Roundabout the start of August, there were these mysterious Twitter murmurings from young farmer / butcher / St John Bread and Wine chef Niall Davidson. Something about a 2-night beef themed pop-up at Gergovie Wines in the Maltby St enclave. The tweeting was fleeting, but there were so many keywords packed into those 140 characters for me that I felt like a colossal red neon sign had dive-bombed off the roof of a Las Vegas resort onto my head (or maybe my belly).
So I tap-danced on my keyboard, badgered Niall for more details, waited waited waited (turns out I can hold my breath longer than I think), arranged for a deposit, and counted down the remaining 22 days.
Meantime Niall waxed lyrical about the headline act. He was looking for a "mythical beast" raised for flavour rather than commercial yield. After much scouting he had sighted his divine bovine: A 3 1/2 year old heifer raised by Iain and Helen MacKay on the Isle of Mull, off the West Coast of Scotland. Raised on a couple of thousand acres of hills with native grasses free of synthetic fertilisers, and finished in the summer on a fertile strip rolling from the hills down to the beach. (Did the beast have a GPS tracking chip for the viewing I wonder...)
Bits of the 1 animal would be used over 2 evenings, with a mix of raw, offal and BBQ dishes.
Talk like that counts as erotic literature for some. And I suspect the rest of this post is going to end up reading a bit like a fetish event rather than a dinner. So watch out for your colleagues, kids and vegetarian friends, eh.
7 September. D-Day. We follow the intoxicating scent of white hot charcoal and rendering beef fat to a mini Argentinean-style parrilla outside Raef Hodgson's Wine Bar underneath the Maltby St railway arches. Once inside the cosy cave-like exposed brick environs, the display on the bar counter leaves no room for confusion about what the focus of the evening is going to be. I spot a few chefs, and a few more hurly burly men of the meat trade. No lace and feathers then. This is going to be hardcore.
And so we get right into it. Raw beef slivers, raw bone marrow, and deep fried potato. Niall deliberately served the beef as is -- he complains that in a traditional beef tartare all the capers and seasonings drown out the fundamental beef flavour. I get the point but I think I'd still prefer at least a generous sprinkle of sea salt flakes.
Raw bone marrow was a first for me, and tasted like a meaty unsalted butter. It's one thing to first roast the bones so that you can crack them and scoop and drip out the goopy marrow. It's quite another operation to crack raw bones to escavate the stuff, apparently.
The potatoes were a work of art. They look like deep fried pork lard cubes. But if I understand it right, they are paper-thin potato slices, compressed, cut up, and deep fried as little stacks...I'm going to guess in beef fat.
Obsession in the buff. This is what it looks like.
Next, a selection from the grill -- forerib, and shortrib (I prefer its sexier Spanish name, Asado de tira). So so so delicious in Argentina. So hard to find in London, for some mysterious reason. Around the table, eyes start rolling into the back of heads in pleasure.
Beef heart, slow cooked for 2 days then pan-fried. With tomatoes, pickled elderberries and a touch of fresh horseradish. A few other foodies might tell you that they found the evening to be awe inspiring or game changing. As much as I adore steak, for me this is the dish that raised the beef scene in London to a whole new level that night. The deep sweetness and flirty acidity of the tomatoes and elderberries were a fabulous yin to the the yang of the great muscle of beef. I ate this very slowly, just to try to prolong the moment for as long as I could.
Intermission. Niall pimps the beef a little more. He reckons nowadays beef either tastes creamy (raised and finished on cow-stomach-ulcer-inducing corn), or of not much at all (raised or finished on commercial silage). The beef we're having tonight, however, tastes probably like what beef tasted like 800 years ago -- its fat built up from the energy trapped in the grasses of high summer.
He may be hawking the stuff to a paying crowd, but geez, doesn't he look like a young man in love?
I wonder if I'd be allowed to attend future events if I start calling this new King of the Beef Fetish, Mr Hugh Heifer.
Back to the meat. I think this is a plate of shoulder, with a distinctly different (deeper, a bit muskier) flavour compared to the less-exercised rib cuts. The fat is incredibly flavourful. We eat it all, much to the disgust of one of our table companions who "doesn't eat much beef" but clearly loves her boyfriend enough to bring him to an evening such as this for his birthday.
I call this... the T-Boner. Nuff said.
There's also a little platter of diced up picanha (rump cap) that goes around the table like unholy communion. It went all too quickly, so no photo.
To finish, a lovely lemon sorbet from The Ice Cream Union, located a few arches down the stretch. I've peered at the wares by the 2 Argentinean brothers a couple of times enroute to a cheese toastie and raclette at Kappacasein, but haven't yet made a proper stop. I'll need to correct this this weekend, methinks!
The only "beef" we had about the evening was that portions were a bit too sensible. Possibly due a very bad habit of usually leaving a steak dinner over-full and clammy with the meat sweats, but a much loved habit nonetheless. We know this outcome is probably better for us. But still.
Other than that, all I can say is thank you to Niall, Raef and team for a divine bovine evening. Sounds like the pop-up format was a first for Niall, so it'll be interesting to see what he does next if anything. Perhaps you'll join me in trying to corralle him into doing more Beef Cartel events?
Beef Cartel at Maltby Street ran for 2 nights starting 7 September. Tickets were £45 each, inclusive of a glass of sparkling wine. Raef ran a cash wine bar alongside.
40 Maltby St
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Disclosure: I'm the founder of Edible Experiences. Unless otherwise mentioned, I attend events as a paying guest.