The mighty smells of meat

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Mouth-watering aroma or off-putting pong? Fresh, hung or cooked, the odours of meat take many forms, to the disgust of some and to the delight of others who drool over the flesh of hares fed on juniper berries, or of cattle fed on spring grass. On the occasion of the International Meatout Day this Monday, March 20, 2023, we suggest you, instead of consuming meat, to smell its exhalations through this article by Guillaume Tesson, originally published in Nez, the Olfactory Magazine – #07 – The Animal Sense.

On the lower ground floor of the Lafayette Gourmet food hall, a few yards from the Opéra Garnier building in central Paris, the first thing that strikes you about Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec’s butcher’s shop-cum-restaurant with its neat rows of beef ribs, cheeks, T-bones and rump steaks, is its myriad shades of red. That is closely followed by the smell that emanates from the place. Hard to pin down, it brings to mind a potent blend of hay and wild animals. And it has nothing to do with the surrounding charcuterie and cheese stalls. “What you’re smelling is aged meat,” smiled Le Bourdonnec, one of France’s best-known butchers – and the most expensive. His Salangus rib of beef from the breeder Samuel Fouillard, aged for 90 days, sells for 150 euros per kilo, while the “Big Boy” wagyu goes for 240 euros per kilo. I was meeting with the artisan butcher at 1pm on a Friday, for lunch. When the platter of beef charcuterie arrives, my nostrils were suddenly overwhelmed by the powerful aroma of cowsheds coming from the salaté, a specialty comprising beef shoulder rubbed with garlic, covered in salt and then encased in herbs. The “stable-like” flavour is confirmed by my taste buds: it’s fatty and strong, almost unpleasant, yet strangely addictive. In the same vein, the grilled entrecôte exudes accents of hay and thyme. The flavour, rustic and pronounced, has notes of hazelnut and – almost – of cheese. “It’s a cut that’s aged for 60 days,” our butcher explained. “By way of comparison, supermarket meat is sold after ten days at the most. Ageing develops the flavour and makes it more tender. Only the fattiest carcasses are aged. Not every breed is suitable.” The large cuts of beef, known as aloyaux in French, are taken from the lumbar section of the animal, between the last rib and the sacrum, and contain the finest cuts such as fillet, sirloin, rib-eye and rump steak. Hanging in a cold room, they are matured in a ventilated atmosphere with strict humidity control. The muscle structure is altered by enzymes, and the tissue loses a lot of water – up to 50%.

Thyme and hay

Jean-Martial Lefranc is editor-in-chief of French magazine Beef!, which ranked one of Le Bourdonnec’s cuts among the “ten best steaks in the world”. In his opinion, “hanging meat is an art comparable to ripening cheese or ageing wine. It’s not about which is the best or which isn’t as good: it’s just interesting more than anything. It takes us back to our relationship with bacteria and fermentation. The return to these techniques is currently fundamental to the search for new flavours. And smell is a part of tasting”. At Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec’s shop, the “Classique” range includes meats aged for 60 days and for “Premium” cuts it can be up to 120 days. “I use my nose to estimate how long I might be able to age an aloyau,” he said. “At midday every Monday, at my butchery in La Villette, I rub my hands together to warm them up, then massage the fat that covers the backs of the carcasses. If my palms come away with a good smell of thyme and hay, it’s a sign of excellent ageing potential.” Throughout the ageing process, the nose is on the alert for any trace of acidity which, Le Bourdonnec explained, indicates that “spoiling, and then decomposition, aren’t far off ”. The aromas that accompany the rotting process are caused by bacteria breaking down the proteins and glycogen in the tissue. This releases the particularly repellent smells of carbon dioxide, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide – fetid and sulphurous, they resemble the odour you get when you take the protective film off a packet of raw poultry that has reached, or exceeded, its expiry date. Speaking on the phone, Arthur Le Caisne – who authored the Manuel du Garçon Boucher (a butchery guide published in France by Marabout in 2017) – is unequivocal: fresh meat has almost no smell. It is the fat that conveys odours. “The fat on cattle reared in a field will be a little yellow, from the carotene in the grass,” said Le Caisne. What the animals eat plays a key role. Lush spring grass gives meat floral, herbaceous flavours, while you get the taste of winter hay in meat from cattle slaughtered at that time of year, along with more robust, more animal notes. As for the enticing aroma of a cut being grilled or roasted, this is what is known as the Maillard reaction, named after the French chemist who first explained it. Le Caisne summed it up like this: “When cooked, sugars and amino acids [contained in the food] bind together, creating molecules that are highly fragrant and contain a lot of flavour. The higher the temperature, the stronger and more delicious the smell.”

Unique smells

A few days later, I came across this appetising aroma again when I pushed open the door of Beefbar Paris, on the aptly-named Rue Marbeuf. It is subtle, though, just like the subdued decor and lighting. “I’d rather go blind than lose my sense of smell,” confessed the executive chef Thierry Paludetto, who serves top quality cuts from all over the world: Black Angus from Kansas, Australian wagyu, certified Kobe beef, and Dutch milk-fed veal. His restaurants – there are Beefbars in Budapest, Cannes, Dubai, Luxembourg, Mexico, Monaco, Mykonos and one in Hong Kong which has a Michelin star – don’t sell aged steaks. All the same, even blindfolded he can recognise his Kobe beef, with its “smell of butter and hazelnut”, and the Argentinian meat fed on pampa grass, which gives it “a scent similar to game, with a strong smell of blood and herbaceous notes of parsley, rosemary and thyme”. Thierry Paludetto waxes lyrical on the subject and on his memories of cooking with the late, great French chef Alain Senderens, whose recipe for Hare à la Royale he still knows by heart. The flavours and incredibly full-bodied aroma of this towering monument to French gastronomy – served either as a roulade or a compote – are unforgettable for anyone who tastes it. The flavours of game, foie gras and cognac in the dish are so strong that, after you’ve indulged, you’re soon tormenting those around you with your breath. “Senderens only bought female hares from Alsace that had fed on juniper berries, so their flesh was suffused with the scent,” recalled Paludetto. “His recipe used the blood, heart and lungs. After the hare had been cut up in the kitchen, it gave off a powerful smell for hours.” At Beefbar, he makes a Kobe beef recipe which pays tribute to a simpler dish with more intimate memories for him – the beef ragout with wine that his Italian father used to make as a filling for delicious ravioli. “An unforgettable aroma, the scent of my childhood.” Growing up, as he put it, surrounded by racks of drying saucissons with their animal fragrance, childhood also predetermined charcutier Gilles Verot’s career choice. In 2011 his pâté en croute [course pâté, meat and game in a pastry crust] was voted the second-best in the world. “I wanted to work in this trade because of the smell of cured meat left on my hands,” enthused Verot. His meats are rich in flavour, but more subtle on the nose. “All our recipes are made in a refrigerated atmosphere at 6°C, so nothing smells very much,” he explained, almost apologetically, opening the door to his workshops in the south-east Paris suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine. He was about to prepare an oreiller de la belle Aurore (meaning “beautiful Aurore’s pillow”), the queen of pâté en croute. This masterpiece of gastronomy, created by French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), weighs 15 kilos and is made up of layers of stuffing, truffles and ten different meats including pheasant, doe, pork, sweetbread, mallard, partridge, guinea fowl, and duck foie gras. Each give off their delicately truffled aroma when served in warm slices. But while it is cooking, it is mainly the smell of the pastry that fills the room. Requiring six hours of preparation and three to four hours of cooking, Gilles Verot only makes this recipe four times a year. Unlike the butcher’s shop of Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec, Verot’s shops, with their displays of pâtés and terrines, have more of a neutral smell. “Appealing to the appetite is mainly about vision, although the nostrils come into play when we bring out hot blood pudding, rillons [pork confit], or cheese tarts fresh from the oven,” he said.

Controversy behind the scenes

With the raw material transformed into such sublime creations – which some regard as art – we appear to be far, far away from the odours inextricably linked to the earlier stages of meat production. Death and the aromas that go with it are well-known to Le Bourdonnec, who helped out as a teenager at a municipal slaughterhouse in Brittany. “I used to go there on Wednesdays and during the holidays,” he recalled. “I wouldn’t say the odours there were disgusting, I’d describe them more as ‘striking’. There was the smell of the animals that came in all wet and sweaty, the excrement, the blood, very ferrous. When I was getting the hair off the pigs, I liked the smell of singed hair. I still visit slaughterhouses today, but they’ve become like clinics, they’ve lost their character. The smell of blood has disappeared. But they can’t get rid of the smell of the belly when you open it up. That is horrendous. A really strong gastric stench. Nowadays slaughterhouses smell like hot andouillette [a sausage containing intestines], times a thousand.” What goes on behind the scenes, which we prefer not to think about as we tuck into our steak, has for several years fuelled controversy around the agrifood industry and the issue of animal welfare. In France, anti-speciesism association L214, which campaigns for the abolition of livestock farming, has regularly released shocking undercover footage of slaughterhouse activity. It was with an approach of recontextualising these debates, that Bruno Laurioux, a professor of medieval history and nutrition in France, and archaeologist Marie-Pierre Horard, co-authored a book on the history of meat consumption, Pour une histoire de la viande (published by Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2017). It tells us, notably, that flexitarianism, which means eating animal protein less often, used to be the norm in the past. And that aged beef was around in the Middle Ages – long before upper middle class, urban, enlightened foodies got their teeth into it – and the technique was perfected with the advent of refrigeration in the late 19th century. “One of the reasons meat is problematic is that people don’t really know what it is,” observed Laurioux. “Ever since we moved death – I mean cemeteries and slaughterhouses – out of the cities at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, everything happens somewhere else, people avert their eyes from all these procedures. When you don’t know what’s going on, anxiety sets in. What’s more, in the second half of the 20th century, industrialisation made it the norm for meat to be very red, full of blood and water, with no odour […] It’s essential for people to regain ownership of what they eat, by asking their butcher questions, by smelling the products on sale. We gain expertise and knowledge through the senses, like smell.” For Jean-Martial Lefranc of Beef! magazine, “we create closeness and complicity with others when we share knowledge or technical skills […] Beyond the predatory element that may still exist within us in our taste for meat, the olfactory sense, which connects people in a common appreciation for a beautifully cooked piece of meat, remains a fundamental cultural and social phenomenon.”

Main visual : Tomás Yepes, Still Life with Birds and Hares (detail), XVIIth century. Source : Wikimedia Commons

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