When I’m out, although I’ll often make a show of looking at the rest of the menu, I’ll often just default to the beef. I may have the best of intentions to try the sea bass, but when the time comes, I always seem to end up blurting out that I’m having the beef. Done well – but definitely not well done – beef can be an absolute delight; the problem is that, nine times out of ten, it’s usually a disappointment: too fatty; overcooked; chewy… it seems that getting it right can be the hardest thing. I will admit that I'm a bit fussy and, if I'm buying meat myself, I'm lucky enough to be able to afford to buy organic, aged meat from a local farmer: it just tastes nicer, and I think I owe it to the animal to have as good a life as is possible. If I order meat in a restaurant, I'd far rather order something similar than anything else. I mean, what kind of life has the cow that provided that £1.99 steak likely to have had? I know I'm lucky to be able to afford that choice, but I can and so that's the choice I make. Even if I couldn't afford that choice, I think I'd rather eat something else entirely than buy the bovine equivalent of a battery hen.
I also like my meat bloody, and I almost always order it rare. What could be easier? Just a flash of heat to seal the outside then let it rest for a moment before serving. Simple. Except that apparently it isn’t. Part of the problem is that when we say “rare” in this country, apparently we don’t really mean rare at all and actually mean “a bit pink in the middle”. Nice, perhaps, but definitely not rare and certainly not oozing blood. I once ordered a rare steak at a restaurant just around the corner from us, and when it came out medium at best, I did the English thing for a while and ummed and ahhed about just eating it to avoid causing a fuss, but as it was the most expensive item on the menu, I thought I’d send it back. You’d think I’d insulted the waiter’s family. When the next steak came out, it was stone cold – the butter on the top steadfastly refusing to melt – but it was also still only medium. Who finds it easier to heat up a pre-cooked steak from the fridge than to simply cook a raw steak? Apparently they do. I’ve not been back since.
Anyway. My reason for mentioning this is that, in spite of all the pitfalls, when it’s right, there’s surely no more satisfying dish. On Saturday, I was lucky enough to eat at the Hand and Flowers
in Marlow with some dear friends. I looked at the menu and seriously considered avoiding the beef simply because it’s my default order… and the duck is the restaurant’s speciality, after all… but in the end I decided that if you can’t order the steak at a two Michelin starred restaurant, then when can you?
Fillet of Lancashire Beef with Hand and Flowers Chips and Béarnaise Sauce.
Mmm. Good choice.
It was, without a shadow of a doubt, the best piece of meat – never mind the best piece of beef – that I have ever had the pleasure of tasting: cobblestoned in shape and seared on the outside, it was moist, succulent and bloody on the inside. It was astonishingly good. The chips were amazing in their own right, but early on I realised that my priority had to be the meat. It was almost an emotional experience. Epic. The meat sweats I had for the next few hours were a small price to pay.
The other stuff I ate there – for the record, Salt Cod Scotch Egg with Chorizo and Red Pepper Sauce and a Passion Fruit Soufflé with Kaffir Lime Ice Cream and Warm Toffee – was also delicious, and the company was excellent, but that beef was the showstopper. If I go back, I’m ordering it again too.
Mind you, it was so good, that perhaps I should avoid ordering the beef the next time I eat out as it’s certain to be disappointing by comparison.
Ah. Who am I kidding? I’ll be right on it.
Needless to say, my teenage vegetarian phase was a short one. Less than a day, if memory serves me correctly.
(Incidentally, I've been going down to Oxford for much of the last 20 years, but this was the first time that I've been to the Ashmolean, the Pitt Rivers museum or the Castle. I must be getting cultured in my old age)
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