February 1999

Topsham, Devon February 11, 1999 A gastro-philosophical question: Does the fact that a taste is forbidden or illicit make it all the more appealing? Witness the Irish and their romantic, misty-eyed love for that foulest of home distillations, poteen. Similarly, I've spent days with Italian friends distilling grappa in backgarden bathtubs and glorified stills made from primitive pressure-cookers, and afterwards had to sample the poisonous stuff with them, me choking from the raw, crude, throat-burning distillate while they waxed ever more lyrical prior to passing out in a heady, but gloriously happy stupor.
I pondered this question today not about bootleg liquor but when, after dropping Bella off at school, I strolled past our butcher's shop (which perforce must remain nameless) and spotted a sight I had not seen in some considerable months: neat bundles of ox-tail tied together with string, proudly on display in the front window. Ox-tail, of course, together with any form of beef-on-the-bone, has been off the menu -- literally illegal to sell or purchase in Britain -- since the hysteria of the BSE crisis some two years ago, the so-called mad cow's disease which has apparently crossed species to appear as a new and deadly form of the disease in humans. This led to the ban on British beef across Europe, the destruction in great measure of many farmer's livelihoods, and a crisis in faith in our entire farming edifice, and indeed in the very foods that we eat.
Since then, the situation has been put into perspective. Tragic as the whole, sorry, mis-managed business has been, the numbers actually contracting the disease have remained quite small, in the tens, I believe, not the hundreds that doom-and-gloomers predicted would be the case. Considerable controls have since been put in place, and British beef has subsequently been deemed now to be as safe or safer than any in the world. Today, the feeling of the man and woman in the High Street seems to be that we ought to be able to be left to make such choices for ourselves. Nick Brown, the Agricultural Minister, has recently declared that the likelihood of catching the human form of BSE from British beef is less than the chance of winning the National Lottery twice. Damn nigh impossible, in other words. Yet, though there was talk of lifting the ban earlier this month, that was scuppered just last week on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, Blair's nanny state seemingly set on protecting we dumb innocents from ourselves no matter how miniscule the risk, while at the same time refusing a moratorium on the introduction of commercial cultivation of genetically modified crops into Britain, something which most of us are at present far more worried about.
"It's still illegal to sell this," my butcher said cheerfully, as he wrapped up the bundle of meat. "But the law's an ass. Enjoy your ox-tail," he added with a wink, packing it away in a carrier bag ("just in case anyone should see it").
Rarely has my appetite been more keenly whetted. With what bounce did I stroll out of the shop, fuelled by an unexpected frisson of, yes, almost naughty excitement, livening up my otherwise dull Tuesday morning existence. With what joyous anticipation I planned our evening meal. Next stop, to Richard's, the greengrocer, to purchase some red onions, celery, organic carrots, and a large bunch of grapes. Once home, with what intimate care I chopped the vegetables, fried them off in olive oil and butter together with some cubes of Italian pancetta in the heavy, cast-iron Dutch oven, trimmed the ox-tail of fat, seasoned it in salt and freshly ground pepper, and seared it. I then added half bottle of Manstree Seyval grape juice to the cooking pot. Manstree is vineyard located across the Exe Valley from us which produces quite outstanding English wines, high in fruity acidity, quenchingly bone dry, utterly delicious. The subtleties of the wine, its ephemeral fragrance and delicate fruit, however, would have been lost in the cooking pot, but the sweet-sour character of the grape juice, together with fresh grapes added towards the end of cooking, was just the thing, I thought, to slow-braise the meat in, the sticky sweetness of grapes and juice melding beautifully with the sticky, gooey richness of the ox-tail.
And so, to return to the question with which this essay began, the answer is that yes, of course it does. When ox-tail was as common -- and as cheap -- a cut of meat as you could find, we enjoyed it, but in truth chose to eat it only rarely. Its very unavailability, however, has brought it under the spotlight in the mind's eye, and caused us to reconsider what we were missing. And indeed, I assure you that, unlike home-made grappa or poteen, it is truly exceptional, quite simply one of the most flavourful, delicious and undervalued of all meat cuts, bar none, ban or no ban, truly a forgotten (and forbidden) flavour re-discovered. I urge you to try it, if you can get your hands on any, that is.

Ox-tail braised in grapes

We first came across this unusual way of cooking ox-tail in Burgundy, when, after tasting wines in a damp, dark cellar on a winter's morning, we returned to the vigneron's house to enjoy this delicious and warming feast, the ox-tail braised in wine (not juice) together with thick-skinned Gamay grapes, this hearty feast accompanied by a rustic, deeply coloured Beaujolais.

2 large red onions, peeled and chopped

4 legs of celery, coarsely chopped

2 cloves garlic, peeled, crushed and chopped

100 g. pancetta, cut into cubes (or use smoked dry cured bacon)

4 tablespoons olive oil

Knob of butter 4-6 lbs ox-tail, trimmed of excess fat

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 bottle of dry grape juice or wine

Beef or vegetable stock to moisten

6 organic carrots, peeled and thickly sliced

2 lbs fresh grapes

In a large Dutch oven, fry the red onions, garlic, celery and pancetta or bacon in the olive oil and butter, then add the trimmed ox-tail and brown over a brisk flame. Season generously with salt and pepper, then add the grape juice, bring to a bare simmer, and leave to cook for 2-3 hours, until the meat is tender and nearly falling off the bones. Moisten with additional stock or juice if necessary. Skim off excess fat, then add the sliced carrots and the fresh grapes and leave to simmer for a further half hour or longer. Adjust seasoning and serve at once.

Wine suggestion: A full-bodied cru Beaujolais such as Regnier or Moulin-a-Vent. Or, as an unusual treat, try with a bottle of Amarone della Valpolicella, the rich, velvety texture of this wine made from semi-dried grapes complementing the gooey sweetness of the meat.

Copyright © Marc Millon 2000


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Copyright © Marc and Kim Millon 2000