FOOD / And how would madam like it cooked?: If you answer 'rare', you win points; if you say 'well done', you are scorned. Joanna Blythman examines snobbery, taste and safety in red meat

It is a major social gaffe, akin to ordering a sweet South African sherry. It betrays your lack of savoir-faire, of good taste, of any sort of culinary judgement. You can almost hear the stifled gasps of fellow diners. You can predict the incomprehension and need for clarification that your waiter will demand. 'Well actually, I'd like my meat well done. No, not rare, just, well, done . . .' No wonder if you run out of conviction in the delivery. In a serious restaurant, that admission can be as humiliating as walking into Emporio Armani in a shell suit.

Suppose you think there is room for negotiation. You like your meat lightly pink, but not bloody - that is like trying to tell a hairdresser who does not speak the same language how to cut an Eton crop. If you are operating in a French setting, it is all the more confusing. In French there are several translations for the English word 'rare'. The consumer who asks for steak 'a point' or 'saignant' might be served what she or he considers to be 'bleu' or very rare. The diner thinks the chef has not understood. The chef thinks the customer is a pain in the arse. It is a lexical nightmare which a colour chart could scarcely resolve.

Perhaps it is a reaction to the dry grey meat of English nursery cooking, to miserable Sunday lunches of thin slices of meat reheated in Bisto gravy. Who knows? The fact is, in Britain nowadays, omnivores with taste are meant to like their meat rare. Positions have become polarised. There is no such thing as well- cooked meat: just over-cooked or rare. To enjoy rare meat is almost a point of pride, demonstrable evidence that our palates have evolved from boiled beef and carrots. It is the sort of bravado which, on the arrival of the curry house, provoked white Sixties males to order their vindaloos with extra chilli. Nowadays, when confronted with a crunchy, munchy, bloody duck breast, the same diner is expected to tear and chew his way through and lick his lips at the end.

But however much rare meat is in fashion, many people flinch from the idea of a dripping roast or steak. Anne Willan, distinguished cookery writer and president of the prestigious La Varenne cookery school, is brave enough to admit that she loves what she calls 'well-done roast meat like my mother in Yorkshire used to make, all fat and juicy on the inside, and crispy on the outside'. But that sort of cooking approach, she believes, rests on having a well- hung piece of quality meat marbled with enough fat to lubricate it while cooking.

She remembers witnessing a classic stand-off between American tourists and the maitre d' in a two-star Michelin restaurant in the south of France. 'Two Americans ordered duck and the waiter leaned over confidentially and informed them that it would be served rare. They demanded it more cooked, the waiter then warned them in doom-laden tones of the consequences. The Americans insisted that they were the clients and it was up to them to decide. The waiter said he didn't know if the chef could do it . . .

'It is a very tricky situation to resolve. If it's just a simple dish, like steak or roast, I think the customer has the right to get what they want. But if it's more complex, with sauces, say, or the chef's own gastronomic creation, then let the chef get on with it.'

In Ms Willan's seminal book, French Cookery School, she offers three different cooking times for roasting beef (rare, medium and done) which are only minutes apart. Lamb is given two possibilities (medium and done). Everything else, from chicken to pork, is simply given one recommended cooking time for 'done'.

Two things lie behind this temperature hierarchy: one is the subject of taste; the other is food safety. The most common source of food poisoning is meat and animal products. Chicken has become notorious because of the risk of endemic salmonella, for which the season (summer barbecues and buffets in marquees) is now upon us. With 60 per cent of broilers thought to carry salmonella, everyone agrees that chicken must be well-cooked. The advice on pork, though, once the meat which all British cooks were trained to cook thoroughly or risk the consequences, is shifting.

The logic was that the pig might pick up parasitic worms, which could then be passed on to humans if the meat was not sufficiently cooked to destroy them. Now, according to the Meat and Livestock Commission, pork can be cooked pink. 'All British pigs are given wormers and vet controls are stricter,' says a commission spokesman. The MLC says that as long as an internal temperature of 58C is achieved (at which the pork would be exceptionally rare) any parasites would be killed off. Likewise, the MLC sees no cause for concern in stories in the meat trade press on the risk of lambs picking up tapeworm via the faeces of hunting dogs fed on condemned meat offal. 'Any infection of lamb destined for human consumption would be obvious on the carcase and easily picked up in the abattoir,' a spokesman says.

But in Europe the risks are taken more seriously - primarily because much more really rare meat is eaten. When a thick steak, for example, is merely shown the pan or the skillet for a few seconds, the heat may not be sufficient to kill any bugs at the centre. In France, life-threatening outbreaks of food poisoning have been traced back to hamburgers made from horse meat, consumed very rare. In Austria, Germany and France, similar outbreaks have stemmed from sanglier or wild boar.

In France, it is rare meat, not soft cheese, which is the big bogeyman for pregnant women. Elementary ante-natal checks include a blood test for toxoplasmosis, an infection which can cause a woman to miscarry or damage the baby.

Such is the concern over the potential dangers of rare to raw meat consumption in Europe that the EC is attempting to impose tighter controls on raw mince. Defenders of British mince are arguing against the move, on the grounds that most mince consumed in the UK is cooked, not served raw as in continental steak tartare. That position illustrates the nation's touching belief that you can cook your way out of trouble with dodgy meat.

There is another significant factor governing whether or not you like your meat rare. In prestige settings, where deals are being cut and street cred matters, no-nonsense steak (cooked as briefly as possible) still ranks as the no 1 choice in the realms of masculine values. Steamed chicken or a gently stewed lamb shank simply do not represent or confer the same status.

As anthropologists can tell you, by consuming the prime cut flesh of other highly evolved animals, man makes a potent statement of his supreme power. The larger, juicier and bloodier the piece of muscle, the more powerful, red-blooded, sexually potent and in control the consumer is supposed to be.

Just as real men don't eat quiche, only wimps, women and children like their meat to be well done.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Life and Style
fashion
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Investigo: Finance Manager - Global Leisure Business

    £55000 - £65000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in their fiel...

    Investigo: Senior Finance Analyst - Global Leisure Business

    £45000 - £52000 per annum + bonus+bens : Investigo: My client, a global leader...

    Investigo: Financial reporting Accountant

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: One of the fastest growing g...

    Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luton – £25k

    25,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luto...

    Day In a Page

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches