Aveyron is an inland department in south central France. When I first went there to stay with a family in Decazeville, it was one of the very poorest of the French regions, along with the Ardeche and l’Herault, but they’ve all three caught up these past 30-40 years. It was also the adopted home of thousands of Spanish families who fled their Civil War in the 30s.
Now it’s Hail l’Averyron because, Blue Collar Gastronauts, we’ve found some rather special beef that’s already making its name in Paris and other major cities in France. There’s a lively breed society in the south of Ireland, who I’ve spoken with, but this delicious meat is yet to land in London as far as I can find out. The French retailers are most keen we understand and appreciate the breed of beef that’s being sold, hence this new logo.
Take note please, I’m forecasting the L’Aubrac breed will become the beef of choice for anyone who chooses to eat red meat no more than once a week – and probably less – so it follows they want a steak or joint that’s truly special. I’d go as far as to label L’Aubrac as feasting meat.
Relatively speaking, the L’Aubrac is a new comer for its meat. The first herdbook was opened in 1893 and the breed was then a dairy animal, with the young male calves going for veal. The cows produced the first choice milk to make cheeses like Laguiole and Tomme d’Auvergne for this is also the region for the beautiful Laguiole (pronounced ‘Lay-ol’) knives.
In the past these knives were the everyday workman’s blade carried by the shepherds and farmers who would use the tiny cross on the handle (see below) for their daily prayers when they were away from home for weeks at a time tending their animals on the high summer pasture.
The region being poor and work hard to find, many of the young men migrated to Paris to seek employment, specially after WW2. Being short of skills, their metier was to work in bars and restaurants. This in turn led to the makers of the Laguiole knives to add a corkscrew. Not only did the young Aveyronnais barmen and waiters have a useful, beautifully crafted tool, but as they used it every day it was a reminder of their homeland.
Today Laguiole products are faked in China by the million, so beware if you are wanting the real thing. I’ve already warned on this last year. Even stores that should know better are selling boxes of 6 steak knives with contemporary garishly coloured handles.
Being hardy, meaning being able to stay outdoors the year round, is the mark of a good beef breed and the ‘L’Aubrac certainly is just that. Good pasture is the root of good beef – it’s as simple as that. This is why they move the cattle to graze their summers on the high pasture – this grass is rich in flowers and other herbage which give the milk a floral note. The Italians call it burro d’Alpi. They, like the French and Swiss, revere the milk from these pastures for any number of cheeses.
Good husbandry, with plentiful great pasture coupled with the breed makes for good eating beef. The L’Aubrac didn’t take off as a beef breed until the 1950s. Since then, the farmers have carefully bred the animals for their carcase conformation – often crossing a L’Aubrac female with a Charolais bull (seen here in all its magnificence). When these prized beasts are allowed to grow to full term – around 30 months, the become known as the Fleur de l’Aubrac. Sadly the authorities in England won’t permit this as they are yet to withdraw the ruling brought in with the BSE scare (yet again pressing the panic button before finding evidence and facts).
With all good farming regimes in place, we must then have careful ageing – that means hanging the whole half carcase from the back leg in a chill room for a minimum of 28 days, but another 7-14 days won’t go amiss either.
Genuine ageing does not mean sweating boned-out muscles in a heavy duty, industrial plastic vac-pack – please note. Ask your butcher how long and by what method his beef is aged – remembering that sub-standard beef in a bag won’t improve any too much, however long they keep it. Best they keep it for ever – and don’t sell it.
You’ll find many wholesalers unsurprisingly reluctant to answer your question whilst looking you straight in the eye. The man at the supermarket butchery counter just won’t know what you are talking about – I know only one British supermarket that genuinely know their meat – shocking really.
In Paris a week or two ago, I noted a clear trend emerging with L’Aubrac listed by breed on menu’s in medium to higher priced restaurants. Over a dinner in Genoa when I was there last month, one of the other guests was 50:50 Aveyronnais/Hungarian – she enthused about the breed and urged me to visit the restaurant Chardenoux des Prés where Cyril Lignac cooks to Michelin standards. He makes much of L’Aubrac as he hails from Rodez where the French breed society is based. Check him on www.cyrillignac.com.
The herdbook might of only begun in the late 1800s, but the breed traces itself back another 100 years or more to the 17th century where the animals were raised and selectively bred by Benedictine monks in the Aveyron – they would take in and feed the pilgrims on their way to Santiago di Compostela with the famous Laguiole cheese made from L’Aubrac milk.
Given my first experiences of good food and cooking were in the Aveyron as a young teenager, I have an interest that’s lingered for that region’s produce – charcuterie, cheeses, chestnuts, game, meat, charcuterie and more. If you’ve not tasted l’aligot – a local mix of potato purée (replacing the original staled bread soaked in milk), garlic and fresh tomme cheese, then time’s come to go hunting some out (check out www.jeune-montagne-aubrac.fr) .
L’Aubrac cattle are large without being huge +6′ beasts like a Charolais or a Hereford – more the size of a Black Angus, but with a better defined back muscle conformation. They have curly dark brown coats, straight horns (no hideous de-horning here) and a rugged, kind looking white face. The eyes are soulful. I know that’s all a bit romantic when I am talking up their meat, but in France, animals are loved and cherished, but nobody forgets their end is to delight a diner. Breeds succeed when people eat the meat – whether it’s a chicken or a steer.
Lent though it was when I was last in Paris, after my Tête de Veau moment in LIPP, I strayed a step further for a fine Steack Tartare made from L’Aubrac filet. Let’s say then I’ve tasted it raw and never cooked. If it’s as good cooked as it was cru then I’m all for the L’Aubrac’s arrival.
Tasting beef raw is your best guide to quality – colour only misleads, as surfaces naturally oxidise when cut and within 20 minutes they can turn from cherry red to a darker hue. Beware of supermarkets who continue to use pink lamps in their chiller cabinets to flatter the red meat.
My friend Albert, the son of a traditional Cheshire butcher, recently told me you knew when a carcase was ready to sell when you could put your forefinger into the sirloin. Don’t try that in your local shop, be it butcher or supermarket.
Farmers at SIA (Paris) told me that there’s also a healthy and increasing demand for the best conformed L’Aubrac bulls for export. In the Irish Republic they already have a lively Aubrac Breed Society – they really appreciate the special characteristics of the breed. Ireland has been rearing the L’Aubrac since 2007 – the full story can be found by contacting email@example.com. I’m told that the Aubrac breed is now exported to 15 countries worldwide.
Why not ask for L’Aubrac when you’re next out to eat a steak – encourage the restaurant to look into serving this beef. Likewise any independent butchers you visit. London’s Smithfield Market is well connected with Rungis (Paris) and trucks roll between the two on a near daily trip, so we could be enjoying L’Aubrac here sometime soon.
If you’re passing by the Aveyron in May, make a date to visit the transhumance festival. This is when they move the milk cows on to the higher pasture for the summer. It’s a big celebration locally and all are invited to taste, feast, dance and sing. On Sunday, May 27 in the Village d’Aubrac, at the Dejeuner Montagnard you’ll be served local charcuterie, L’Aubrac (cooked over an open wood fire) with Aligot, special artisan cheeses, tarte et café - with AOC Marcillac wine – all for an affordable 24 Euro p/person. Details: www.traditionsenaubrac.com
I bet my last Euro that there’ll be few there other than Aveyronnais so you’ll be sure of a very special experience of real France. I might even be lucky to get there myself – watch this space.
Vive l’Aveyron et vive Les Fleurs de l’Aubrac. It’s not true you must have a genuine Laguiole steak knife to cut the meat – but it sure adds to the enjoyment, specially if it has a polished horn handle. As we know, life is a circle. Salut.