As food becomes more and more industrialized, we are losing our food traditions. Take one of the most cherished cuts of beef in human history, meat cut from the chine portion. This meat was so valued in ancient times that it was reserved for the most important members of society, the champion warriors.
The Iliad, perhaps the oldest European literary work, tells of how mighty Achilles, the greatest champion of them all, barbecued meat from the chine for the kings and heroes of Ancient Greece, on the beach of Troy. Old Irish stories, passed down orally for hundreds or even thousands of years before being written down, tell of fights to the death between heroes for the right to claim the chine, known as the Champion’s Portion.
The chine portion was believed to give strength and courage, and build up the muscles a champion would need to swing his sword during a long battle, or to rebuild his body after it was bruised and wounded.
In more modern times, this honored cut was known as prime rib by the English, entrecote by the French, and Bife de Ancho by Latin Americans. Whatever it was called, it was an expensive, honored cut, favored and enjoyed by those who could afford it, or as a special, holiday treat by those of more modest means.
In our time, most people do not even know what it is. The chine portion of beef is usually cut completely from the bone and trimmed of all fat in a meat processing plant, then sold in a vacuum pack to supermarkets, where unskilled employees cut it into thin, boneless, fatless portions that no hero would ever have recognized. Most of this meat is a product of the feedlot, which gives it a taste that no hero would want.
The tradition is fading away, but I celebrate it from time to time, as a very special treat.
If you have never seen a true steak cut from the chine, behold the raw meat in this photo. This is a classic steak from the chine, with all its components. It contains both the long rib bone and the short, flat chine bone at the top. Note the thick rim of glorious fat, the beautiful red color of the grassfed meat. See how thick it is. The chine bone gives a particular, incredible flavor to the meat, and the rib bone contributes another. The thickness of the steak allows it to cook long enough to fully develop its incredible natural flavor, especially when cooked in front of a real fire. The fat bastes the meat as it cooks, adding yet more flavor and tenderness. When the meat is done, the nourishing grassfed fat is crisp and delicious on its own, especially when served hot. Meat like this needs little in the way of spices, merely a cook who knows how to cook grassfed meat.
This magnificent steak was cooked in front of a fire, hot at first, then cooler, in the old way. The cooked chine steak is shown in the photo at the top of the page. Achilles and the Irish heroes would have recognized it by sight, and by the glorious meaty smell. I cannot show an aroma in a photo, but I can tell you that my mouth watered when the smell of the perfectly barbecued meat hit my nostrils, and I became very hungry indeed. The flavor of the fire provided the perfect enhancement to the tender red meat, and every bite was like tasting poetry. The unique flavor of this cut, available nowhere else, came through as well, and added to the enjoyment. A steak of this size will feed several people. This grassfed steak, dense with the nutrients of the bone and the fat cooking into the meat, is very satisfying and filling. The feeling of sheer satiation and contentment I felt after the meal was a joy to experience. And I did feel stronger and refreshed.
I understood why this cut was so prized for thousands of years.
For a steak like this, you need grassfed meat, from a healthy cow finished on rich green grass. But it is also important to have it cut properly, and only a butcher who knows the old art of his craft will know how to do this. This mighty, magnificent steak was cut by Brian Chavaria, a skilled butcher who knows his craft and appreciates the magic of great meat.
The chine steak is a tradition well worth preserving.
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