Go mad, let the marrow melt into the sauce

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The Independent Online
As A special service to readers this week, I have compiled a short guide which will enable you to continue enjoying that seductive but increasingly risky activity, eating meat. My safe beef instructions are based on a common-sense approach which, as long as you follow it to the letter, should allow you to lead as normal a life as possible in the present difficult circumstances.

Just a little thought and planning are all that's required to banish postprandial panics - admit it, we've all had them - along the lines of, did I take sufficient precautions? Should I have asked more questions? How much did I really find out about that charming man who said he only served roast beef from cows he knew personally? And, if I ask nicely, what are the chances that he'll let me have his special recipe for osso bucco in bianco?

See how easy it is to be led into temptation? It happens to the best of us, which is why keeping my rules beside you has never been more vital. First and foremost, don't rush into things. Get to know your butcher. Don't feel you have to buy on your first visit. Have a good look round his premises. Talk to previous customers. Are they happy and healthy? If he doesn't like the idea, maybe it's because he has something to hide.

Don't make irrevocable decisions until you're ready. When you get to the point where you feel you can commit yourself, proceed slowly, Always handle flesh carefully in the early stages, preferably using some form of protection (clingfilm, I find, is more palatable than rubber, and leaves less of an aftertaste). Remember that looks can be deceptive and an attractive appearance doesn't guarantee a clean bill of health. There's no substitute for an informed decision and, if you have any doubts, you can still change your mind at the last minute and make do with a cheese sandwich instead. Most people, in the current climate, will understand and even respect you for it.

Some diners think the risks are too great and have settled for vegetarianism or even auto-gastronomy, which requires very little in the way of equipment - one or two lavishly illustrated cook books or an original copy of Mrs Beeton, depending on your tastes. (Beef-tea. Calf's head boiled with the skin. Ox cheek soup. Yum yum.) But giving up meat altogether is, as far as I'm concerned, unnecessary for the moment and alarmist. So stick to these simple rules and safe beef-eating!

My 1899 edition of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management contains more than 100 entries under beef, confirming its central place in the traditional British diet. It also explains the best way to cook kangaroo, wallaby and parrot, anticipating that they would soon be available on English tables, but we'll let that pass. Mrs Beeton's advice includes ways of dealing with "tainted" beef, from washing it in "water containing vinegar or some other non- poisonous disinfectant" - permanganate of potash is recommended - to powdering it with charcoal. "At any rate", the book suggests, "it should be roasted, not boiled or stewed, if it is really tainted enough to give it a flavour".

If this seems a bit cavalier, it does at least remind us that our ancestors took a rather more robust view of the risks associated with eating and preparing food than we have become accustomed to a century later. The Government's precipitous decision last week to ban T-bone steaks, ribs of beef and oxtail was based on unpublished research in which a small sample of cattle were infected with BSE at the Central Veterinary Laboratory in West Byfleet, Surrey. Scientists expected to find the infection in those parts of the animal whose consumption is already banned, such as the brain, spinal cord, the end of the gut and the eye. Now, it seems, it has turned up in the vertebrae and the bone marrow.

What does this actually mean? The cows used in the experiment developed BSE only when they were more than 30 months old, which is to say at an age when they could no longer be sold for human consumption. And the disease appeared only in cattle which had been infected with very large doses of BSE. This sounds to me more like cause for concern than a justification for the kind of ban that was imposed so abruptly on Thursday. Of course the public should be informed of the latest research findings, as soon as they have been verified, but why can't we be left to make up our own minds about what still looks like a relatively small risk?

For some time now, we have been moving towards a situation in which large numbers of people apparently expect the government to make their lives risk-free - as long as they are not seriously inconvenienced. So few people actually cook proper meals these days, as opposed to sticking something in the microwave or picking up a takeaway, that I suspect the latest beef ban will not affect them very much. Smoking cigarettes, on the other hand, which kills one in three people who take up the habit, is quite a different matter. So are driving cars and eating too much - around half the population of Britain is clinically overweight or obese, but that's acceptable as long as their heart attacks are not brought on by eating beef on the bone.

If This trend continues, I can see myself becoming part of a persecuted minority which meets under cover of darkness at safe houses to indulge in terrible, illegal habits like eating bistecca alla fiorentina and bollito misto and that delicious beef stew called Pichelsteiner. (Elisabeth Luard's recipe for the latter, in European Peasant Cookery, contains the scandalous instruction: "When the meat is soft, remove the marrow bones and scrape out the marrow into the sauce". This would probably be regarded, in some quarters, as the equivalent of having energetic unprotected sex with a total stranger you've just met on a plane.)

One day you'll see me on News At Ten, being led in handcuffs to a police car with a blanket over my head, "Stinco?" the head of the Food Squad will declare to camera, holding up a plate of braised veal shank falling off the bone. "She's nicked." Sometimes I think I'll just have to go and live in a more sensible country, if I can find one where they don't take all this nonsense seriously.