Where's the beef?

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I WAS determined not to do a beef homily. All the facts of the case have been around for some time, and so doing beef at this late stage always seemed to me like it would be an absurdly populist move, rather like buying the book Sense and Sensibility just because it says "Now a major motion picture" on the front. (Or worse, setting up a Web site just after the media circus has bored of the Web and collectively decided that even the zingiest Web site isn't really interesting.)
But the CJD media circus is, unaccountably, not going away, and those Inspiral Carpets T-shirts with the picture of the stoned cow have presumably suddenly become very valuable, or at least very chic. So I'll do beef.

Where's the beef?

I REALLY like beef. In the "Spago" Italian restaurant in Glendower Place, London once I had a starter called carpaccio, which, for the unItalianate of you, consists of a small green salad covered in slices of Parmesan and slices of raw fillet of beef, the whole being drenched in olive oil. It was superb; the beef was so tender and flavourful as to pour scorn on the notion that civilisation started when meat was first cooked.
My favourite meal of all the ones I've cooked was the beef Wellington I made for a dinner party in Cambridge a couple of years ago. I have fond memories of going into Andrew's butchers on Burleigh Street (I didn't then know about Fabish's on Mill Road) and ordering a three-pound piece of fillet of beef. It was expensive, but was a thing of beauty when they showed it to me. It had taken them a while to get, as they told me they'd had to start on a new cow to get a piece that big. Even those fond memories, though, are not as fond as the ones of actually eating it.
And why did I cook beef Wellington? Because the best meal my Mum has ever cooked was the beef Wellington she laid on for my eighteenth birthday. This was a kind of finale to her rigorous regime of eating lots of beef under which I had been brought up -- when Mum was brought up, rationing was still in operation, and she evidently determined that I was going to eat much more beef as a child than she was able to. Her hidden agenda, of course, was to make me end up taller than she was (a future homily might dwell on mothers' own metrics for their mothering performance) and, fuelled as I was by alternating roast beef and roast lamb on Sundays, with plenty of midweek steaks for top-up, this she duly achieved.
From a gastronomic viewpoint, then, beef can't be faulted. So what's wrong? Where, as they say, is the beef? Well, it turns out that in Britain, until the rules were changed in 1989, brains, spinal cords and so on from slaughtered cattle were allowed into the human food stream. I can't help finding the thought of eating a creature's brains unappetising, especially if I didn't know I was doing it, but it turns out there was a worse problem than that.
The Guinness Book of Records names one of the world's most fatal diseases as kuru or Laughing Death, a brain disease occurring only in a small, ritually cannibalistic jungle tribe. Nobody has ever been known to recover from kuru. The disease was controlled, however, when the practice was stopped of eating the brains of deceased elders to gain their wisdom. That was how kuru had been transmitted, explaining why it never left that tribe.
A similar disease, BSE or Mad Cow disease, arose among cattle. And, it turned out, it had arisen for exactly the same reason. Cattle were being fed on ground-up dead cattle, often including brains. There was a bit of a flap about this at the time, but in its later stages the disease is easy to identify (the cow does indeed go mad, behaving in an uncowlike fashion and eventually losing motor control) and by outlawing the feeding of cattle brains to cattle (and by incinerating existing sufferers) the disease was controlled.
In the interval between BSE arising in the cattle food stream (thought to be a species-jump from another similar disease, scrapie, which affects sheep) and the point at which enough cows had gone mad for the brains ban to be imposed, BSE will also have been present in neural cattle tissue entering the human food stream.
There have recently shown up a number of human cases of a new disease resembling yet another kuru-like disease, Creuzfeld-Jacob Disease. Neuroscience isn't advanced enough to say for certain whether this is another species-jump for scrapie/BSE, or even whether having made one species-jump makes the disease more likely to make another. But the suspicion and the circumstantial evidence is enough to make eating neural cattle tissue from cows born before the brains ban an activity not worth the risk.
(I mentioned that I felt a bit queasy at the idea of eating brains. It's not impossible that we feel queasy about it today because way back in prehistory there was an evolutionary advantage to feeling queasy about eating brains, for precisely the reason of transmissible brain diseases.)
Now there are unpleasant side issues here about Government cover-ups, and they worry me. I thus don't trust Government assurances of safety, and am adopting a panic reaction (or, as current British political jargon has it, a "knee-jerk" reaction): I have stopped eating neural cattle tissue for good, and no quantity of Government ministers' baby daughters will persuade me to recommence.
I know that's a panicky reaction. It's probably not justified. But I feel safer that way, and I think people will understand that. What I don't understand is people who go further still, and abandon the consumption of other parts of the cow too.
In Sainsbury's this evening, just before it closed, I found a despairing-looking operative removing prime bits of beef from the shelves and stacking them on his trolley to take back behind the scenes.
"Is no-one buying it, then?" asked a sympathetic passer-by (with, I was pleased to notice, a large pack of minced beef in his basket).
"No, no-one," replied the Sainsbury's chap. "I just dread to think how much of this stuff we'll have to get rid of tomorrow."
I don't understand this reaction (of quite a lot of people: one newspaper claimed that 50% of the population had suddenly stopped eating beef) but I can't help thinking it's absolutely wonderful news for the rest of us.
Especially for the coming week or so (with supply channels geared to a demand for beef twice the now actual one) but probably for quite a long time, the price of all forms of beef in the shops must tumble to an altogether splendid extent.
I'm probably too old now to put on that last inch to make six foot tall (my mother's secret target), but if it can be done at age 24 by eating lots of beef then I'll certainly be giving it a go over the coming weeks. If beef popularity and prices really crash, this could turn into a very festival and party of beef eating for the few: I'd enjoy that tremendously. There are, sadly, other directions apart from 'up' in which it's easily possible to put on an inch, or even more!

-- Peter Hartley, 25th March 1996

Afterword: 31st March 1996 Sainsbury's is today selling all their beef at half price. A respectable fillet steak is £1.20, a rump steak that'd hang over both sides of the plate à l'argentine is £2, and big bits of fillet for wellingtons are £3.60 a pound! People were walking off with whole herds in their trolleys.

The Duke of Wellington's Fillet of Beef

GET a 3lb piece of fillet of British beef. Roast it in a hot oven (220°C, 425°F, Gas Mark 7), basting occasionally with beef dripping, until it's well browned on the outside (20 minutes) -- don't worry, it'll still be good and pink in the middle. Make some puff pastry, or do as I did and buy two packets of frozen puff pastry and let them thaw. Roll out the pastry so it's wide enough to encase the beef. Take a whole pot (say 6oz) of paté and spread it all along the middle of the pastry. (I used mushroom paté rather than pork as one of my guests thought he was Jewish. Even the chicken paté I found contained some pork, according to the label. I was later told that I shouldn't have worried about all that at all. The mushrooms were a good shout, though, so you may want to use mushrooms as well as paté.) Lay the beef, upside-down, along the paté'd stripe of the pastry. Close up the pastry over the beef, and, using water, stick the pastry to itself all along the seam. Put the whole thing back in the baking tray, seam downwards (otherwise, it comes apart as the pastry cooks). If you're feeling artistic, make some cutoffs of pastry into leaves and so on and stick them on top. Put it in the oven at Gas Mark 4 (180°C, 350°F) until the pastry is looking a nice golden brown (25 minutes).

Serve with thick brown gravy, roast or duchesse potatoes, brussels sprouts cooked al dente, cauliflower cheese, and, if you're aware of the possibility of becoming a lardy bloater but firmly believe that it only happens to other people, Yorkshire puddings.

Feeds six extremely thoroughly. The beef fillet I used must have been in perfect condition, as it swelled up when cooking, causing one dinner guest to misidentify the wellington as a large loaf of bread when I took it out of the oven, and another guest to exclaim, on being served with his portion, "It's enough to feed a family of four for a week!". I noticed that didn't stop him finishing off every last morsel of it, though...

All Rites Reversed -- Copy What You Like