Horse burgers - taking back the reigns

The news that horse meat has found its way into value “beef burgers”, and pork into halal prison pies, is a reminder of the importance of food provenance.  But if Tesco, Findus and Burger King aren't sure what’s going into their products, what hope is there for the rest of us?  Here are a few practical actions we can all take to improve our understanding of the food we eat.

Build local relationships

We all shop in Supermarkets, and there are huge benefits in terms of cost and convenience, but there are some real advantages to getting friendly with your local suppliers and food retailers.  For example, if you really want the perfect steak, before you even think about how to cook it, there are some questions you should probably consider:

  • What’s the breed of the animal?  Is it a heritage breed developed for flavour or a more modern breed developed for yield?
  • Was it grass or grain fed? This has a huge impact on the final flavour of the meat.
  • Did it roam free or was it intensively reared?  
  • How old was the animal when it was slaughtered?    
  • How long has the meat been hung? It is the ageing process that determines the tenderness of the steak.  
  • Was it dry or wet aged? Dry ageing leads to more shrinkage, but better flavour, and so is likely to cost more.
  • What cut of meat is most appropriate for the way you like it cooked?  If you like your steak blue, you need to choose a more lean cut or there would not be enough cooking time to melt any fat.

Try having that conversation at the average supermarket meat counter and you are likely to get some pretty blank looks (or at least a few expletives!). However, ask your local butcher and his eyes will light up at the realisation that he has someone who cares as much as he does about the meat he prepares.

Use your butcher & fishmonger

Even a trained chef would struggle to tell you how old a pre-prepared fillet of fish was.  But give them a whole fish and they could have a pretty good guess from the brightness of the eyes, the colour of the gills and the firmness of the flesh. For this reason a good chef would never buy pre-prepared fish and, if you can avoid it, neither should you.  If you’re worried about how to then prepare that fish to eat, use your fish monger. Don’t be embarrassed to ask them to scale, gut, or fillet your fish.  That's exactly why they are there.

Look for the labels

Red tractor: the red tractor logo is a guarantee of quality and origin.  Every critical step of the food supply chain is independently inspected to ensure food is produced to quality standards by assured farmers, growers and producers in the UK.

Organic: any food labelled 'organic' must meet strict EU legal standards covering all aspects of food production, from animal welfare and wildlife conservation to food processing and packaging.

Free range: Free-range does not necessarily mean organic and is not actually a certification. Free-range refers to food from animals, for example meat or eggs, that are produced from animals that have access to outdoor spaces.

Certifications of origin (AOC - France; DOC - Italy; DO - Spain; PDO - Europe): these guarantee that only products genuinely originating from a particular region, made in an agreed way, can be sold under certain names. The laws protect products such as cheddar cheese, and Champagne, but also give you confidence in the provenance of what you are buying. 

Ditch the ready meals

If you didn’t make it, you don’t know what’s in it. If you really want to know what is in your food, get your cookery books out.

If you want to take more control over what’s in yours, ask your local butcher to mince some chuck steak and try this delicious Guinness burger & pickled cucumber recipe.

An edited version of this blog was first published in the Ashburton Cookery School newsletter.