“Think of a cut of beef as a piece of fine wood: the marbling, the texture, the grain, you have to pay attention to the details if you really want to understand its worth”. Brilliant Mathelumusa, head sommelier at Nairobi’s Capital Club, is giving me an impromptu masterclass on the secrets of aged beef. I look up, struggling to tear my eyes from the attractive sirloin steak that has just been placed in front of me; I need to pay attention to this.
It is any steak-loving, food-writing person’s wet dream to be sent on assignment to taste one of the best cuts of beef in town. Capital Club, an exclusive Westlands private members’ establishment, serves an aged Morendat farm steak, which is held in high esteem by all those lucky enough to have sunk their teeth into it. Seeing that over the past few months I have become fascinated by the concept of aged beef, this opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time.
I have long been familiar with the premise that a superior cut of beef is one that has been hung out to dry in a refrigerated room for a week or two. During this process, known as dry-aging, enzymes break down the muscles and tendons to make the meat more tender while the evaporation of water concentrates its flavour. I had no idea, however, that there was a whole range of prized moulds that populate the surface of the meat as it slowly dehydrates. Although the moulds are shaved off before they are sent to the butcher’s block, they are a key driver when it comes to giving a good steak a superior umami flavour.
“Ageing is the process of getting rid of any excess water and blood in a carcass”, explains Ceaser Mutuku, head butcher and supervisor at Morendat Farm. “The longer it hangs the more tender and marbled it becomes”
Turns out that marbling is a key word to use when describing your steak. You may be forgiven, however, if you are not quite clear on what this is. Think back to the last traditional nyama choma you ate: how long did it take you to chew each individual bite of well cooked meat? Did it taste like the cow had lived a life of luxury, or had it marched from pasture to pasture, developing bulging muscles in the process of searching out a nice patch of grass? A lazy cow is a fat cow and at the end of its life, a fat cow that has failed to develop any muscles, will inevitably be a tender cow.
Today, streaks of fat distributed in marble-like patterns within the lean sections of an aged cut of beef, are increasingly sought after by restau – rateurs and diners alike. This point is underscored by Mutuku, who points out that all “Morendat breeds are entirely cornfed and our steeds are zero grazed. We prefer to keep them in feedlots to reduce the stress of walking for long distances”.
There is a bit of a debate currently raging over whether ageing beef for more than twenty days really is necessary, or whether it is just a new trend used by restaurants to charge exorbitant rates. The jury is out as to whether describing a steak as tasting “funky” or like “blue cheese” is necessarily positive. According to an article published at Iowa State University: “aging beyond 28 days results in little benefit to enhanced palatability.” Yet this hasn’t stopped restaurants in the US from serving 75, 90 and in one restaurant 140 day aged steaks.
“We usually age our meat for 21 days” answers Mutuku, when I enquire about the Morendat farm dry. Ageing is the process of getting rid of any excess water and blood in a carcass aging process. “Recently however”, he adds,”we have begun extending that to 28 days as requested by some of our customers”. As I deftly cut through the grain of my steak, I try to bite down on it like a professional would. I imagine I should chew slowly, gently savouring the flavours that are released in my mouth. I’m getting juicy bites concealed under a slightly charred taste from the griddle. Nothing about what I am eating reminds me of blue cheese, but in no way does this undermine my appreciation for this succulent slab of meat; it’s infinitely more tasty than anything my local butcher would sell me. Mathelumusa seems to have lost interest in the masterclass and is instead telling my dining companion all about Champagne.
It will probably be a while until the 90 day dry-aged beef trend fully hits Kenya. This is not necessarily a bad thing as jumping on trendy band – wagons, is not always wise. The fact, however, that farms like Morendat are putting increasing amounts of love into the aging of their steeds, is undoubtedly a move in the right direction. I say, better to eat a nicely aged steak once in a blue moon than eating tough nyama stews every week.
This article originally appeared on the September issue of Yummy Magazine