John Walsh: Tales of the City

Cows of Britain watch out: I'm coming to get you (preferably medium rare - no sauce)
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The Independent Online

I've been casting around for a New Year's resolution - one which is: a) achievable, b) inexpensive to maintain and c) will not involve a hefty prison sentence (so bang goes the romantic fling with Kelly Holmes, the 10 Cohiba Cuban cigars a day and the strangulation of whoever's responsible for that interminable, floaty-newspaper TV ad for The Observer). It's far from easy. I could resolve to finish the novel I've been writing for a year, but since the deadline is the end of this month, it kinda goes without saying. I could go on the Charles Kennedy Memorial diet - Humble Pie, Revenge Casserole (served cold), Gall and Wormwood, Mineral Water - but I wouldn't enjoy it much. And then, in the middle of a chatty lunch with my friend Adam, it came to me. I shall go in search of the Perfect Steak.

I can't resist the things. Call me a crazed carnivore, a closet anthropophage, a staring-eyed flesh-muncher only a step away from Goya's Saturn Devouring His Children, but my knees go weak for a nice 10-ounce lump of seared meat, medium-rare, sitting there steaming a little in an embarrassing pool of its own blood. Like an ancient voluptuary, or a connoisseur of dry martinis, I have strict and precise requirements about how the thing should be done - use a griddle, no sauce, no oil in the pan, no herbs (although you're allowed to have an incinerated sprig of rosemary somewhere in the kitchen), and no more than two and a half minutes each side. It's not that I'm bossy, but certain things must be done right.

Many restaurants and supermarkets make the cardinal error that chaps desire a steak as wide and flat as possible, drooping over the plate's edge like a map of North America painted by Dali. In fact, the best steak is a smouldering compact lump, slightly larger than a man's hand, a glistening ochre tranche of unimaginable thickness which has been cooked just so long that, when you cut into it, a half-inch vestigial strip of pink sits in a quivering panic between the advancing twin armies of cooked grey meat ... That tiny hinterland between the raw and the cooked is where God's finger meets Adam's, and you discover that man's true role on Earth is to eat a perfect steak. Washed down with a good Chateauneuf du Pape, obviously. I'm sure there's something about it in the New Testament.

Where do you find the perfect specimen in 2006? For home cooking, the specially-hung, Jamie Oliver-approved steaks in Sainsbury's are perfectly okay - but they don't have that unearthly succulence, that melting, rough-textured, tongue-teasing, juicy sexiosity that you and I both know, dear reader, because we've tasted it once or twice in our lives and now can't quite remember where we were at the time.

Of course, we've had an odd relationship with meat in the last decade. After the BSE scare in 1996, T-bone steak was banned all over Europe for anything up to six years. Britain escaped the ban, but diners gave a wide berth to any beefy material that had been in contact with a bone in the previous 12 months. By 2002, the whole Europe-wide food industry was ready to market steaks again. There was a sudden vogue for sirloin and rib-eye, and several places opened. Anthony Worral Thompson launched Notting Grill. In the meat district of London, EC4, Smiths of Smithfield opened a fine-dining floor where the steaks were hung for 28 days, cost £28, and you were given a biography of the cow from whose body each was hacked.

In the last few months, driven on by some meat-consuming tapeworm, I've been trying lots of them: fillet in Sophie's Steakhouse, sirloin (with fried eggs) in La Pampa, onglet in the Blueprint Café, rib-eye in the Gaucho Grill and Smollensky's. I have put in the hours. I have marvelled at the horrible yellow sauce they slather on at the Entrecote de Paris - a cousin of the curious light-brown sauce in which they bathe steak in Rowley's of Jermyn Street. And I remain unsatisfied. Either every restaurant I've tried has struck a deal with its meat supplier not to furnish it with the best quality, thickest-cut lumps of grade-A cow available to man; or else British cows are just not trying hard enough. My 2006 quest for the perfect steak starts here. If you share my shameful obsession, and you think you've found the perfect specimen, let me know. It'll save a fortune on petrol and I'll celebrate with you.

Valete

As we watch George Galloway disporting himself in the Big Brother gym, effortlessly seizing the role of the Nation's Most Smug Politician, let us remember Tony Banks, a man incapable of smugness and easily the most charming MP I ever met.

When I interviewed him, New Labour had yet to win an election and London had no executive mayor. Banks had proposed the idea in 1990 but been ignored by Labour - until Tony Blair came up with the idea in 1996 and was congratulated. "In the bottom-kissing world of politics in which we live," he told me, "It's not what you say, it's who says it."

Such lèse-majesté against his leader was possible because he assumed (wrongly, as it turned out) he had no chance of power. During a debate on the Ten-Minute Rule Bill, he told the Commons the Bill had as much chance of getting through as he had of getting into Heaven. "Or the Shadow Cabinet," called a wag. "Yes indeed," said Banks, "though I understand they're now considered to be one and the same place - and we now know what God looks like."

Straight-talking, scythe-tongued, chronically sceptical and idealistic, crazily devoted to Chelsea FC and the American singer Aimee Mann, he was a rare sighting of a politician you could admire for his humanity while laughing like a fool at his scorching character assassinations.

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