13 November 2009

Coutancie beef

For a lot of years now, I've been on a first-name basis with many of my food vendors. I'm not sure any of those relationships is more important than with my butchers (except probably a great fishmonger, which I've never found).

But this past weekend was the first time I've ever been on a first-name basis with my beef. Or first-number basis, anyway. We went to a butcher around the corner from the apartment to buy something nice for a Saturday night dinner, and though we arrived thinking lamb, our minds had changed by the time our spot in the out-the-door line came around.

That's because it became obvious that the specialty of the house was beef, followed distantly by beef, and then, finally, at the very bottom of the list, beef. Placards throughout the store advertise that the beef in question is Boeuf de Coutancie. The colorful placards are difficult to see, though, since there are animal-specific certificates papering over nearly every surface.

Checking your papers at the door: well, they're somebody's papers.

The shop reminds me of the office of one particularly self-impressed professor in my department in graduate school. A savvy media user and unabashed self-promoter, his office walls were a dense mosaic of degrees, certificates, and official honors that confirmed his superiority over the rest of us. In a cheeky bit of subversion, a couple of his senior students slid a quality assurance certificate for a bottle of acetonitrile, a solvent used for some of the procedures in the lab, into a frame that was in the direct line of sight of the chair used by visitors into the office while talking to The Boss. Like the real accolades, the QA certificate that came with every bottle was printed on fake parchment with a gold seal and an extravagant signature, and I'd like to think the substitution was noticed but never commented on by visitors, though it's far more likely that it continued to hang unnoticed by anyone in a series of progressively bigger offices.

Like the certificates in that professor's office, I don't know the significance of the cow papers in the butcher shop. Second place in the third grade spelling bee, passing the motor scooter driving test, acknowledgement of delivery of a keynote address at a physics conference, admittance into the mile high club, or contestant on America's Top Model? Given the price of the meat, it could equally be law degrees (from Cowlumbia? sorry...) or official aristocracy papers.

That this beef has so many papers must appeal to the French fondness for bureaucratic paperwork (it's worth noting that none of the papers was folded-- anybody whose gone through the process of getting a carte de sejour knows that folding one's documents is strictly interdit). In fact, boeuf de Coutancie claims to have special characteristics, one of which is that it comes from the Perigord region in southwestern France, which is where foie gras and Limousin beef come from. The French put a lot of stock into famous origins and brands, as evidenced by the whole AOC system.

Appellation d’origine contrôlée, or controlled name of origin, is a certification granted to products of certain geographical areas of France. Whether a wine (say, Vouvray, Brouilly, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, or about 314 others), a cheese (Pont l'Eveque, Roquefort, or about 40 others), liquor, vegetable, or other, great emphasis is placed on certified product origin. In many ways, this makes sense. A given style of cheese or wine has an awful lot to do with the place it's cultivated, and so establishing where these things are officially produced helps protect the geographical “brand” and reputation. I mean, one would view a Côtes du Provence from Normandy with suspicion, right? Furthermore, the AOC designations establish rules (aging time, type of milk, etc for cheeses, eg) that help to protect and maintain the aspects of production that make a product what it is. Of course, these systems are established and administered with typical bureaucratic mindlessness and personal commercial agendas, and so are subject to the same shenanigans as any other biasable process: exclusion of competitors from higher profile/profit designations, rubber stamping and cronyism in whatever nominal product quality inspection takes place, etc. And those geographic limitations and protections can't counterbalance the industrialization of agriculture.

Whatever its flaws, the AOC designations have done much to protect traditional French agricultural/gustatory industries. And sometimes the AOC designation really does mean a difference in taste. One might not think that terroir plays a huge rule in dried beans, but the lentils from Puy-en-Velay trump any of the the various other “French green lentils” I've used. They're wonderful.

But back to our accomplished cows. I don't believe Boeuf de Coutancie is AOC, which on further reflection is probably exactly why so much paperwork comes with it, to convince of its specialness in the absence of bureaucratic proclamation. From what I can tell, Coutancie beef is named for the farm, rather than the breed of cattle. According to the distributor's website, the animals are raised on the prairies until maturity, at which point they're brought to Coutancie farm for a spa vacation, which includes a carefully selected diet of farm vegetables and grain presented in their comfortable feeding cubicles. Beyond their pampered food diet, the cows receive complementary beer and are massaged twice daily. While I'm maybe taking a little literary liberty with the description, I swear I'm not making any of this up. No word on mud masks or sauna access... The finishing diet, beer, and massage are similar to the processes used for Kobe beef and are purported to produce meat with excellent grain and marbling.

Would you call this delicately marbled and juicy red? I think that's some truth in advertising.

There's not a lot of challenge in cooking a good steak: make sure it's at room temp, season it, sear it well on both sides over high heat to give it that deeply browned flavor, and then finish it in a slowish oven until it's cooked the to temperature you like (hopefully not beyond medium rare...).

Cromagnon (appropriate in France, non?) meal: Every once in awhile, a good rare steak hits the spot.

It should be all about the quality and taste of the meat-- well marbled, fine grain, dry aged for at least a couple of weeks. We bought côte du boeuf, which had a robust flavor and a surprisingly tender texture for French beef (must be the massage). Karen opined that it was on par or even better than the superb beef we buy from our favorite butcher in Philly, and I can't argue. Good simple steak deserves equally good simple accompaniments: sauce Bordelaise, mashed potatoes, and braised endive. If I'd had good wild mushrooms, I'd have put those on the plate, too.

Beef: it's what was for dinner.

As much as they can be really satisfying, we don't eat a lot of steaks or chops. They're not that interesting to cook and they're expensive. They also seem extravagant with respect to animal use. We don't eat much meat at any given meal-- it's more often a flavoring than featured item-- but I try to use the whole animal in my cooking to the extent possible. When buying poultry or rabbits or smaller fish, that's easy, since the unit of sale is the whole animal, and buying from a real butcher or fishmonger (rather than in shrink-wrapped styrofoam boats), I can make sure that pretty much everything comes home in my basket. That's less practical when it comes to the larger 4-hoofed creatures (or, say, a 200-lb tuna). Sides of beef may have been acceptable forms of payment for services rendered by my grandfather many decades ago, but I'd like to see my grandmother try to store them in my French refrigerator or get a case freezer in my Parisian apartment! So I approximate over time, buying a lot more of the less glamorous cuts than steaks and chops. Not only do I feel an obligation to waste as little as possible, those meats, and the cooking techniques needed to maximize their edibility, are exceptionally flavorful. Which is a not insignificant point of cooking.

So this week, while buying the côte du boeuf, I also bought a bunch of oxtail, which I used to make a ragu (of course). Mostly the same procedure as all of the others: brown the oxtails (I dredged them lightly in flour, this time), lightly cook the aromatics, add a little tomato and some herbs, then some red wine, reduce a little bit to get rid of some of the alcohol, add a little water to adjust the volume, then cover and pop it in the oven for a long slow simmer, the bottom of the lid turning a deep mahogany with the simmering juices. Mmmmm. Once super tender, pull the meat off the bones, skim the (copious) fat off the sauce, mash the veggies up, then add back a little of meat. It makes an intensely rich sauce, which we've eaten with chocolate pasta (finally, a great pairing of the chocolate pasta-- I only wish I'd had some good black olives to add to the ragu that night), as lasagna (with some pecorino cheese), and over polenta. And there's a lot of meat left, which looks destined to flavor a white bean casserole next week.

Oxtail ragu over polenta: winter comfort food

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