Living Steak. From conception to plate

On the weekend of 19 October two far from mainstream writer’s events – festivals if you must – are being held. I’d like to link them with this post.

 In Sydney, the second edition of Barbara Sweeney’s  Food & Words, for writers and readers who love writing and food to talk to each other and to learn more bout writing and food. The piece below was originally delivered as a speech at last year’s Food & Words.

 And the second is the Watermark Literary Muster, held at Kendall on the central coast from October 18 to 20, and dedicated to writing on nature and that evokes a sense of place. This wonderful event, which runs the whole weekend was started by Eric Rolls and is continued by his widow Elaine van Kempen and others. It is growing in stature and importance, as I hope Food & Words will. You can find information  both events here www.watermarkliterarysociety.asn.au and here www.food&words.com.au

That picture below is of a much younger Eric Rolls than I knew. As I look at it, I wish I’d met that vigorous, larrikin poet then. 

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In 1997 I was working at the then new  Weekend Financial Review as the editor of a lift out life and culture  section. We called it The Fin, with a shark’s fin the logo: our motto – always on the move, always hungry.

One of the most important of a remarkable troupe of food writers I assembled was Eric Rolls, whose then just published trilogy A Celebration of Food and Wine I had read, admired enormously and reviewed. I had also met Eric and his wife Elaine, and valued their friendship.

I want to tell the story of a story. A story that Eric submitted to me – all my food writers had a pretty open brief – which he called Living Steak. The story of this story’s reception tells much of the culture of that journal,  and explains why it was such a bad fit for me.

That troupe of writers about food I assembled included, apart from Eric, Gay Bilson, Claudia Roden, George Biron – we were the first to publish George – Stefano Manfredi and many others. Wine writer Tim White wrote about food books, technology writer Charles Wright wrote on the then preposterous idea of the $40 main course.

I wanted a section, I told the editor at the time,  which was edgy, and disputatious. My model was The Spectator under Charles Moore, here you’d have Matthew Parris and Paul Johnson spatting from either end of the book. They wanted bland. They wanted a guide on how to spend the mostly ill-gotten gains of their fat cat readers. They got it: today, that section is called Life & Leisure. Today, the whole edition is looking pretty shaky. But that’s not what I want to write about. Just setting the context.

Eric’s piece began with a recipe for a fried steak draped with stilton cheese and a red wine sauce. Typical Eric to begin rather than end  with a recipe.

From there, he moved on to rail against  The Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation (now MLA) for banning the display of carcasses at the Sydney Royal Easter Show.

He wrote “It – the corporation – believes that associating meat with death is ‘a deterrent to domestic consumption’.  Food has true wonder only when its origin is known.  The hands of the grower mould the flavour.  Meet a steak from conception to the plate.”

And that is what the guts of the story was about. The courtship by  a Murray Grey bull of a Hereford cow, the consummation of that courtship, the birth of the bull calf, his brief life and his death. Described with Eric’s characteristic muscular and poetic prose. For example:

‘Not yet ready, the cow ignored him.  She moved off a few metres and continued feeding.  The bull nudged her now and then to let her know he was still there, after a while he tried to mount.  She stepped away smartly, leaving his penis foolishly prodding air.

‘Murray Grey began to walk backwards in front of her, shaking his head, bumping her shoulder to shoulder. Hereford gave a short angry moo, bit off more grass, shaped the wad in her mouth, swallowed.  She turned away from him, took four more mouthfuls then, flicking her head to see where the bull was, she backed up to him.  He mounted, worked his hindquarters, gave a mighty thrust and sank back on four hooves.  Hereford arched her back and experienced a vigorous and visible orgasm. Murray Grey stood resting.  Now that the initial urgency was over he looked about to check where the rest of his thirty-three cows were.’

Well. The furore that caused at the WAFR. The scorn, the derision, the anger. It was quite extraordinary. All  these blokes in their suits who’d slip round the corner to Kingsley’s at lunch to chew on a slab of red meat could not take the reality of where it came from and how it was made.

And I’m pretty sure that it was the bovine erotica more than the description of  death that incited their anger and derision.

But that was Eric Rolls, a writer the like of which we had never seen before – and probably never will again. A farmer, a poet, a historian, a nature writer, a lover and a sensualist with an unblinking gaze. Writing about food, he was all of these.

The first book of his I read, long before I met him, when he was just another vague name in that long list of Australian writers you have heard of but never read, was Celebration of the Senses

Now, if his tale of cattle mating, birthing and dying offended the business scribes at the AFR, this book would send them into a frenzy. In writing about it in his excellent obituary for Eric in the Sydney Morning Herald, the historian Tom Griffiths said it was a book that ‘some readers found confronting.’ I’ll bet they did.

It begins with the birth of his first son Kim to his first wife, Joan, and ends with Joan’s death. Along the way  it forensically examines all the senses through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and fingertips of the writer in extreme close up.  It dissects pornography with the same curiosity and keen vision it brings to the sounds of the Australian bush.  It takes us to the jungles of New Guinea during the second world war and into the caves where Champagne is made. It is a book of ineffable wisdom. But every word, every anecdote reminds us that as he wrote at the end of the book: ‘An animal is its senses. They are its assessment of life, its total capacity. Man is an animal. Our intelligence is a distillation of the senses, an appraiser certainly, but never an impartial judge.’ In describing  trying to quell Joan’s doubts about the surgeon having cut her after the birth he writes: ‘One never knows if words comfort. Doubts are generally insoluble in words. They persist like lumps in sauce.’

On food he is particularly compelling, because as Barbara Santich so perfectly defined it, “Gastronomy is at the confluence of the senses and the intellect.” And that is where Eric Rolls lived. At the beginning of the taste chapter he writes: ‘Top lips taste sweet, bottom lips acrid’ which leads him, tangentially, to ‘A Trobriand island girl, honey-skinned, runs out of the sea with water hanging in her crimped pubic hair. She places a piece of ripe fish between the lips of her vulva and shakes herself. “Are you hungry?” she asks. “Here is fish seasoned by the sea. Do not bite harder than you have to.” This leads, logically if irreverently,  to a long and fascinating dissertation on salt.

In the trilogy  A Celebration of Food and Wine, he examines each piece of fruit, each animal, vegetable, herb, and grape by holding them up to the light of his curiosity, his knowledge of history and farming, turning them this way and that and then fixing them to the page with relish. His meditation on apples begins by telling us ‘It is unlikely Eve tempted Adam with an apple’ because ‘Apples are food not incitement.’ It moves to London, at the time when the EU had decided that only eight apple varieties were ‘acceptable trade’ and a farmer who defied them. It runs through the taste and seasonality of rare breed apples, gives us a poem called Sour Fruit Song (‘I left Bramley apples hanging on the tree/ I should have stayed in London/ But I had to come away) then segues to Granny Smith, swerves down to Tasmania and the grafting of apple trees then  on to the behaviour of apples in storage.

Reading Eric is like a conversation. A conversation with someone who knows an awful lot and wants to share it with you – not a know all but one consumed by curiosity and the joy of life. In his discursive method, his soaring, swooping and swerving, allusion, quotation and digression he reminds me of another Australian writer – Gay Bilson.

Eric Rolls’ writing is the antithesis of most food commentary today. His assertion in the introduction to the piece that sent the journos at the WAFR into a frenzy sets up his basic position:b ‘Food has true wonder only when its origin is known.  The hands of the grower mould the flavour. Eric Rolls  sits in the opposite corner to food as fashion, Masterchef, The Next Big Thing, celebrity chef worship, chef’s hats and gushing food blogs.

It was Eric who – without knowing it – persuaded me to start writing more about where food comes from than where it ends up – more about the farm and the farmer and less about the plate and the cook. Eric, and, I guess, my father, who was also a farmer if never a poet. And in doing so I found a  fascinating world away from the table. To follow the food back to its maker and meet the maker makes sense, as he said, of the whole process.

At the end of a Celebration of the Senses he says ‘It amazes me that in the history of literature no other writer has estimated his senses.’ He goes on to say ‘A good writer always risks himself, but this was written with bared nerves.’

Let me finish with the demise of that bull calf from the beginning:

‘So Bull Calf travelled to auction with fourteen of his half brothers and sisters on the back of a truck.  From there he made a final journey to abattoirs.  He smelled death before he met it and was lifting his head, looking for escape, when the stunning hammer hit him between the eyes.  He felt no more.  He dropped, a chain hoisted him on to a moving belt, the slaughterman cut his throat to bleed him, he was skinned, gutted, examined by a meat inspector and shunted into the chilling room.  An Italian butcher bought him who knew how good he would taste.  For seventeen days his carcass hung in the cool room then the butcher quartered him and hung the pieces on display in his shop.  And when finally his customers put his steak on their plates, mother, farmer and butcher had taken turns to nurture it for nineteen months.’

We need more of that kind of food writing – writing with grit, blood, guts and sinew. And less bland tasteless instant mash.

Fast food and pulp fiction

imagesI want to talk about fast food and pulp fiction by linking the writer Elmore Leonard and those little dishes eaten – first in Spain now all over the world – known as Tapas, the fast food of the Gods.

Now it seems to me that when Elmore Leonard began to write, westerns at first, (after advertising) the original pulp fiction, he didn’t give a toss about literary recognition.

If you’d told the young Elmore Leonard that at the age of 72 he’d be lionised by the likes of Martin Amis he would have told you to “get lorst.”

He just put his head down and got stuck into the sheer pleasure of writing. He wrote himself into some sort of perfection of his art.

If you had told the first inn-keeper in Spain that the free snack he handed out, usually salty to encourage more drinking, would one day be elevated to a way of life, that whole streets in cities would be turned over to the practice of tapeando – ‘tapasing’ – that books would be written about it, he would have snorted as incredulously as Leonard.

The point is that while Leonard got on with the business of writing and lifted himself out of the pot boiler category, the makers of tapas flourish in a society where food is seen as a pleasure and not a problem – so they too graduated from a slice of ham on a chunk of bread to such pinchos as they are known in Northern Spain as wild mushroom stuffed with raw ham and roquefort served in the Bar Vizcacha in San Sebastian.

Fast Food, in the pejorative sense, is served not by people who love food, but by corporations who love money, and invented by a people who see food not as a pleasure, but as a problem.

The fast food wolfed down while speeding along the freeways is eaten with guilt, not pleasure, leisure and friends. Like those crappy airline books that are devoured frantically on long flights, more to be finished than to be savoured.

There’s no love or poetry in that kind of fast food. The Big Mac is a portion controlled industrial product to the last slice of chemical pickle. It’s clean, it’s uniform, but it has nothing in it of its maker. It is food with no soul, no loving hands have touched it.

Chilli Palmer, the loan shark turned Hollywood producer in Leonard’s masterpiece Get Shorty would understand the fast food business. As a loan shark, he needed only one phrase: “just give me the fucken money.” When you boil it down, that’s what McDonalds and KFC and all the other purveyors of empty food stuffed with advertising are telling us – just give us your fucking money.

It’s not the speed of the food that is so distressing. It’s the lack of care, craft, or devotion attendant on its making.

It needn’t be haute cuisine. It needn’t be art food. It just needs to be loving food, and if you keep doing it with care and attention for long enough, it will turn into something beautiful.

Wander down Calle San Juan in Logroño one warm summer’s night, and stand at the bar sipping a beer and eating a tapa of anchovies or stuffed mussels or a bacaloa croquet. You might get them fast – but that’s not the point.

Since writing this piece Elmore Leonard did something almost inconceivable to his fans: he died. On 20 August 2013. He was not only a great writer but a great teacher about writing:

“Write the book the way it should be written, then give it to somebody to put in the commas and shit.”

In a funny sort of a way, the best film made from one of his best books, Get Shorty, has something to say about food and America. The film star Martin Weir played by Danny de Vito orders an egg white omelette and then leaves before eating it because he’s too busy. Egg white omelette. Does anything epitomise the American syndrome of food fear more? I would have left before eating it too.

I’ll bet Elmore never ate a egg white omelette in his life.

Step right up

UnknownStep right up, step right up, step right up,

Everyone’s a winner, bargains galore

That’s right, you too can be the proud owner

Of the quality goes in before the name goes on

Tom Waits

Yes, it’s a serious event for the food industry, but my annual visit to Fine Food Australia provides me with as many laughs as inspirations – and the occasional rueful head shake as I take a look at the way Big Biz has moved on the food we eat and the way it’s prepared.

I went on the first day, and wandered through the displays of gleaming hardware: machines for heating, freezing, drying, baking, frying, slicing, moulding, extruding, their stands all personned (but mostly manned) by shiny people with sincere grins ready to extract the credit cards from the poor bewildered restaurateurs and café owners wandering through  in a daze  – there’s even a funding stall so you can borrow the money to buy the latest Sizzling Slicer or Burger Flipper.

Of course all this hardware has a  place in the modern kitchen, but how much of it is needed and how  much of it is bought for status or as  a must have toy? When you consider the churn rate for eateries in Sydney, you wonder how much is due to over-capitalisation.

But after half an hour or so of being dazzled by the technology of the edible (how could anyone do without a Taylor Frozen Carbonated Beverage Dispenser?) I found the exhibition of food and food like substances. And beverages.

First up, the Just Squeezed Juice company. Just Squeezed? When? I could see no evidence of squeezing on the stand, only little plastic bottles. So I’m assuming that the ‘just’ in the title is a flexible as the ‘fresh’ in Coles food products.

I stumbled upon the Comunidad Andina – the Community of the Andes, side by side stands displaying products from Bolivia, Ecuador, Columbia and Peru. Including what looked remarkably like some real food: quinoa and chia for example. But they’ve now  moved into the second stage that every product goes through: first you have the real thing unadorned – jeans for example, just blue denim and studs – then comes stage two – stretchy, stone washed, pre-ripped, diamante-studded –  the marketers move in and put lipstick on the pig.

In the case of quinoa, the Bolivians are now selling quinoa pop – as in rice bubbles – turned into snack bars covered in caramel: La Chapaquita Grageas de Quinua. The Columbians were flogging Yoghurt Candy, the Peruvians chocolate, coffee and Pisco, a white cane sugar spirit spectacularly employed in the Pisco Sour, which is made with lime juice, Angostura bitters and other stuff and glasses of which, kindly provided by  affable stall holder Luis, were disappearing as fast as they could be built.

Luis also told me that the Peruvian national dish, lomo saltado, strips of marinated beef sirloin, is cooked in a wok, and that the wok was incorporated into Peruvian cuisine when the Chinese arrived as labourers after the abolition of slavery in the mid nineteenth century. Saltado means leap, so leap beef, because when the beef goes in to the wok – with Pisco of course, it is flipped over the flame and leaps about (see the recipe at the end).

Luis  told me where, in Sydney, you can find Pisco: Restaurant Morena and Pachamama House, both in Surry Hills.

Who  eats kangaroo regularly? I have to admit I don’t and I don’t know why. When I do, I love it.  My next stop after Peru was the Macro Meat stand, and their range of packaged kangaroo meat products: loin fillets, premium steaks, marinated steaks, grilled mini roasts, burgers, dices, and kebabs. They  only sell male animals, they’re graded by species, age, and where caught. The company is South Australian based and they’re moving into capital city markets. About time somebody took the marketing of this wonderful Australian food product seriously.

A little further down in the South Australian region, and still with bounding marsupials, Kangaroo Island, and a product that sounds like I want to try it – speaking as we were of native Australian  produce – Kis Gin, made with  native juniper berries or boobialla (Myoporum insulare). Not cheap and at the moment only served at Pilu at Freshwater. Reckon we’ll see more of it.

And South Australia is still at the forefront of gastronomic teaching – the Regent Hotel School started by Graham Latham and premier Don Dunstan was and is one of the most illustrious culinary teaching schools in the country  – and  now they have the Artisan Cheesemaking Academy Australia, industry supported and offering short and Certificate 4 Courses. Go to  www.tafesa.edu.au/acmaa. I can’t actually think of any other such course in the country. I tried a very good pecorino pepato and a not so good white mould, both made by students.

And I’m very overhjoyed to record that Jindi cheese was showing, the cheesery having been totally re-built after the listeria tragedy. I tried an Old Telegraph Road Jackson’s Track and it was luscious. Good on them for hanging in there. Support them please.

From South Australia, a nonchalant paseo to Spain, and to Ubed’Oliva 100% picual olive oil, a truly fine drop with good fruit and a nice bitterness at the back of the throat which I hope we see here soon. Here I was joined by Monica Brun from the Spanish Commercial Business office, and my old friend Jose Gonzales of Broadway Cellars and TapaVino bar.

From olive oil, we moved to Conquistador jamón. Now I’ve been eating their Serrano for some time, inexpensive and pretty good for the price. But now they’re bringing in an iberico de bellota – that is an indigenous pig served a diet of acorns – and it’s a beauty. Again, hope they get it in. A short saltado to a new sherry brand, Pemartin, and a very drinkable fino, which also, should it find an agent, have the advantage of being inexpensive.

And from the sublime to the gorblimey. I knew Frank McEnroe, the boilermaker from Bendigo who ‘invented’ the Chiko roll. I worked on the Chiko Roll advertising account in a previous life and century. Frank famously saw the success of the dim sim – what we call the siu mei – and thought “good product, but it’s too bloody small!” An lo, the far more phallic Chiko Roll was born. Two points. I was not responsible for the splendidly suggestive and sexist posters that followed. And, having seen them made, I have never actually eaten one.

Well, time passes and Mr McEnroe dies, and the Chiko Roll falls on lean times – the only thing lean about it – until it is snapped up by Simplot, that good ole’ American company that has apparently swallowed much of Australia’s big food biz: Edgell’s,  Seakist, John West (although this was owned by English octopus Unilever), Ally Salmon, Leggo’s and Birds Eye (also a pom import).

With good old American ingenuity, Simplot has line extended: as well as the original roll, there is now the Chiko Hawaiian Sub, Chiko Brekky Sub, Chicken Balls, Mini Potato Cakes and – the piece of resistance – the Chiko Dimee! Proving what goes around rolls around.

And irony of ironies  just around the corner, the Dim Sum Company, serving up a range of pre-packed siu mei, cha siu bao – indeed all the basic  yum cha items very cleverly packaged. But not terribly good to eat. The siu mei I tried had been finely minced for ease of extrusion (see the Acme Patented Siu Mei Extruder), a bland gwei lo version. The best thing about a sui mei is the little nubbly bits of who knows what.

I was almost over my annual Fine Food fix, two last stops. In Thailand, I was given, graciously,  a  little pail of dried fruits courtesy of  the National Bureau of Agricultural Commodity and Food Standards, selling nothing but dedicated to better standards.  And again I fell prey to the shy charm and beautiful smiles of the young women on the stand. I’m sitting here nibbling on dried mango (na-muong) durian (too-rian) and sweet tamarind (ma-kham-wan).  Note the name for durian – very close. But the name for guava – fa-rang – is very curious. Farang is what the Thais call us, foreigners.

And my last stop China. In amongst the   gaudily packaged food like substances, a modest stand with an array of teas displayed in celadon bowls, overseen by the charming and polite Pei Wei, who told me that if I would like to try some of the teas from her company  Guanxi Minghui Tea Co. Ltd. – I need only email her in China.

With that modest offer, I left the world of Fine Food for another year.

Lomo saltado or leaping lomo!   

Ingredients

  • 1 lb sirloin steak cut in thin slices
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely diced
  • Season to taste
  • 3 tablespoons good oil
  • 1 small red onion cut in thick slices
  • 2 plum tomatoes cut in thick slices
  • 1 seeded and ribbed aji amarillo (or jalapeño) chili pepper cut in thin slices
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons Pisco or white rum
  • 1/3 cup beef stock
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped

Instructions

  • Season the beef with garlic, salt and pepper.
  • Put a wok over very high heat. Stir in oil and cook the meat, a few slices at a time (so they do not steam  and the meat browns), flipping the meat in the wok. As each batch cooks, take it out and store in a warm place. Cook  until only just done, still pink inside.
  • Stir  the onion, tomato, chili pepper, and stir for about 2 to 3 minutes. The tomatoes and onions should be crunchy, not mushy. Add beef back to  wok. Stir in soy sauce and Pisco on sides of wok or pan. Mix everything. Add beef broth and boil. Taste for seasoning.

Turn off the heat, add chopped cilantro and serve at once with either fries or white rice.