There was a time in England when the cut of beef you took home was a fair indicator of your social status: when beef Wellington was only for the upper class, and if you had the skill to cook the knobbly, tough and often strong tasting bits of beef, you were probably from the lower classes.
The British have a long history of beef farming and are famous for their roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, but it's their more resourceful uses of beef, their mastery of nose-to-tail eating, that interests me most. Their beautiful suet pastry pies and puddings made with steak and kidney, or braised beef, or pickled tongue with piquant green sauce. Or salt brisket pot-roasted on a bed of carrot, onion, celery, bay leaf and thyme with red wine. Or corned beef with white parsley sauce, the leftovers of which would commonly be fried up with onions and potatoes and turned into a comforting hash or eaten cold with piccalilli in thick sandwiches.
Melbourne chef Matt Wilkinson told me recently how he grew up in Yorkshire eating the best of British beef, though mostly only the secondary cuts and offal. Their Sunday roast was always beef, but from the butt end of the rump, and they ate a lot of beef cheeks that had been cooked overnight in a slow-cooker with red wine, baby onions, garlic, thyme and lots of pepper. And his father would simmer ox-heart in milk, then fry the slices in a pan.
A cow yields a few hundred kilos of beef, depending on its age and breed. The best cuts include the most tender, juicy and often marbled parts of the carcass, such as the Scotch fillet and porterhouse, and they fetch the highest prices. Next in line are the secondary cuts: the rump, blade, girello and round. These cuts are generally leaner and not as tender as the first tier, but they're still suitable to eat as a steak or roast. Then comes what my butcher calls "the lesser cuts of beef": the tail, tongue, cheek and shin. To me, these are the most interesting and flavoursome cuts of beef. These are the bits of the cow that get a really good workout; the muscles are well developed and full of connective tissue, fat and gristle, and they are therefore quite tough. They need to be slowly and lovingly cooked down, often in a liquid based on wine or stock, until they become meltingly tender.
Last but not least is the offal, which butchers sometimes refer to as the "fifth quarter": all the organs and leftovers that arrive at the butcher separately from the cow's four quarters of muscular meat and bone. It includes the suet, brains, liver, heart and tripe.
Fergus Henderson reminded us of the importance of using all five quarters of the cow in his book Nose to Tail Eating, published in 1999, when he wrote, "it would be disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast; there is a set of delights, textural and flavoursome, which lie beyond the fillet".
The trick to these lesser cuts is knowing how to cook them. Chuck beef, which butchers and supermarkets often have diced and ready to go, is excellent for curries, pies and dishes that involve simmering the beef in a sauce; however, I wouldn't recommend this cut for a casserole, because it's quite lean and after long cooking it can become a little stringy or even dry. If I'm making a casserole I prefer to ask for shin (also called gravy beef, or, with the bone in, osso buco), because this cut has a lot of connective tissue which becomes meltingly tender with loads of flavour when it cooks down over a long time.
I asked my Italian butcher, Leo Donati in Melbourne's Carlton, what secondary cuts he recommends for roasting. He says the rump and oyster blade are very tasty and good for long slow roasts, particularly wet roasts, but bolar blade is his favourite. Donati recommends you cut the blade into small dice, brown it in a pan with salt, pepper, garlic and bay leaves, add a splash of brandy, then turn the heat down, cover with a lid and gently cook for 30-40 minutes until tender. Served with polenta or boiled potatoes, this dish is simple, quick and delicious.
Perhaps the success of "lesser-cut" cooking, of what the Italians call "cucina povera" (peasant cooking), is most evident with oxtail: it's the toughest, most bony and gristly part of the whole cow, and yet it can be transformed into something rich, dark, tender and sublime. As Fergus Henderson's classic book notes, "nearly every part of nearly everything we eat can be delicious in the hands of a patient and talented cook." Enjoy.