Monday, June 27, 2011

Does AA Gill Eat Meat From A Gibbet?

The row about AA Gill giving London’s trendy Hawksmoor steak restaurant a mauling with a fleischklopfer has raised a couple of interesting questions, namely where does the overpaid napkin-tucker get his beef from, and just how much justification was there in his review?

I promise this is my last word on the matter, but there was one fundamental aspect to his article that I thought was a bit odd – even if you do take into account his over-developed use of hyperbole and glibness.

Part of Gill’s “absolute slating” as the restaurant itself put it, was that the meat was undercooked, the béarnaise sauce was cold, and everything was swimming in fat. As I wrote in my last blog, this caused a furore on Twitter from food bloggers and fans, who said they couldn’t understand why he’d come to that conclusion when their meals had been so good.

I don’t have a problem with that bit at all. Firstly, food is highly subjective. Secondly, it shows a lack of understanding of how a critic like Gill works. And thirdly, it reveals a lack of understanding about how a professional kitchen works. Kitchens are chaotic places at the best of times, and although consistency is the mantra banged into every chef, not even the top restaurants get it right all the time - even those that have as many chefs as customers (and Hawksmoor isn’t one of those).

I can’t believe the restaurant hadn’t spotted Gill marching in with his steel-capped boots on, and stepped up its game. But even then, it’s quite possible that key staff were off, or nerves took hold, or standards had slipped on that occasion.

The béarnaise could easily be cold (a massively subjective judgement), the steak could easily be undercooked (a massively subjective judgement), and as for the “tacky pools of beefy lard”, his bone-in prime rib for two could have been from a particularly fatty beast, and the dripping chips might have been put on the plate by a junior garnish chef, who’d forgotten to bang the fryer tray, or hadn’t used towelling to soak up the grease.

All of that is possible, so I don’t really see what all the “shock” was about from Hawksmoor’s supporters. But saying that, it is of course far more likely that Gill just exaggerated the imperfections 300-fold because he knew rival critics had given the restaurant a massive thumbs-up – with The Observer’s Jay Rayner saying it was "the best steak I have ever eaten in this country" to New York Magazine generously putting it “on a par with the legendary beef palaces of New York". And he knew that the Hawksmoor was the darling of Twitter and food bloggers, so he’d get a bit of publicity from poking a stick into the baboon cage.

But what I couldn’t understand was how most of his criticism was directed at the meat supplier. He said the beef was tough (eating it “felt like something you should do in a gym”) and he had sympathy for the chefs because they were at the mercy of the butcher (The Ginger Pig) and there’s “not much you can do to rescue a badly bred and underhung sirloin”.

Chewy, underhung beef from The Ginger Pig? It didn’t sit right. Whenever I’ve bought meat from there it’s been exquisite – and it should be at that price. The beef was always juicy, tender and ridiculously full of flavour. It was always a deep purple in colour that you only get from hanging meat for long lengths of time that supermarkets are far too greedy and cost-conscious to worry about. The pork cheeks were so gamey they tasted like wild boar, and the chickens always tasted like chickens should.

It was real meat. Provided by people who knew what the hell they were talking about, and loved their jobs. It’s always the case the closer you get to the source – provided you find the right source.

When I cooked in Cornwall, I was surrounded by farmers who hung pheasants until their necks broke – an event that sometimes took up to two weeks – and the flesh had the punch of Roquefort. It wasn’t for everyone, but if you wanted the taste of wild game that epitomised Britain’s season of far-from-mellow fruitfulness, then there was no better.

As I say, it didn’t sit right. Other chefs I spoke to said they had never had a single complaint with their meat from The Ginger Pig, and raved about the quality and matureness of the beef. It seemed a strange – perhaps clumsy - thing for Gill to pick them up on.

The Ginger Pig crew were obviously not pleased to return from the weekend into a shit storm. But just as Hawksmoor did, they handled it in a dignified, professional manner, and just said they hadn’t read the article, but they’d be happy to show Gill round the farm (and hopefully feed him to the pigs).

When I contacted them to ask how long they hang their beef for, they said: “All our beef is always hung for 30 days at the farm and then delivered to London where our shops hang it for a further 10-plus days.”

Forty-plus days! No-one hangs meat longer than that. Not even the Australian beef farmers who Gill has been busy arse-kissing of late. It begged the question where does a strange, alien-like creature like Gill get his meat from, and is it from a gibbet?


mherzog said...

Here is a good video on meat:

Lennie Nash said...

Thanks for the link, although I'm not sure about the quote from Heather Mills: "Carnism is one of the most thought-provoking concepts in decades."