Yves Marie Le Bourdonnec describes himself as un boucher en colère, “an angry butcher.” So what is exercising this publicity-friendly, knife-wielding Parisian? The fact that, according to him, “We don’t realize that we’re not the best beef farmers in the world.” As if that weren’t provocation enough, he adds: “It’s the British, in my opinion, who raise the best beef.”
A French butcher singing the praises of British meat? Sacré bleu, whatever next? Needless to say, Le Bourdonnec is not the only one who’s angry; he’s managed to make a lot of his fellow French butchers — and farmers – absolutely furious. Those Brits across the Channel (known in France as les rosbifs, “the roast beefs”), whose herds were ravaged by mad cow disease only 15 years ago, producing meat that’s a cut above le boeuf français? Impossible!
Wagyu to zebu
Le Bourdonnec knows whereof he speaks. For “Global Steak,” a recent French TV documentary, he traveled the world to investigate and evaluate different systems for raising beef cattle. He covered a lot of ground, from industrial units in Argentina and the U.S. to large-scale zebu (also known as Brahmin cattle) production in Brazil; from small farms in Maine raising pastured animals, to one in Spain where the Wagyu beef receive a daily ration of muesli and red wine.
In England’s northern county of Yorkshire, Le Bourdonnec met Tim Wilson of London’s Ginger Pig butcher shops. Wilson is a livestock farmer whose Longhorn and Galloway cattle spend their lives grazing in meadows on the edge of the North York Moors. The Paris butcher fell in love with the Yorkshire beef, richly marbled and bursting with flavor. He now imports and dry-ages it for The Beef Club, a New York-style steakhouse that opened in Paris’ Les Halles district in February.
Is British beef really superior to French? And if so, why? Le Bourdonnec advances two main theories, which he rehearses loudly and insistently in the press and in his newly published book, “L’Effet boeuf” (translated into English as “Beefed Up”).
The British advantage
The first reason he gives is historical. According to Le Bourdonnec, French farmers traditionally used cattle to draw plows and pull heavy machinery. British farmers, on the other hand, employed horses for the grunt work and reserved their cattle for meat, always selecting their breeds with top-quality beef production in mind.
When tractors were introduced, French farmers turned their beasts of burden into meat. But the breeds they had always worked with, the big-muscled Charolais, Limousin and Blonde d’Aquitaine, were never intended for prime meat production. While the smaller British breeds take just 20 to 25 months to reach maturity, the French breeds require 36 to 40 months. At that advanced age, claims the butcher, the meat is condemned to toughness.
The second factor has to do with feed. British beef animals spend by far the greater part of their lives grazing rich pastures. “L’Angleterre est une immense prairie!” exclaims Le Bourdonnec. “England is one huge meadow!” At the end of their lives, the animals are finished (fattened) on cereals for about one month. French cattle start out life in beautiful wildflower meadows — as anyone who has traveled through Burgundy or deepest Auvergne will attest — but they need between six and eight months indoors, where they are finished on cereal rations to bring them to the desired weight.
Le Bourdonnec’s angry assertions have raised hackles and stimulated heated debate. They’ve also created a lively demand for Tim Wilson’s beef. Paris now has its own Ginger Pig Beef Club, whose members get together regularly to place an order for the celebrated meat and then assemble to cook up a beefy feast.
As for my own preference, based on years of experience and comparative tastings on both sides of the Channel? Given the choice between a marbled, juicy, flavorful and tender rib of Yorkshire beef and a smooth, lean, somewhat chewy piece of French-raised Charolais with little noticeable taste, there’s no contest.
Photo: Young Charolais cattle grazing in the meadows of Burgundy. Credit: Sue Style
Zester Daily contribuor Sue Style lives in Alsace, close to the border of Baden, Germany. She’s the author of nine books on subjects ranging from Mexican food to the food and wines of Alsace and Switzerland. Her most recent, published in October, 2011, is Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture.