French farmers are a resourceful lot, although it has taken them rather a long time to come up with their latest innovation and gift to the world of good cooking.
Pickled as they are much of the time, this is understandable. If you are French, it is your duty to make sure that there is at least a glass or two of red wine in you at all times, to ensure that you live a long life and keep the possibility of a heart attack at bay. Or that’s your story anyway.
The French also gave us the classic beef dish of boeuf Bourguignon (a certain reader of mine out False Bay way will note that finally I have learnt to spell this), of course, which is a wonderfully wintry dish of beef with red wine, mushrooms and bacon.
So send a vat of red Burgundy please to the bunch of vaguely inebriated farmers in the southern French village of Lunel-Viel who decided to feed the red wine directly to their cattle.
Their stated thinking is that if their beef tastes good now, it will undoubtedly taste even better with a little self-marination, and it is a technique that is known and has been practised elsewhere in one form or another.
In Japan they have the prized and frighteningly expensive Kobe beef which is reputed to be fed beer or even massaged with sake, although this is disputed. Belgian farmers are known to feed beer to their cattle, and Australian farmers say there’s a link between getting your cows a tad inebriated to increase their milk production.
None of which is of any concern to our French friends, who like all good Frenchmen are concerned more with the flavour and texture of the meat and what you can do with it in the kitchen.
Farmer Claude Chaballier gave his vinous diet to three of his cattle last year and reported that the resulting beef was “lean, marbled and tasty”. Aren’t we all quite marbled after a couple of bottles of red wine.
The bibulous beasts were given leftover grapes, barley and hay before their nightly tipple of two litres of wine. The obvious question is whether this harms the animals in anyway, and what kind of controls there are, if any. I do not have a resounding answer to that, but this week’s report does quote specialists as saying that the quantities of alcohol given the ruminants (who, one presumes, are more ruminant now than they were on their old diet) are not high and that the animals metabolise alcohol without much difficulty.
I was thinking about all this when deciding to make some good old-fashioned savoury (but not self-marinating) beef mince the other day, soemehing I had not made for years but which I used to make as a little boy. Then, I learnt to make what I guess is a pretty standard way of braising onions and sliced red and/or green bell peppers with garlic and then building it up with tomato and beef, with the addition of things like tomato sauce and chutney, perhaps a hint of mustard, Worcestershire sauce and the like.
Savoury Mince with Gremolata
180g shallots, finely chopped
2 or 3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
200g shoulder bacon, diced
1kg lean beef mince
2 Tbs olive oil
Several sprigs of fresh thyme
A handful of parsley, finely chopped
1 tin Italian chopped tomatoes
2 star anise
Grating of nutmeg
Juice of 1 lemon
Squeeze of Italian tomato paste
Salt and pepper
1 garlic clove, very finely chopped
Handful of parsley, very finely chopped
Grated zest of 1 lemon
But this savoury mince was updated, subtler and, as it happily turned out, much better (we thought) than the bog standard original I had always made.
First, a bouquet to Pick n Pay, which (at my local Gardens branch at least) is now stocking shallots in good quantities. These were sizeable ones, some of them the size of medium to large onions, so I popped a few of them into the basket. It’s good to see this staid old supermarket chain stepping up with something like this – normally shallots are a hit-and-miss affair. So, home chefs take note. And the good news is that shallots last for a surprising amount of time in the crisper while still retaining their firmness and flavour.
This is a fragrant and fresh-tasting savoury mince thanks to the herbs, with a hint of spice coming through from the star anise and nutmeg. I served it with lightly toasted slices of sour pain au levain (naturally fermented French bread), also bought from Pick n Pay, and it was a perfect match. (They also sell a rye version.)
Sauté the chopped shallots and diced bacon with the garlic until the bacon is cooked and the onion translucent. Keep stirring. Add the thyme leaves, stripped from their stems (I used quite a lot for a strong herby flavour), and the finely chopped parsley, as well as the two star anise and a grating of nutmeg. Stir through and crumble the beef mince in with your fingers, and stir thoroughly. Add the chopped tomatoes, lemon juice and a squeeze of Italian tomato paste, stir and simmer for a good 45 minutes or so until the meat has slowly turned a rich brown, tenderised and the flavours have developed.
Season with salt and pepper and simmer for another five minutes. You can include a small glass of red wine if you like, but I didn’t. If you do, simmer until you have a good consistency, not too runny.
Gremolata is normally served with osso buco, the traditional Italian veal shin stew. Just finely chop the parsley and garlic (one or two cloves, as you like) and grate the lemon zest, mix together in a bowl, and sprinkle over the mince on the plate from a bit of a height so that it falls attractively.
If you’re feeling French, enjoy it with a glass or two of red wine, even if you are having it for breakfast.
First published in Weekend Argus July 2012