Breaking down the beast

Meat lover Brendan Manning visits one of the country's best butchers to witness the process of breaking down the beast.
The various cuts of meat taken from a cow.
The various cuts of meat taken from a cow.

Apron fastened, knifes sharpened, butcher Zak Grammer carries the cumbersome hindquarter of an Angus cow out of the walk-in chiller fridge and hangs it from a sharp hook on a chain in the centre of the room.

Butcher Zak Grammer.
Butcher Zak Grammer.

He estimates he's broken down hundreds of 'cattle' in his 12 years as a butcher, and at a push, can break down, portion, bag and vacuum pack a hind quarter in a mere 15 minutes.

Trimming the flank and separating the skirt cuts.
Trimming the flank and separating the skirt cuts.

First taking off the flank, the piece is then broken down again into three skirt steaks - including the lauded and very much in vogue bavette cut - which has a long, grainy texture and has earned a fawning reputation due to its popularity as a barbeque cut in America and the UK.

The portioned skirt (bavette on right).
The portioned skirt (bavette on right).

Skirt steaks tend to be a cheaper cut and originally were slow-braised or stewed, however the bavette is best fried for less than four minutes on either side, Zak says.

"It's got lots of flavour in it, we've got the Wagyu first light grass fed...it's got bite, it's a bit of a manly cut I suppose you could say."

The skirt can be a fickle cut, he says. "If you cook it to medium, it's going to be rubbery as hell, if you cook it medium rare - bang on, there's a fine line."

"Basically, the tougher the cut, the more it works, so [the] fillet is a support muscle, so it's really tender, then you've got the shin which is moving all the time so it's really tough."

The filled (untrimmed).
The filled (untrimmed).

The more tender the cut, the less cooking time it needs, while tougher cuts have more flavour but tend to need more time to break down the sinews, Zak says.

After coming back from spending four years living in London, including at Jamie Oliver's Barbecoa butchery and at H G Walter's family butchery, he started working for Tim Eriksen at Neat Meat in the recently-developed Ponsonby Central complex.

Separating the 'steak cuts' from the hindquarter.
Separating the 'steak cuts' from the hindquarter.

Zak says he got into the butchery game when he started working at his father's Palmerston North butchery at the age of 13, before leaving school and starting work full-time at 16.

Later when working at the Mad Butcher, Zak says he was breaking down 40 full cattle a week.

After he has taken off the flank comes the 'steak cuts' - including the fillet and sirloin which, before being separated, make up the iconic T-Bone steak.

The portioned cuts of the hindquarter.
The portioned cuts of the hindquarter.

The fillet is slightly conical in shape and consists of three main parts: the chateau mignon at the smallest end, the mid-fillet and the chateaubriand and the largest end.

The utilization of marrow bones, previously relegated to dog fodder, is one of the big butchers fads coming through, Zak says.

Restaurants Ostro and Depot are both on to the craze and more are sure to follow.

"It's a very French thing," Tim says. "It's been in France forever. These little fads come back into New Zealand every now and then. That's the great thing about New Zealand you know, we have little bits and pieces of everything."

Chefs are the change makers behind food trends, Tim says. "They're rock stars these days".

The 'picanha'.
The 'picanha'.

Next off is the rump, which Zak breaks down into its three separate muscle groups - the pave (pronounced par-vey), - the most tender of the three, and the picanha, a popular cut in South America where its barbequed and served with chimichurri (an Argentinean sauce made up of parsley, garlic, olive oil, oregano and vinegar).

The D Cut rump.
The D Cut rump.

The pave is lean, with no connective tissue, and is "essentially a fillet, but with more flavour", while the picanha is being featured more frequently on Auckland restaurant menus [such as the Grill], Zak says.

The filled (trimmed).
The filled (trimmed).

After the rump is off, Zak cuts out a tiny pocket of meat relatively unknown by many butchers, the popeye steak. Weighing no more than 150g, Zak says it is probably the most tender and delicious cut but is often relegated to the 'trim' bucket.

The popeseye steak.
The popeseye steak.

"The butcher might take it home if he knows about it, but it's not very often that you see that."

Zak says at butchery school they were taught the basics, and it was up to them how much they wanted to learn beyond that.

"I basically decided that I wanted to go to the UK and travel, I just happened to be lucky enough to work at two really good butcheries and learned what I did."

Zak then takes the leaner cuts off the hind-quarter, including the topside roast and cuts used for schnitzel, stir-fry and corned silverside.

Then comes the flap and the eye round and the shin, which when boned out is used for 'gravy beef', Zak says.

The three skirt cuts (bavette at rear).
The three skirt cuts (bavette at rear).

Blue Breeze Inn chef Che Barrington passes through the butchery at this point, noting that the cheaper and slightly obscure 'mouse end' is a cut he has been enjoying experimenting with recently.

It's more of a challenge to take the less popular cuts and make them into something more palatable, Che says.

He has been braising the mouse ends, then reducing the cooking liquor and amalgamating the two, seasoning it with black rice vinegar and serving it with a small salad to cut through the fat.

Aging - The pros and cons

The beast Zak was breaking down before me had been slaughtered the week before and then hung for a week.

The longer a cut of meat was hung, the more the flavours developed, however as a consequence, the cut also suffered more loss as the cut oxidised and had to be trimmed back to the edible, aged meat inside, he says.

"Your price is affected by how long you hang it basically."

Zak says he usually hangs his sirloins for three weeks, any longer and the yield loss becomes too uneconomic.

"I've tried beef that's been hung for nine months...it's interesting...it wasn't necessarily dry [but there] was a lot of loss. In the middle it was really beautiful meat, but it's quite blue cheesy, sort of musty....different.

"Because of the temperature [in the fridge] it slowly decomposes and then you trim off the excess stuff that's not needed."

The meat which is exposed to the air becomes blackened and needs to be trimmed off.
Around a third of a sirloin would be lost when aged that long, he says.

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