The real meat feast: It's time to rediscover mince

Just what is it about mince that makes gourmets sneer, when the dishes it creates are so delicious?

Two recent cookbooks have been inspired by it. Jamie Oliver devoted a chapter to it in his latest bestseller. It is the central element in many of the world's best-known dishes. Yet in this country, this cheap, tasty foodstuff has an image problem. It is difficult to be serious about mince, though those within reach of a Freedom Pass can turn misty-eyed about Monday dinners of mince and onions conjured up from Sunday left-overs.

For anyone under 50, the appeal of austerity meals made from mince may be mystifying. Like Carnation milk and tinned mandarin oranges, it acts as a time machine, whizzing the consumer back to the Sixties. Forget LSD, mince was the fuel of the Summer of Love. Easily frozen and quick to cook, it was the great stand-by of kitchens and canteens throughout the land. A medical friend of mine swears the most succulent and tasty mince was made by the NHS. "I don't know why," she says. "Maybe it was something they put into it."

In a new age of austerity, we may all be lured back to the joys of mince. Former editor of BBC Good Food magazine Mitzie Wilson has written Mince! 100 Fabulously Frugal Recipes (Absolute, £12.99). "Mince is magic," she insists. "It's the easiest, quickest meat you can cook with and I guarantee that whatever meal with mince you make, your family will be sure to clear their plates." It is, however, possible that the Wilson family has lost its appetite for treats such as suet-crusted Teviotdale pie, million-vegetable mince and deer stalker's pie, since Ms Wilson admits that "they had to eat nothing but mince for three months".

In Scotland, a nation with a great partiality for mince, the more risible aspects of this ingredient have been exploited in a book by the suspiciously-named René La Sagne. In his Complete Book of Mince (Waverley, £9.95), the "Prince of Mince" declares: "Mince changed my life ... Here you can find mince for beginners, and mince for sophisticates, and welcome new friends to your grounded, mincey, new life." Though the book is aimed primarily at devotees of Scottish drollery – illustrations include an ice-cream cornet filled with mince-topped mash – the recipes ranging from mince and dumplings to Forfar bridies (a horseshoe-shaped beef pie) are real enough.

The problem about poking fun at mince is that it is pretty funny to begin with. Introducing a chapter called Homely Mince in Jamie's Ministry of Food (Michael Joseph, £25), Jamie Oliver declares: "A good minced dish can put a smile on even the toughest foodie's face." In fact, an eruption of laughter is a more likely response to the off-putting photographs of his disintegrating minced beef Wellington, stodgy meatloaf and watery spag bol. Curiously, the young master omits the finest British mince dish. Is any comfort food more thoroughly consoling than shepherd's pie? It should be made with lamb mince (beef mince makes cottage pie), though the Ivy revives expiring thesps with a 50:50 mix of lamb and beef. The potent filling is best complemented by mash bolstered with puréed swede or parsnip.

Depending on the dish, mince can be enhanced by the addition of chopped chicken livers (a couple suffice) or even olives. Virtually every country has adopted this amenable, economical ingredient. Sometimes the result has remained a minority interest, such as the French tartare de boeuf. Ragù alla bolognese is encountered more in this country than in Italy (it is rare in Bologna). Conservative appetites cling to the mince-filled pie in Scotland and Australia. The happy marriage of minced lamb and grilled aubergines has made moussaka the national dish of Greece. South Africans are devoted to bobotie, a kind of spicy cottage pie topped with savoury custard. Mince also plays a star role in Mexican dishes such as chilli con carne, enchiladas and quesadillas.

It crops up in Argentine empanadas, a mini Cornish pasty that is one of most addictive of all snacks. Similarly, Turkish lamacun, the flat bread snack sparsely sprinkled with minced lamb, is more than a match for most pizzas. Mixed with grain and onions, mince has an important part in kibbeh, the ubiquitous paste of the Levant.

But the most popular mince dish emerged from America – or Hamburg. In principle, the hamburger is composed solely of beef mince. According to culinary scientist Harold McGee, this must not be pressed too much: "The gently gathered ground beef in a good hamburger has a delicate quality quite unlike even a tender steak." But few burger bars go so far in avoiding pressure as Taylor's Maid-Rite of Marshalltown, Iowa. Its hamburger is a "loosemeats sandwich". In other words, mince. According to George Motz's Hamburger America, it is "one of the softest, tastiest sandwiches around".

Surprisingly, steak mince does not make the best hamburgers. Meat that is too lean does not endow the burger with the requisite juiciness. Most authorities recommend a fat content of 18-25 per cent, as found in chuck or shoulder beef. In his book Beef, John Torode, chef at Smiths of Smithfield, goes further still. "For mince ... the best formula will be something like 40 per cent fat – yes, truly that much! – otherwise it will not be moist." Torode also steers us away from supermarket mince. "It is frozen before mincing and it cooks like chicken pellets. Instead buy mince from a good butcher." It may also be best to select the piece of meat you want mincing, though even then you're likely to receive the mince already in the mincer. Asking to have the mincer cleaned before your grind may provoke a salty response from even a good butcher. He won't mince his words.

South African bobotie

Serves 4-6

25g butter
1 onion, finely chopped
500g minced beef
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp mixed dried herbs
small handful fresh parsley, chopped
50g sultanas
50g ready-to-eat dried apricots, chopped
1 eating apple, diced
25g flaked almonds
3 tbsp fruity brown sauce

For the topping

3 eggs
250ml milk
pinch ground nutmeg

This is the national dish of South Africa, a little like shepherd's pie but with African spicing.

Set the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/gas 4.

Heat the butter in a large saucepan and very gently fry the onion until softened, but not browned. Add the mince and fry until it is browned all over. Add the garlic, spices and herbs. Stir in the sultanas, apricots, apple and almonds and fruity brown sauce. Transfer the mixture to a large 1-litre ovenproof dish.

Beat the eggs into the milk and pour over the top. Sprinkle with nutmeg. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the custard topping has set and is golden brown. Not suitable for freezing.

Middle Eastern flatbreads with minced lamb

Makes 8 flatbreads

For the flatbread dough:

350g strong plain flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp easy-blend yeast
250ml warm water
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

For the topping:

1 small onion, halved
1/2 red or green pepper, deseeded
small handful fresh parsley
2 cloves garlic, crushed
250g minced lamb
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
good pinch cayenne pepper
2 tbsp natural yoghurt
2 tbsp pine nuts
1 tbsp raisins
juice of 1/2 lemon

To make the dough, place the flour, salt and yeast into a bowl. Pour on the warm water and olive oil and mix to make a soft dough. Place on a floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic. Return to the bowl and cover with clingfilm while making the mince topping.

Place the onion, pepper, parsley and garlic into a food processor and whizz until finely chopped. Place the vegetables in a bowl with the mince, spices, yoghurt, pine nuts and raisins and mix well.

Set the oven to 240°C/220°C fan/gas 9. Divide the dough into 8 portions. On a floured surface, roll each piece of dough as thinly as possible into ovals about the size of a pitta bread. Place 2 on a baking tray and spread with the mince mixture. Bake for 14-15 minutes until the dough is risen and the meat is browned. Repeat with remaining mixture.

Drizzle with lemon juice before serving.

Recipes from Mince! 100 Fabulously Frugal Recipes by Mitzie Wilson (Absolute Press, £12.99)

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