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.