Years of ineptitude when it came to producing the perfect steak and, even worse, years of searching for it elsewhere only to find disappointing imitations, had left me with a deeply engraved perplexity over meat. Pounds of wasted cuts and hundreds of restaurant visits had not made me any wiser; I stood at the exact same point of bewilderment as when I started this quest, possibly after a lucky encounter with one of those rare examples of perfectly grilled meat. In my engineer’s mind this had become an unsolved issue that was eating me alive. How could it possibly be that I were profoundly disappointed by every steak when just the aromas of wood smoke that impregnate the meat are normally enough to turn me into an easy to please and impressionable creature?
Facing this life-long puzzle with little hope of finding help, I had drawn a big circle on my calendar over a presentation titled The Steak under Scrutiny. The description on the Congress program was promising: “Unveiling the secrets of the grilled steak”. Being in the Basque Country provided extra points of hope, as Basques are known in Spain more or less as the parents of the ‘Txuleton’ (grilled steak). After so many years of disappointments I must admit that, more than hopeful, I was simply expectant and, in all honesty, a little impatient.
The presentation was opened by Cristina Palomino, a certified veterinarian and an authority on meat production and quality standards who gave us a perfectly measured pill of information on breed differences, raising methods, meat cuts, and meat aging processes.
And then Patxi Larrañaga took the stage. The butcher from Lasarte, a small neighboring village, who had missed a number of days sleep over fear of disappointing this audience, grabbed our meat eating souls and gave us all back our hope. In little over 20 minutes he revealed the secrets behind the grill and detailed for us, mere humans, the elements that determine the quality of the meat; those which, overlooked, will have disastrous effects on our plates.
Even though the information that he shared unveiled for many of us the mysteries behind the perfect steak, the most important teaching that we went home with was not the set of tricks that he provided but, rather, the revelation of our ignorance: the comprehension that we, as end-consumers of a universe of things edible, can only succeed in our choice if we are assisted by the knowledge of those who master the trades of food.
I am in complete awe of this butcher. My renewed respect for his profession is, in fact, a relief: freedom from the responsibility of all-inclusive food knowledge as the only means to truly enjoyable food. I have coined a new culinary term for my newfound creed: well-informed culinary delegation of authority.
I arrive back home a bit overwhelmed, but content with my new mission: finding the knowledgeable butcher who will guide me through a life void of steak misery. As I prepare to tackle this incommensurable task, I am comforted by the knowledge that, local butchers failing, I will always have Patxi, in the Basque Country, to turn to.
Dear Patxi, you have a new and faithful convert in me; a creature stripped of rage and disbelief; a brave soldier with a new and powerful weapon to confront steak disasters:
Well-informed culinary delegation of authority
yearly pilgrimage to your butcher shop in Lasarte.
Photoillustration by Jorge Ochoa.