Louise Gray on why Christmas is the best time to get back into beef
Before the Victorians, the traditional Christmas dish in Britain was never turkey, it was beef. For ordinary households poultry such as chicken or turkey was expensive to raise and to eat. A cut of beef was easier to come by and every part was used, hence meat mince pies using proper suet.
But Charles Dickens soon changed all that. The turkey dinner in A Christmas Carol secured the meat as a festive favourite. Like the Americans, we started to farm turkeys and the bird became bigger and cheaper every year.
Now the fashion is changing again, as turkeys have become too big and too cheap. The birds are bred to grow to a full weight of around 5kg in just nine to 12 weeks and most are kept indoors. As concern grows around animal welfare, consumers are choosing free range turkey from places like Wyndham House Poultry or eating beef instead.
Beef raised in Britain is generally free range. The average size of a UK herd is 28 to 50 cows, kept as part of a mixed farm. The cattle are kept outdoors on pasture in the summer and come indoors in the winter.
Wild Beef in Borough Market go one step further, allowing their Welsh black and native Devon cattle to roam freely on Dartmoor. Richard Vines, an ex-soldier and brewery executive, gave up the office life to farm cattle. He admits it is tough to keep the animals as ‘wild’ as possible. The herd can range up to six miles and only come in for the winter, when they are fed on hay and sileage. In comparison to more commercial stock, which will be slaughtered at 18 months, the cows live up to 40 months.
Richard points out that his cattle are eating a greater variety of plants than animals kept on rye grass, meaning they also ingest more trace minerals. “We are what we eat and they are what they eat and because they are eating a greater variety of plants, they are healthier,” he says. “The meat is a richer colour and more flavoursome.”
A good roast
Richard hangs the beef for up to six weeks to allow it to tenderise. He will cut joints to size and recommends a topside mini joint for two or a top rump for up to 20 people for Christmas. Most of all, he recommends enjoying the meat with friends and family. “A good roast of beef demands company and that people sit and eat with you—that is the most important ingredient.”
Richard reminds me of many of the farmers I met while writing my book The Ethical Carnivore. Over the course of two years, I investigated every aspect of where meat comes from, including visiting slaughter houses. It was tough to watch animals being killed, but I was always impressed by the respect and hard work farmers put into making sure the animals had the best life possible.
Christmas is often a time to show gratitude. If there’s one thing writing the book and these columns has taught me, it is to be grateful for the meat we eat. The book finishes with The Selkirk Grace, attributed to Scottish poet Robert Burns. It is a poem that would grace any Christmas table:
Some hae meat and canna eat / And some wad eat that want it / But we hae meat and we can eat / Sae let the Lord be thankit