Steak is having a moment, we're told, which sounds like a silly thing to say about what is arguably a staple. Do you know what else is really popular right now? Potatoes. But then even that's probably true given the quantities of chips being fried and twice-fried to accompany all the red meat flying through new restaurants.
London is sizzling with them. Hawksmoor leads the way with its new fourth branch, ahead of pretenders such as Moo Grill and Mash (the Modern American Steakhouse... from Denmark). STK, a "female-friendly" American chain with no time for macho meat (or vwls) opened last autumn while, outside the capital, Argentina-inspired chains including Gaucho and CAU are expanding as fast as our appetites.
This carnivorous utopia is evident in our own kitchens, too, where our tastes are changing. I'm told this by Martin Eccles, who, armed with a chain mail glove and a fearfully sharp knife, is about to attack a lump of meat. Eccles is a master butcher who first drew blood as a teenager near Preston. "I did all the menial tasks," he says of his apprenticeship. "Washing up, making pet food, anything people didn't want to do."
Eccles now works for the Quality Standard mark, an industry distinction slapped on sufficiently good beef or lamb. Whereas steak-seeking customers used to play it safe with cuts such as sirloin, there is now growing interest in cuts traditionally seen as inferior, including those Eccles used to issue to the dogs of Lancashire. The quality (and price) spectrum runs from "frying" steak to fillet via rump and sirloin, but innovation and demand is shifting the order. Good beef butchered, prepared and cooked well can make good steaks of almost any part of a cow, each offering its own texture and taste.
To show me how, Eccles sinks his knife into the forequarter hunk of meat found between the animal's shoulder blades. With the knowledge and manual dexterity of a surgeon, he immediately locates a thick band of rubbery gristle, separating the good meat above from the inedible white connective tissue. It takes several more cuts and trimming before he produces a slightly-marbled red cut about the size of a large ciabatta. "That's your flat iron steak," he says, standing back.
The flat iron is one of the most popular "new" steaks now finding their way into menus and shopping baskets. It's the name a of a London restaurant that opened in Soho last month, serving flat irons and nothing else on chopping boards with a miniature cleaver.
It's also helping to drive up beef sales in stores (we spent £2bn on beef last year, 2.6 per cent more than the year before). Morrisons, Sainsbury's, and Marks & Spencer stock the cut, as well as more than 1,000 butchers and other producers. At Waitrose, where sales of pre-packed steaks are up 12 per cent, flat irons are up 19 per cent as part of the supermarket's "forgotten cuts" push. "There is certainly a trend away from fillet towards to other steak meats," says Waitrose meat buyer, Andy Boulton. "Customers are looking for more than just tenderness."
It's easy to see why tastes might change in a recession. Prices for steak at Waitrose, for example, range from about £11 a kilo for frying steak to £40 for organic fillet. But, as Eccles is keen to demonstrate, belt-tightening doesn't necessarily require sacrificing taste or tenderness. He moves on to a 6kg lump taken from the cow's rump. After a few minutes of knife work, he has separated it into three more cuts: prime rump, bistro rump and picanha.
Pi- what? Also known as a rump cap, picanha is a popular Brazilian cut and the topmost muscle of the rump. Eccles cuts some of it into steaks and sets aside a thicker chunk as a small roasting joint. Meat from this muscle is typically tastier than the tender cuts we pay a premium for. "Sirloin is nice and the most popular steak but won't have as much flavour," Eccles says. "Fillet is lovely and tender but personally I find it a bit bland." Eblex, the industry body behind the Quality Standard mark has launched a website and guide to several cuts of steak with ratings for flavour and tenderness. There are recipes, too, many of them developed by Denise Spencer-Walker. She has joined Eccles to turn meat into lunch.
Cooking steak is one of the simplest jobs in the kitchen, she says. Her basic tips include allowing the meat to come to room temperature for at least half an hour, leaving a heavy-based pan to become searingly hot on a high heat for 10 minutes, not using extra virgin olive oil, and resisting the urge to move the meat around. For inch-thick steaks, Spencer-Walker suggests four minutes for a medium steak or down to two and a half for rare. Less-lean cuts such as flat iron will be at their most tender cooked rare, she adds.
Soon, a selection of juicy, sliced steaks appear. It's time to taste. We start with the sirloin. "Now that tastes like steak," I say, perceptively. I mean it offers a textbook taste of beef, whereas other cuts are perceptively meatier in their flavour. The hanger steak or onglet, as the French call it, sadly isn't on offer today but thanks to its proximity to the kidneys and liver, it's known for its almost offaly richness. It, too, has found its way from the butcher's mincer to the best menus. We finish with the flat iron, while the looks on our faces between chomps speak for the quality of a once-neglected cut.
For recipes and more information visit SimplyBeefandLamb.co.uk