Joanna Masters-Maggs, our resident repeat-expat Food Gossip and Creative Chef, is back with her column for like-minded food lovers.
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After another disappointing crack at BBQ Brisket Texas style this weekend, I have come to the bad-tempered conclusion that the joy of discovering how to cook wonderful dishes from far-flung places is outweighed by the complications of reproducing them elsewhere.
My Brisket is a sort of Third-Culture Recipe. It was learned in Texas by Little Old English me, and most recently I have been trying to replicate it in an another location: France. As with so many other recipe “finds”, it is the cause of endless discontent as well as fruitless searches for must-have ingredients that have no place in the third culture markets in which I find myself. In short, my brisket woes have made me conclude that the answer to the perennial Brazilian vendor’s question “Importado or nacional?” is “nacional.”
It will be cheaper, less time-consuming and, ultimately, a better experience of the place you are living in. Additionally, you will avoid being an embarrassment to expatdom: the kind that imports Aunt Jemima’s pancake syrup to a country where Maple Syrup is freely available, or baked beans to the land of feijoada (Brazil).
Look deep into your heart and you will find that while your desire to reproduce exotic recipes is partly born of greedy nostalgia, it could well include an element of entertaining one-up-man-ship.
Guilty as charged.
The Great Texan Brisket Debate
But back to the Texan Brisket. For those unlucky enough to have never sampled this delicacy, let me enlighten you. Texans take a brisket — a chest of beef which usually weighs in at about 12lbs — and then proceed to start the Great Brisket Debate. The Debate is as much a part of the process as the cooking and eating. Some “Pit Boys and Gals” choose to make a “rub” of various spices, which they massage into the meat before cooking. Others argue that the “mop” or basting liquid will just wash most of it off anyway and that the flavor of the beef itself should be able to stand alone. Those who use a rub are sub-divided into those who use it just before the barbecuing process begins and those who like to marinate the meat overnight. (Are you beginning to see the importance of brisket to Texans?) Some sort of liquid is required during the long, slow cooking process of eight hours plus. The mop acts to keep the temperature down so the meat comes as slowly as possible to a state of doneness, and it also moistens and adds flavor to the meat. The contents of rub, mop, and barbecue sauces are personal and, as with all great recipes, subject to much secrecy.
Your average brisket is a pretty tough cut. The chest is mainly muscle and connective tissue with little fat marbling. As a result, most experts recommend dry-hanging the meat for 30 to 45 days. This ageing process allows enzymes to tenderize the meat and flavor to develop. It is a vital element in the process of successfully barbecuing brisket.
A vital element that one is forced to forgo in France.
The Battle of Bastings — to hang or not to hang?
I’ve been in France for three years and I have been trying to replicate this recipe during all that time. To start the process, I hang up the beef myself, because the French, clearly, will not.
I have had a lot of success with brisket in England but very little in France. British beef is great for those embarking on BBQ Brisket 101. English beef comes from animals that are raised to give meat, and not from knackered dairy cows past their productive best, as so often happens in France. In addition, British breeders concentrate on small, docile beasts, which yield well-marbled and thus easily break-downable meat. Not only that, but the English animal is infinitely better hung than its French counterpart. (What am I saying? Dare I slight France’s impeccable reputation for matters of an amorous nature?)
Independent British butchers rarely age their beef for less than 21 days, while specialist, higher end establishments aim for 35 days or more. Hanging is seldom done in France because leaner meat is now in vogue: you cannot successfully age meat which lacks fat marbling. A final factor is that British cows are generally grass fed, resulting in a better flavor than French cows which, largely coming from the hot dry SW, must take a corn- or maize-fed diet.
Forget haute cuisine: it’s all about the haute boucherie. French star butcher gives seal of approval to British beef.
Now, I’m aware that an English girl talking about French meat might cause anger and even some references to Mad Cow Disease (an unfortunate episode which caused France to unilaterally and illegally ban British beef imports for six years). For this reason, I bring in Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec as my big gun. In 2012, Le Bourdonnec, Parisian butcher extraordinaire and the recipient of many awards, opened Le Beef Club, where the meat is all British. The restaurant has its own hanging room where beef is aged for up to 60 days. Le Bourdonnec is happy to tell his compatriots a thing or two about their attitudes to British Beef and why France should copy English ways. Yet opinion is entrenched amongst French farmers and butchers, even to the extent of shamelessly trimming the “fat cap” I so badly needed to protect the meat from the barbecue’s heat. Healthier, maybe; drier, certainly.
Texan Brisket – nacional, every time
The French cow — and vache I truly believe it was — who died for my barbecue last weekend, died in vain. The combo of rub, mop, slow cooking, and basting, yielded brisket which, while tasty, lacked the unctuous melting texture of the real deal. The fibres of the meat remained stubbornly overlong and well-defined to the very end. It was the texture which denied authenticity. Most Texans serve their Brisket with BBQ sauce on the side, or so I have heard from several reliable sources. It would suggest that the brisket was less than perfectly cooked to mix the sauce through the meat. The fact that I “mixed for moisture” tells you all I need to know about the suitability of the meat in France for this particular recipe.
From now on I will reserve the meat for French casseroles and wait until I am once again in Texas to have my brisket fix.
But you know what? Thinking about it, the pork here cooks well and is tender. I wonder if I would have a better chance of Third Culture Recipe success if I turn my attention to pulled pork barbecue. Just one more bash? I’ll keep you posted…….
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Joanna was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself and blend into the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”
Images: All images from Joanna’s personal photo albums, and used here with her permission