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BeefFor centuries, foreigners have remarked on the Englishman's prodigious appetite for roast beef. This reputation may have been justified in the early 18th century, when men like Robert Bakewell led the way in breeding new, heavier strains of beef cattle. But in modern times, it no longer holds true. Year in and year out, the United Kingdom ranks only sixth in the Western European 'league table' of beef-eating countries - behind France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy and Germany.

Beef comes from castrated bullocks and young heifers which have never calved. The male produces a better proportion of lean meat to fat, but the heifer carries less bone. The best beef comes from young animals, but even so it must, after slaughtering, be matured or 'hung', at low temperatures, to tenderise the meat with the minimum loss of weight and to improve its keeping qualities. Until a few years ago, a hanging period of 12 - 14 days at a temperature of 2 - 4°C was considered ideal, but with the tendency to slaughter younger animals, the hanging period is now a good deal less.

On properly hung beef, the lean meat should be plum-red in colour and slightly moist. Very bright meat denotes that the beef has not been hung sufficiently and is therefore not tender. Dark red, lean and sinewy beef indicates cuts from an animal not of prime quality and likely to be tough. Such cuts are suitable for slow cooking, provided they are well flecked with fat, which will give tenderness, heighten flavour and prevent the meat becoming too dry.

Quality beef should have a good outside covering of fat, creamy to pale yellow and of firm texture. The bones should be shiny and pinkish with a blue tinge. There should be little or no gristle; on steaks, for example, a thick and fibrous strip of gristle running between the fat and lean layers indicates an old and tough piece of meat.

Cheap cuts are as nutritious as expensive ones, the only difference being the time spent on preparing and cooking them. Another point to bear in mind is that price is controlled by supply and demand: because only a given number can be cut from one animal, grilling steaks are always expensive. In summer, stewing and braising beef are not popular, and so are relatively inexpensive. They are ideal for using in dishes that can be stored in the freezer.

Cuts of beef - and the names by which they are known - vary considerably in different parts of the country. In Scotland and the North of England, for example, leg and shin of beef is known as hough. Avoid unrecognisable cuts, especially nondescript rolled joints which invariably disintegrate during cooking.

The cuts and joints that are described here may not always be available from supermarkets which specialise in pre-packed meats, but a good butcher will supply a cut of meat at a few day's notice.

Apart from Scottish, English and Irish beef, there is also imported beef from Argentina, Nee Zealand and Australia. This beef is vacuum-packed and either chilled or blast-frozen. The fat on imported beef is nearer white and the meat is pale pink. By law, all butchers must label beef with the country of origin.

Blade Bone - Sold as braising steak and often included with chuck which is similar (in Scotland, the blade and chuck together is known as a shoulder). Many butchers dice blade of beef and mix it with chopped kidney ; it is marketed as filling for pies and puddings. Being fairly lean, blade is also excellent for slow-cooked casseroles and stews.

Brisket on the Bone - A whole brisket weighs 7.2 - 8.1 kilograms, it is usually cut up into joints, ideally of 2 - 2.3 kilograms because of the amount of bone to meat. Choose a joint with a fair proportion of meat to fat and bone. Best pot-roasted or braised, but may also be boiled if ordered salted.

Brisket, rolled - Boned and rolled joints are suitable for slow pot-roasting and braising. It is also sold salted, ready for boiling. It is then pressed between weights and served cold, cut into thin slices. Brisket is an excellent economical buy, especially when catering for large numbers. Order at least one week in advance and ask the butcher to trim the joint of excess fat.

Chuck - The best type of stewing steak, known in the North of England as a chine. It is best braised, stewed or used for pie and pudding fillings. As it is gristly and coarse, do not attempt to fry or grill.

Clod or stickling - Also known as neck. This muscular cut is useful for gravy beef, stewing or casseroles. It is usually fairly inexpensive, but has a high pro-portion of gristle which must be cut from the meat.

Fillet - This lean and boneless piece, which lies below the ribs of the sirloin, is the most expensive. It is usually sliced into steaks of approx 175 - 225 grams each. Tiny flecks of fat running through the lean are good signs that the steak will grill well. It is also sold, on order, whole or in large portions for such dishes as boeuf en croûte. As the fillet is lean, it must be larded with thin strips of bacon fat.

Flank - An inexpensive, rather fatty joint. It is excellent for pot-roasting, braising or boiling.

Leg - This always refers to one of the hind legs, which contains a large proportion of tissue and gristle. Although the meat is lean and has a good flavour it needs long and slow cooking. It is best used for stews, casseroles, puddings and pies, and it is also used for consommé and beef tea.

Rib (fore) - One of the larger roasting joints, which can be cooked either on the bone or boned and rolled.

Rib (top & back) - Usually know as middle rib, this cut comes from the ribs between fore rib and the shoulder. The joint is divided into two, top and back ribs which are partially boned and rolled for easier carving. These joints have less bone than fore rib and are good slow-roasted.

Rib (wing or prime) - This large joint, from between the fore ribs and sirloin, is one of the most expensive cuts. It is an excellent joint for roasting, ranging from 1.8 to 5.4 kilograms. It should have a good eye muscle of meat and a good outer layer of firm and creamy yellow fat.

Rump, top - A large joint from the hind leg, also known as thick flank. It is usually cut into two joints and tied with fat. May be slow-roasted at low temperature, but is better pot-roasted. Can also be sliced for braising or cubed for casseroles and stews.

Shin - This comes from the foreleg and is usually fairly gristly. It is normally sold for stews, casseroles, puddings or pies and, because of its high gelatine content, for brawns. Shin is relatively inexpensive, but also wasteful.

Silverside - A boned joint most commonly used for spiced or salted beef for slow-boiling to serve hot or, after pressing, cold. Unsalted, the joint may be pot-roasted or larded and used for boeuf a la mode.

Sirloin - This is the national joint and traditional roast beef of old England. It is said to have been knighted by a king of England after he had feasted well on a roast lion of beef. It is the ideal roast for flavour and tenderness, but also the most expensive. Can be bought on the bone or boned and rolled. It is sold with the fillet attached, if bought on the bone, the fillet can be removed and cooked separately.

Skirt - There are several skirts, the best being rump skirt. This is usually thick and heavy with membranes and gristle. These must be trimmed off and the meat cut into cubes and minced or used for stews and casseroles. Goose skirt is quite lean and fat, only 6 mm thick, it may be marinated and fried.

Steak, Chateaubriand - A tender, expensive steak, ideally about 3.2 cm thick and cut from the centre of the fillet. Grill or fry. It is generally large enough to serve two people.

Steak, entrecôte - The lean, tender eye muscle from a boneless sirloin. Usually 2.5 - 3.8 cm thick, and one of the most popular steaks as it can be cut to uniform weight and size.

Steak, migon - Also known as fillet mignon or tournedos. It is a small cut from the centre of the fillet, but it is not as thick as Chateaubriand steak. Fillet mignon is best grilled or sautéd. Tournedos are usually larded, tied and skewered to keep their shape during cooking.

Steak, porterhouse - A thick steak cut from the chump end of the sirloin, containing part of the fillet. Usually 1.9 - 2.5 cm thick, excellent for grilling, especially over charcoal. Make sure the butcher trims off all excess fat.

Steak, rump - This is considered the best-flavoured steak, excellent for grilling, or frying with onions. This steak should have about 6 mm of fat on the outside edge and no gristle.

Steak, T-bone - This thick steak is cut on the bone, from between the chump end and wing rib. It is usually cut to serve two portions, but may also be cut out as individual steaks. Grill or fry.

Topside - A very lean, boneless joint with a fine grain to the meat. It is best slow-roasted or pot-roasted, but it may also be braised. If topside is used for roasting, ask the butcher to tie a piece of good larding fat round the joint to keep it moist during cooking.

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