We're not referring here to Scotland's revived rugby team, who came within seconds of defeating England this month. We're talking about the Perth spring sales, and the comeback made by Scotland's world-famous black cattle, the Aberdeen Angus.
It's such a famous breed, with its rich-flavour tender meat prized by gourmets the world over, that it's hard to credit that it has ever been away. But in Scotland, for many years, it has been in slow retreat, along with other indigenous British cattle such as the Galloway, the Highlander, the Short-horn and the Hereford. Surely not, you will think, since Aberdeen Angus is universally served in steak houses. But this is not from Scottish herds; it is Aberdeen Angus imported from Argentina.
Thirty years ago the Aberdeen Angus dominated the Perth breeding stock sales. In 1966 one fetched a world record price of pounds 60,000. But a few years ago breeding stock were selling for pounds 1,000 each, little more than the pounds 800 a head that a farmer gets for those destined for the table.
Loyalty to the native product collapsed when we discovered that Contintental strains of cattle would provide cheaper meat. Large lean beasts, such as the Charolais, Limousin and Simmental, were effectively meat machines: boosted with feed concentrates they offered faster food-conversion rates and more profit to the food industry.
But this did not halt the steady slide in beef sales, further aggravated by fears over 'Mad Cow Disease', BSE. Now, for the first time in 50 years, meat sales are predicted to go up. And Aberdeen Angus is in there.
A key player is Ian Galloway, the charismatic head of Scotbeef, who buys and processes most of the Aberdeen Angus beef in Scotland. He has seen that the role of meat in our lives is changing. 'We needed it to provide strength for manual work. Now that we don't need it in the same way, we eat meat for pleasure. So it's required to be of a high quality.'
He has an ally in Marks &
Spencer. And now, on the first day of the Perth sales, he is waiting at Edinburgh airport, resplendent in his soft brown tweeds, ready to pick up Dr Tom Clayton, technical executive of M & S and a fellow Scot, to take him to the auction.
This year, for the first time, Ian Galloway is approaching the sales in a less than calm frame of mind. He has stuck his neck out and bought a 131-acre farm in Doune where he can breed Aberdeen Angus. (If you've money to burn, your bank manager might suggest a safer investment would be the casino tables of Monte Carlo.) He acquired a 1 1/2 -ton breeding bull (the largest in Britain at the time of its sale) and today he is about to offer his first animal for auction. It is the youngest bull in the show and no parent sending her child off to boarding school could be more apprehensive than Mr Galloway.
Perth market, vast and new, is less than an hour's drive from the airport, and the pair arrive in time to see the judging of the animals. These are beauties rather than beasts, as prettily primped as anything at Cruft's. Each steel pen has its team of stockmen, playing hairdressers for the day, shampooing, blow-drying, combing, scissoring their charges who munch at snacks of damp silage.
All the breeds are in place, with a predominance of curly-brown Limousins, pale beige Charolais, brown and white Simmentals, with their big rear-ends like overstuffed cushions. Here and there you may glimpse the stubby head of a Short- horn (though all modern cattle have been 'polled' - the horns removed); or a Hereford, with its dense Roman wig of thick curls.
But the cattle that catch the eye are the Aberdeen Angus. They are pitch black, with velvet coats that are denser than Guinness. Banish from your mind any thoughts of ferocious, pounding beasts with long, sharp horns that kill, images of the Spanish bullring forged by Goya and Picasso.
These have no horns. They are sweet-natured babies. They do not roar or bellow, they gently moo. The beasts for sale are still youngsters, from one to two years old, but already they have a certain maturity; the bulls swaggering slowly with chests thrust forward, the more elegant heifers slowly rolling their hips. They are led into the judging ring by stockmen and women with thin, five- foot-long batons with which they tickle the beasts into adjusting their legs into a position to best show their strengths.
After the prizes, the sales. More than a thousand buyers crowd into the amphitheatre overlooking the auction ring, nearly as many women as men, many in tweed hats, county caps and deerstalkers; farmers, landowners of large Scottish estates.
You might almost be at a Scottish Tory party meeting, especially when the auctioneer appears to be the former Secretary of State for Scotland, Malcolm Rifkind. His lookalike sets the auction going at rattling speed, introducing each bull: 'fleshy' or 'a cracking bull'. One dragging its stockman round the ring on a rope is a 'bull with lots of character'.
It's evidently not a Tory gathering, for he can joke about sexual exploits. One very young stud has already fathered several little ones. 'He has been to the party, he knows how to dance.'
Now he comes to Lot Number 100. 'A top bloodline here.' The key to breeding is bloodlines, and we consult our catalogues. Lot Number 100 is a heifer belonging to our own dear Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. A top bloodline indeed. Soon we're bidding fast for Castle of Mey Etrilla the 15th (in this elevated company none have names like Daisy). The catalogue details its bloodline: daughter of Castle of Mey Etrilla the 4th, sired by Sunset Acres Bang (Imp). Grandfather is Har Bang 1774. Anyway, the regal heifer goes under the hammer at 3,800 guineas, a good price.
The real excitement is the bull which sells for 12,000 guineas, the highest price for decades. Tom Clayton is pleased. The prices vindicate his commitment to the breed, an initiative which began four years ago. 'At M & S we are the biggest fish retailers and the biggest poultry retailers in the country. We wanted to see what we could do with beef.
'Over the course of a year we conducted blind tastings of no fewer than 4,000 steaks. They came from every major producer, from every variety, Continental and British.' Perhaps it was no coincidence, but those that tasted best were those produced with animal welfare in mind. They focused on Aberdeen Angus bred from suckling herds where calves are fed by their mothers till they are six to eight months old. These are eventually turned out to feed on grass, and they receive no concentrates.
So far, M & S has introduced Aberdeen Angus beef to only 130 of its 300 stores. But it expects to expand because Aberdeen Angus costs only 10 per cent more than its regular meat (about pounds 4 a pound for best topside) and, it would argue, is a great deal superior. The 'Q' Guild of Butchers, with several hundred members around the country, aren't put out by supermarket competition. Anything which raises the profile of good beef is good for them, says the guild's spokesman, London butcher David Lidgate: 'But I'd like to see other indigenous breeds get the same support, such as the Hereford.' Tom Clayton, who has been lobbied by the secretary of the Hereford Society, doesn't disagree.
But today is the Aberdeen Angus's day. And Mr Galloway's Doune farm bull goes for a respectable 2,200 guineas. Not enough cause for dancing in the streets of Doune, but enough for a mighty sigh of relief.
BEYOND THE BASIC ROAST
Even when meat is good quality, it is easy to ruin in the preparation. It doesn't have to be roasted in an oven till it dries out. Gary Rhodes, the celebrated chef of The Greenhouse, illustrates here how to make the best of topside Aberdeen Angus beef.
BRAISED TOPSIDE OF BEEF WITH CHESTNUT DUMPLINGS
The stew should be served in bowls allowing two dumplings per portion. This really is a total meal: with meat, vegetables, potatoes and dumplings to finish. The chestnuts are optional but give a wonderful nutty flavour to the dumplings.
2lb/1kg Aberdeen Angus topside
6 carrots, diced
6 sticks celery, diced
4 large potatoes, diced
4 large onions, diced
12oz/350g button mushrooms
3 pints/1 3/4 litres veal jus
(or good beef stock)
1/2 bottle red wine
1 tablespoon tomato puree
4oz/100g beef dripping
1 clove garlic
For the dumplings:
1/2 oz/15g baking powder
1/4 pint/150ml water
4oz/110g beef suet (fresh or dried)
pinch of salt
1 onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon chopped thyme
4 rashers smoked back bacon,
4oz/110g chopped chestnuts (optional)
Fry the seasoned meat in beef dripping. Leave to drain in a colander. Gently fry the onions, garlic and thyme in the butter and add the red wine, reduce by two-thirds and add the jus or stock. Bring to the boil and add the steak. This can now be left to simmer gently for 1 1/2 hours. Cut the other vegetables into a large dice and add them to the stew with the button mushrooms and tomato puree after 1 1/2 hours. Continue to cook until the vegetables are soft. The stew should now be ready. Check for seasoning with salt and pepper.
To make the dumplings: gently fry the onions, bacon and thyme in some butter. Add the chopped chestnuts. Allow this to cool. Mix the flour, salt, baking powder and suet together, add the onions etc and mix to a dough with the water. The dumplings can now be rolled into balls and poached in the stew for the final 20 minutes of cooking time.
BEEF OLIVES WITH BLACK PUDDING
1 1/2 lb/700g thin slices of
Aberdeen Angus beef
1 chicken breast,
minced or finely chopped
3 onions, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
few leaves sage, chopped
1/2 teaspoon chopped thyme
8oz/225g black pudding, minced
6oz/170g button mushrooms, minced
and cooked until dry
2 pints/1 1/4 litres gravy or stock
made with red wine
salt and pepper
2oz/55g beef dripping
For the garnish:
4oz/110g button mushrooms
4oz/110g button onions
4oz/110g diced bacon
Mix the black pudding and chicken breast together, season with salt and pepper and add the egg. Cook the onions, garlic and herbs in butter until softened and allow to cool. When cold, mix the onions with the meat and beat in. Add the cooked, minced mushrooms and check for seasoning.
Cut the meat into eight thin slices and sit each slice between two sheets of clingfilm. Flatten with a mallet or rolling pin. Remove clingfilm and spoon the filling on to each slice. Fold in the rough edges and roll into a cylindrical shape. Pierce and hold in place with cocktail sticks. Warm the red wine gravy, making sure that it is not too thick. (When the olives are slowly cooking the sauce will thicken.)
Fry the beef olives in dripping until well coloured on all sides. Drain off any excess fat and sit the olives in the red wine sauce. Bring to the simmer and cook slowly for 1 1/2 -2 hours. Check the meat after 1 1/2 hours. It should start to feel soft and give when pinched. After a further 30 minutes the olives will be tender and ready. Drain off the sauce, skimming off fat and impurities. Boil to reduce some of the volume to make a rich sauce. Return the beef olives to the sauce to warm through.
They can be served plain or some garnish can be added, such as button onions, mushrooms and bacon to give added richness to the dish. Fry the onions in butter until golden brown. Remove them from the pan and add the bacon and mushrooms. Fry together on the top of the stove until the bacon is brown and crispy. Allow two beef olives per person and decorate with the fried garnish, sprinkling with chopped parsley.
This dish is from the 1950s and was named after the Italian painter Vittore Carpaccio, who was known for the reds and whites in his work. It has now become a favourite dish across the world. It's made from raw beef, Parmesan and olive oil dressing.
2lb/1kg topside of
Aberdeen Angus beef
For the marinade
1/2 bottle balsamic vinegar (10oz bottle)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 bunch basil
1/2 bunch thyme
15 crushed peppercorns
1/2 pint/300ml white wine
1 pint/600ml olive oil
1/2 oz/15g coarse sea salt
The beef should be totally cleaned of fat and sinew to leave you with between 1 1/2 - 1 3/4 lb/750g of topside meat. Mix all the ingredients for the marinade, keeping a few leaves of basil for finish. The beef must now be rolled in the marinade and left to steep in the fridge for 4-5 days to achieve the maximum taste. The beef should be turned every day.
After the marinating process remove the meat and wrap in clingfilm. The meat can now be frozen and used later or even sliced from frozen. It can also be kept in the fridge and sliced thinly with a sharp knife as you want it. The marinade can now be pushed through a sieve and used as the dressing. To serve the carpaccio, slice very thinly and place the slices on to the plate, covering the whole surface.
The remaining basil leaves can be chopped and added to the vinaigrette and brushed over the meat. Twist fresh black pepper on to the meat. The Parmesan can be cut from a piece, sliced into shavings and laid on top, or grated and served separately.