't do to his meat that supermarkets do to theirs and it seriously puts you off!! Plus his price is so competitive because he's a one man show with hardly any overheads.

Needless to say, great butchers akin to yours and mine are a dying breed. There aren't many left out there and we really need to support these guys AND good farming practises. I fear that when Laurie retires (which is not far away so he says), I'm not sure of where to go for my meat. I hope he never does, but that's me being selfish...

Also, you can always tell when you get good meat, just like when you get organic vegetables. It will taste like it should - packed full of flavour!

At 10:06 am, Anonymous kitchen hand said...

There used to be a perception that butchers were dearer.

They are not, apart from a few loss leaders (industry jargon for the cheap tempter that swings the shopper to do all their shopping in one place). Plus their sausages are generally rubbish.

I'm spoiled for butchers, fortunately. The Italian butcher in Sydney Road is as good as it gets. There are others, and occasionally we go to the markets.

At 10:06 am, Anonymous kitchen hand said...

Supermarket sausages, I meant.

At 10:27 am, Blogger gigi said...

That was very informative! I confess I've been buying the redder meat, thinking it 'fresher,' not younger. Everything from the supermarket tastes the same; you can barely tell the pork from the beef anymore.

If there's a butcher within 10 miles of where I live I've never heard; the last three in these parts closed a couple of years ago. They just couldn't compete with the big stores in terms of price or convenience. I still them. We all lose.

At 6:37 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi tanna, that's like all good things in life really.

Hi zam, all the more reason to support good local butchers. I noticed that Matt at Abstract Gourmet mentions a great local butcher, that might be worth a try.

Hi kitchen hand, you know supermarket sausages are rubbish when you can buy them for half the cost of fresh mince meat, just a good way for supermarkets to be rid of all the unappetising bits. I'm a bit wary of the Queen Vic butchers as I've had a couple of less than memorable experiences.

Hi gigi, we all lose indeed. I suppose if you are none the wiser it doesn't really matter, but for people like us who love great produce, we feel the pain.


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