A world-wide ban on British beef exports followed. In the small town of Inverurie, 15 miles north-west of Aberdeen, Hans Beaumann, managing director of Donald Russell, put his head in his hands and slumped at his desk in disbelief. Over six years he had built up a small Anglo-Scottish meat company into a major world exporter, with sales of pounds 15m a year. Since it did not compete on the home market, the company was, at a stroke, worth nothing.
So Beaumann put his head in his hands and, sitting at his desk in the new factory, stared out of the window across the car-park. "I sat there for 10 days wondering what to do," he says. "We couldn't be beaten. We had to do something. But what?"
What he did is an inspirational tale of our times. If the scenario had been offered before BSE, you'd have had to say: "This could never happen here."
But now, only 18 months after this last crisis, British beef is bouncing back, and, partly, due to the spirit of people such as Beaumann. Premium British beef that is, and especially Scottish beef from Aberdeen Augus herds.
Of course, the world ban slapped on beef exports last year will remain in place for some time. The beef exporting industry died a death, but the silver lining to this bleak, black cloud, is the urgency with which the home industry has set about putting its house in order.
It may not be good news to some, for we can expect to pay more for best beef. But we've learnt that cheap food costs more in the long run. Higher costs include animals being fed decent food, rather than rubbish, the cost of improved abattoirs, better supervision and loss of income on waste products, now that so many parts of the beast, formerly considered saleable, are sent for pet food (heart, liver, lung, even delicious ox cheek, not to mention fat for tallow, which is now destroyed).
But the good news is a relative guarantee of safe meat. Since April last year older dairy cows are no longer permitted to be slaughtered as "beef". It was among these ageing animals, slaughtered after they had passed their peak of production, at around seven or eight years old, that most BSE cases emerged.
Retailers who really want to sell beef are those who have put new initiatives in place. Marks & Spencer was among the first, creating a scheme to monitor 1,000 select farms across the country. These produce meat to M&S's specifi- cations. Beasts must come from suckler herds with traceable ancestry. The animals must consume approved feed, and they must meet high standards of slaughter and welfare. And now it's the turn of Tesco. Last month, the company announced that at its 168 fresh meat counters it will carry meat from farms accredited by the RSPCA (and at no extra cost).
To this end, the RSPCA has set up an independent organisation called Freedom Food to identify "animal-friendly" meats. It pledges that the animals will not suffer fear, distress, pain, disease, hunger, thirst, discomfort, and, indeed, they will be free to express normal behaviour. Such good husbandry is paying off for Tesco. Trials have shown an increase of 10 per cent in meat sales where Freedom Food meat is offered.
Which brings us to Donald Russell. Until 18 months ago it's a safe bet that few people in the UK had heard of this company even though it served such demanding customers as Raffles in Singapore and the Mandarin in Hong Kong.
There is no such person as Donald Russell. It is, in fact, a partnership between a distinguished London butcher, John M Stone and Scottish farmer William Donald, established 23 years ago to sell overseas. The pair developed a weekly run to the south of France (taking in famous landmarks such as Loew's of Monte Carlo) which was so successful they decided to expand. They realised they would need a managing director with international reach.
The man they favoured was Beau-mann then head of the Swiss Centre in London. "We knew him quite well from the Swiss Centre," says Donald. "He was our most difficult customer. He always insisted on the best and knew everything about meat."
Beaumann quickly proved his worth, building up business in both Germany and Switzerland, then reaching out further. Although BSE had been first identified in 1988, Beaumann was able to establish trust with customers, often inviting them to Scotland to scrutinise the operation.
I went on such a tour. First step is to meet the Blacks, as they call Aberdeen Angus and Angus crosses here. The 62-year-old chairman William Donald shows off his well-fed herd with pride, stepping out across the muddy field to tickle the chin of his prize bull Sambo, 25 hundredweight of cuddly black fur. Donald is not looking to breed skinny, lean animals, so much the fashion of today. (A fortnight later a beast from this herd won the Aberdeen Angus championship at the Scottish National Premier Beef Exhibition.)
Later, Donald takes me to the cold store where they hang their roastings (a Scottish term for the saddle with the prime cuts, ribs, sirloin, rump, but excluding fore or rear legs). With pride he shows off the creamy white layers of fat. The outer fat will later be cut away; but the internal fat is essential to eating quality. This shows up in white patterning, descriptively known as marbling.
The other secret of getting flavour out of premium meat, says Donald, is the maturing. These roastings will hang for up to three weeks losing moisture, losing weight and, in the opinion of butchers whose customers put cost before quality, losing money.
Part of the induction course is a visit to Raymond Miller's slaughter house where you cannot help being impressed by the craftsmanship and skills of the cutters. No less so at the factory in Inverurie, where Beaumann introduced German and Swiss master butchers to teach the skills of seam cutting to maximise the potential of the meat.
The amount of waste is prodigious, most of the bone and fat ending up in the wastebins. What's left is elegantly cut and vacuum-packed to a high degree of conformity and sophistication.
Beaumann's contribution was to produce a premium product at a realistic price that busy chefs would find difficult to match elsewhere. He sought out the goodwill of major chefs such as Albert Roux and, armed with endorsements, has seen home trade soar to pounds 6m this year.
Happily, you don't need to own a hotel or a restaurant to get your hands on Donald Russell meat because a newspaper article about the company created so much interest that it started a mail-order arm. The delivery of a polystyrene box of Donald Russell's meat, it has to be said, is an experience to set the pulse racing. You can choose from a selection of whole pieces, boned ribs and striploin, ribeye roll and tafelspitz (a corner of rump) and whole fillet; or fillet steaks, T-bone steaks, rib steaks, thick-cut slabs of pave rump steak; medallions of rump and fillet.
There hardly seems any point in giving recipes, for when meat is as tasty as this, it needs little more than the application of heat, with the one proviso, not to overcook it.
We have prepared a special British Beef offer for readers (see box). But ask Donald Russell about their other attractive Christmas options; such as a festive box containing cuts of beef and prime lamb, as well as a side of smoked salmon and unsmoked streaky bacon.
For those who want to do something more ambitious with their beef, here are recipes from three new books; an elegant fillet of beef from Patricia Wells's At Home in Provence (Kyle Cathie pounds 19.99), peppered steak from Sophie Grigson's Taste of The Times (Network Books pounds 18.99) and a winter rich goulash from Tom Bridge's timely Bridge on Beef (Piatkus pounds 17.99).
PATRICIA WELLS'S 18 MINUTE CITY STEAK
Cote de boeuf, or thick single prime rib of beef, is one of France's favourite cuts of meat. Beautifully marbled, cooked to a rare tenderness, it is the quickest way to satisfy a craving for a simple roast.
This "city steak" has been devised for those who don't have access to a real grill. The method is classically French: the beef rib is set atop a bed of salt (which serves as a flavourful cushion, as well as a delicate seasoning) and roasted in a very hot oven for about 18 minutes for a 2lb (1kg) steak. The resulting flavour is a cross between a roasted prime rib roast and a perfectly grilled steak. As a sauce, simply serve the juices that drip from the beef as it rests.
375g/12oz coarse sea salt
1 prime rib of beef (about 1kg/2lb), at room temperature, trimmed of excess fat
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt to taste
coarsely ground black pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 475F/250C/Gas 9.
Place the salt in a thin even layer on a baking sheet. Lightly brush the beef on both sides with oil. Place the beef, fattest side up, on the bed of salt. Place in the lower portion of the oven and roast until the skin is crackling and brown, and the meat begins to exude fat and juices, about 18 minutes. To test for doneness, insert an instant meat thermometer into the thickest part of the steak for at least 15 seconds. At 120F/50C the steak is rare; at 130F/55C it is medium rare.
Remove from the oven. Take the beef off the bed of salt. Season generously with salt and coarsely ground pepper on both sides. Place the beef on a rack set over a pan or a platter to catch the drippings. Loosely tent with foil and set aside to rest for at least 15 minutes in a warm place to allow the meat to absorb the juices uniformly.
To serve: with a large carving knife and fork, cut the meat away from the bone, following the contours of the bone. Slice the beef into thick diagonal slices. Transfer to a warmed platter. Place the juices collected during the resting period in a sauce boat.
SOPHIE GRIGSON'S STEAK AU POIVRE
Steak au Poivre (which actually dates from the early years of this century), is a luxurious but quickly made dish for a special occasion. If you don't fancy all that cream, just eat the steaks with the pan juices poured over them.
3 tablespoons black peppercorns, crushed
4 fillet or rump steaks, about 2.5cm/1in thick
30g/1oz clarified butter or 2 tablespoons sunflower oil
2 tablespoons brandy
100ml/312fl oz dry white wine
300ml/10fl oz double cream
Spread the peppercorns out on a plate. Press the steaks firmly onto them, so that each side is evenly coated. Heat the butter or oil in a frying-pan that is large enough to take all four steaks. Fry them over a moderate heat, until they are done to your liking. For a medium-rare steak allow around three to four minutes on each side. Take the steaks out of the pan and keep them warm.
Skim off the fat in the pan, leaving only the juices. Add the brandy, warm through for a minute or so and then, if you have a gas hob, tilt the pan so that the juices ignite; if you have an electric hob, light the juices with a match at arm's length. Once the flames have died down, add the wine and bring up to the boil, scraping in all the residues. Boil until reduced by half and then stir in the cream and boil down for another three to four minutes, until reduced to a sauce with a pleasing consistency. Season, then serve with the steaks.
TOM BRIDGE'S GOULASH
Most goulash recipes use cheap cuts of meat. Using rump steak not only makes this enjoyable but gives it a taste you will never forget. Serve it with hunks of bread and a side salad or dumplings.
900g/2lb rump steak, cut into 2.5cm/1in cubes
50g/2oz flour, seasoned with salt, freshly ground black pepper and a teaspoon of paprika
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, peeled and sliced
450g/1lb shallots, peeled
1 red and 1 green pepper, de-seeded and chopped
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon crushed fresh rosemary leaves
4 tablespoons tomato puree
275ml/10fl oz beef stock
150ml/5fl oz claret
1 x 400g/14oz tin chopped tomatoes
150ml/5fl oz soured cream
sprig of parsley
Pre-heat the oven to 325F/170C/Gas 3.
Toss the meat in the seasoned flour, generously. Heat the olive oil and butter in a flameproof casserole, and fry the onion, shallots and peppers for three minutes. Add the meat and cook for a further four minutes. Sprinkle with paprika and rosemary, add the tomato puree, beef stock, claret and chopped tomatoes, cover and cook in the centre of the oven for two hours. Remove from the oven and leave to stand for four minutes. Add the soured cream, garnish with fresh parsley and serve.
In Hungary you'd expect to find little dumplings in your goulash. Very easy.
pinch of salt
Knead together for five minutes the flour, egg and salt. Leave to rest for 15 minutes. Cut dough into six pieces and roll to thickness of a finger. Pinch out dumplings, using finger and thumb, and drop into simmering salted water. When they rise to the top they are done. Remove with slotted spoon and serve with the goulash. (Or cook them in the goulash if you prefer.)
Mention the IoS and David Russell will waive the cost of carriage on your first order, and knock 10 per cent off the bill.
All meat is selected from superior Aberdeen Angus type beef from steers aged 16 to 22 months; important in guaranteeing full flavour. The beef is free from additives, hormones and recycled protein.
Prices range from pounds 9.07/lb for a fillet medallion to pounds 3.86/lb for a five- bone rib, pounds 5.90/lb for a pave rump steak and pounds 3.63/lb for diced beef.
For a free catalogue with illustrations of each cut of meat with a price list, contact Donald Russell Direct at Harlaw Road, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire AB51 4FR, or call 01467 629666 (during office hours/ answer machine outside office hours).Reuse content