According to a survey conducted by TNS, the Spanish provider of market information to the ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, one in every four euros spent on food in Spain is spent on meat. For a nation better known for its love of fish and seafood, this surprised me.
Perhaps it shouldn’t. Spain is the world’s fifth largest producer of pork, selling nearly three million tons a year, about a tenth of which is pernil/jamón. It is the second largest producer of lamb in the EU after Britain. And, although the country still represents the lowest per capita consumption of beef in the EU, and despite recent scares of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease, even that is on the rise.
Meat in all its guises from pork and beef to horse and kangaroo is one thing. Butchering and animal husbandry are quite another, with slaughter regulations and jointing techniques differing greatly from place to place. British and American cuts tend towards lean, clean steaks and chops. In Catalunya and across Spain, however, with memories of harder times not so distant, every part of the animal is used from the callos (tripe) to the peus de paorc/manos (trotters), and muscles are cut whole from the carcass.
Mooch around the market and you’ll notice that an awful lot of stalls don’t label their cuts at all. So: away from the shiny aisles of the supermarket and the neatly packaged meat trays, how do you tell a prime sirloin from chuck (stewing steak)?
No matter your preference for beef (vedella/ternera), lamb (xai/ternasco) for a slightly older animal), pork (carn de porc/cerdo), or goat kid (cabrit/cabrito) having a basic knowledge of the anatomy helps, as does knowing that the harder the muscle had to work in life the tougher it will be when it comes off the stove. If all else fails, you can be safe in the knowledge that in a country where butchering is still a fine art, you can simply tell your local carnisseria (butcher’s shop) what you’re cooking, and they’ll recommend a cut.
For those going it alone, read on: the first rule of thumb is that if you want your meat to be tender, juicy and melt-in-the-mouth you need a certain degree of fat in it. It’s called marbling—the intramuscular fat that runs in delicate streams through the muscle—and as it melts during cooking it gives meat that highly desirable and unmistakably buttery texture.
The second is that, on the whole, no matter the beast, the principle cuts (about eight in all) are much the same. Long, slender, muscular loin cuts (filet/solomillo in the case of beef, llom/lomo in the case of pork) are tender and juicy because of the way these muscles retain water. It is also the reason these cuts dry out when overcooked. Anything beyond medium rare will render them dry and lacking in flavour. Shoulder (espatlles/espalda) and leg (cuixa/pierna) cuts are more succulent, especially when slow or pot roasted. Hefty upper thigh muscles are also used for bistecs (thin, large muscular steaks that are tougher but flavour packed).
“Each muscle tastes different,” explained Fina Navarro, a market stallholder. “The culata (rump) has lots of flavour but also has more nerves, which some people don’t like. I think its one of the tastiest cuts. The cap de mort/babilla (a neat, spherical muscle also from the rump) has a strong beefy taste while the crostó/tapa (a more raggedy looking cut) has a milder taste.”
Back muscles are more typically cut into prime steaks. Entrecotes/chuletones are monster-sized hunks of beef, on the bone and generally quite fatty. More or less the equivalent of an American rib eye, the fat gives them an unsurpassed succulence while the bone intensifies their flavour, elevating them into the realm of super steaks. Traditionally cooked rare on a hot stone they are the ultimate dinner for two.
Mitjana (chuleta de riñonada) on the other hand are one-person sized steaks. Like chuleton it comes on the bone, often with a good deal of fat and gristle included. And, in less reliable restaurants that is pretty much all you end up with, but when you buy this cut yourself, having carefully checked the meat for a good red colour and creamy coloured fat, the flavour is deep and satisfying, the texture firm yet melting.
Solomillo steaks are lazy man’s steaks. Seared on a hot grill so the inherent sugars in the meat caramelise on the outside leaving a rare, juicy centre they are the kings of the Spanish steak house because they are lean, juicy and easy to eat. The truth is this cut is not as flavoursome as its bonier counterparts, but its convenient rounded shape and water absorbent muscle generally justify the extra few euros that it will cost you.
Rodós/redondos are reserved for stuffing and roasting (often wrapped in a snowy white mantle of fat), while the jerret cut (from the neck and back) are typically used for fricandó. Like estofat/estofado (stewing cuts), fricandó is cooked wet, with savoury juices. The meat is sliced thin, doused in flour and fried first, with tomatoes, onions and typically wild mushrooms added later.
The beef most frequently sold here as vedella/ternera is a calf no more than a year old, while vedella is what would be referred to as veal in Britain or America. Bou/buey (ox meat from a castrated bull) is a deep red, almost blue colour and is densely flavoured, good for steaks and stewing. Toro is the beef from an uncastrated bull, while toro de lídia is from a bull killed in the bullring. It’s considered a great delicacy but not much eaten here in Catalunya.
Finally, when buying look out for beef reared on the green pasture lands of Galicia, Aragón, the Catalan and Navarrese Pyrenees and Asturias all of which now have their own D.O. For special occasions the Tudanca breeed found in Cantabria, and the Avileña Negra Ibérica from Castile both produce sublime tasting meat, but it’s hard to beat the local stuff, vedella de Girona.
Recipe – Carn estofada amb prunes i patates (Meat stew with prunes and potatoes)
Adapted from Honey from a Weed, by Patience Gray.
Soak 12 prunes for an hour. Brown 1kg of estofado (stewing steak) in oil and transfer to a cassola (terracotta pot). Brown 1 sliced onion in the same oil along with three whole cloves of garlic. Add 2 large chopped tomatoes along with a large glass of white wine and a small glass of brandy. Reduce and simmer for 20 minutes. Then add 1 tsp pimentón, a pinch of ground cinnamon and 50g of bitter chocolate along with a bouquet garni. Stir in 1.5 glasses of water and add to the meat. Simmer covered on a low heat for about 2 hours. Remove the bouquet garni and add the prunes to finish. Serve with mashed potatoes.