Paul Vallely's Britain: Jaunt in search of an elusive joint

A secret location: Where our hungry hero, after a long and eventful hunt for banned beef on the bone, has to decide whether or not to consume it
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Indy Lifestyle Online
WALTON'S Crown Imperial was playing on the taxi-driver's radio. It seemed suitably patriotic in a red-blooded English sort of way. At the door my unnameable host was waiting. He greeted me even before I could utter the password I had been preparing: "Hearts of Oak". He led me up a narrow staircase to an upper room full of solid antiques and gilded mirrors. At its centre was a long polished mahogany table, set with silver and tall-stemmed glasses. This was the place. I handed over my bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin in confirmation.

I had arrived in the lair of the secret beef-on-the-bone eaters. It had not been easy to track them down. I had begun at Butcher's Hall, the headquarters of the Backbone Party, which the City's leading catering firm, Chester Boyd, founded earlier this year to fight the regulations that now prevent it from serving the massive 70lb baron of beef which has been traditional there since AD975. "No, it's not us," said its managing director, Charles Boyd. "We're a pressure group, not a dining club." He offered me a Backbone badge, an executive stress-ball in the shape of a cow, and a copy of his new poster - "Should it be illegal to enjoy an occasional joint?" - which he hopes to place in the nation's butchers' shop-windows.

But, no, I wanted to meet those most stalwart of Englishmen, those who could stomach anything except authority. So I moved on. But the Beef- on-the-Bone Science and Industry Forum proved no more productive. It turned out to be another respectable lobbying coalition to be launched next week under the aegis of Lord Willoughby de Broke, who led the peers' revolt in which the House of Lords demanded that the beef-on-the-ban be revoked. (To no avail; the Government ignored the vote). I moved on again, casting out messages in all directions. Then came the phone call I had been waiting for. A voice I did not recognise asked whether I wanted access to the hard-core meat. I did. A tryst was made. The time and the place, of course, were secret. (I nearly blew it on the night when I alighted from the taxi and asked two patrolling policemen for directions; they courteously offered to escort me, inquiring whether there was something interesting on there that night). I shook them off with faint excuses and ten minutes later was in the upper room where the table was laid for a group of dissidents who included a butcher, a chef, a QC, two solicitors, a scientist and a vet - beefeaters to a man.

There were opening pleasantries over the smoked haddock and Chablis but this was mere foreplay. Even before the plates from the first course were cleared the door opened and a four-boned wing-rib of beef - the prime part of the sirloin - was borne in by a liveried flunkey. The moment of truth had arrived. No one can accuse me of not being open-minded. By way of an hors' d'oeuvre I had earlier been to the BSE inquiry where Dr Richard Lacey, the professor of clinical microbiology at Leeds University, and the Jeremiah of the beef industry, had been giving evidence. Lacey was the man who predicted doom and was ignored. Yet every measure he had demanded to combat the crisis had been implemented, though in each case, only years after he had recommended it. When I arrived he was in the middle of warning the inquiry that the Government was continuing its history of "fabrication", "suppression", and "serious omission" over BSE.

The true figures on new cases, he claimed, were probably much higher than was being admitted. My forthcoming dinner was beginning to sound like a bad idea. I approached the wispy-haired professor during the coffee break for a more accurate risk assessment. "There can't be one," he said bluntly. "We just don't have the information." Lacey does not himself eat beef: "there are alternatives," he said, curtly. "But it is infinitely less dangerous now than it was before. The beef-on-the-bone ban came too late. It's pointless. There's far less risk now."

So what was his message to the clandestine diners? "Everyone has the right to poison themselves if they want to. If I was told I couldn't have the occasional cigar, I'd be annoyed." I thought about him as the great joint of beef was set upon the table. "What is it?" asked the butcher. "Aberdeen Angus cross," said the chef. He began to carve succulent slices. The meat was delectably red to the bottom of the slice, not surrounded by a circle of browned meat, as it is with a boneless joint. "Off-the- bone joints are less juicy, less tender, more shrunken," he explained. "On the bone the heat comes from one side only. It improves the tenderness. With heat the fibres in the muscle contract and bunch. The bone keeps them stretched, which tenderises the meat." Before the ban only 5 per cent of beef was sold on the bone. "But it was the quality end of the market," said the butcher. "Some 83 per cent of meat is sold from supermarkets, almost all off the bone. But with high-class butchers 15 to 20 per cent of our trade is on the bone. The demand comes from foodies, traditionalists and from ethnic groups, Koreans and Caribbeans, in my case."

The conversation turned to the law and whether or not the defence was likely to succeed in the case of Jim Sutherland, the Scottish hotelier who has become the first person prosecuted under the Beef Bones Regulations 1997. When he comes to court on 6 April he will argue, said a lawyer, that there were irregularities in the consultation process the Ministry of Agriculture should have followed before bringing the regulations into force. "Quite right," said the butcher, "the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders received the regulations on a Friday afternoon and had to submit a response by the Monday."

The first plate of glistening pink beef was placed before me. Just before the dinner I had phoned Jim Sutherland in Scotland. I had been wary of these boney beefeaters. The stuff they had written in the right-wing newspapers was all wild libertarian stuff about blood sports, the Countryside March, Britain's noble history, the riots in Edinburgh after the 1725 tax upon malt and what we fought two world wars for.

But Sutherland was a measured chap who had the grace to acknowledge that the right to be able to chose to eat beef on the bone was relatively insignificant in the scale of human freedoms but none the less worth sticking out for. "If these regulations had been brought in when the scares were at their height I wouldn't have opposed them," he said. "But at the time they were introduced it seemed on the Government's own figures that the BSE epidemic was all but passed. In that circumstance there was no manifest danger. It all seems an unnecessary restriction on the liberty of the individual. If we all went through life assuming the worst, we'd never do anything," he added. "Government scientists admit, using a series of pessimistic assumptions, that there is about a 1 in 1.2 billion chance you'd contract CJD from beef on the bone. You've more chance of being hit by a meteorite. I think you'll be safe enough eating it." So I did.

I even ate the banana brulee afterwards which, loaded with cream, presumably fell into the category of the 10,000 things which Jim Sutherland had warned me I did every day without thinking and yet which were actuarially more dangerous than eating beef.

But then - as the bones were discreetly taken away in a plastic carrier - I produced my cigar case and offered them round. There were no takers. "Genuine Habanas, hand-imported," I blustered. But I smoked alone. Now, evidently, I had gone too far.

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