New York Times: Wagyu from Spain

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PARIS — It’s easy to spend a lot of money here on a mediocre steak.

Just about every Paris bistro offers bavette with shallots, faux filet with frites, rumsteck with Roquefort sauce. Menus often identify the noble bovines that are the sources; most notably, the off-white Charolaise, the brown Limousine and the wheat-hued Blonde d’Aquitaine.

The problem is that much of made-in-France meat isn’t marvelous. So in recent years, a quiet revolution has been underway. Foreign beef — from the United States, South America or other European countries — is invading.

“We raise big, powerful, muscular races of cows in France that were bred for work,” said Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec, a butcher for 30 years. “Alas, they produce beef with very little taste.”

Mr. Le Bourdonnec has star power. (He posed naked with a côte de boeuf for a 2012 calendar to make his profession “look sexy.”) He is also a champion for the cause of imported beef. If a butcher shop could be considered a museum, his Boucherie Lamartine would qualify. It is a landmark because of its classic facade, tile work and hand-carved woodwork. The words “Specialist in Aging” are written on the front windows in gold. Tourists come to take photos. Chauffeurs line up to pick up packages for their wealthy patrons.

Refrigerated window displays contain a score of different pieces of côte de boeuf, all neatly lined up on shelves, including Wagyu from Spain, grass-fed Longhorn from England and Montbéliarde from France. Some cost more than $100 a pound. In another window, classic chunks and strips of French beef that might be considered unworthy in the Anglo-Saxon world hang from meat hooks. “The Americans would use these cuts for hamburger,” he said. “The British would feed it to their dogs.”

About 20 percent of beef consumed in France these days is imported, mainly from Germany, England and Ireland, and more and more frequently, places like the United States, Spain, Argentina and Brazil. (American beef was banned from European Union countries until producers guaranteed that it had not been treated with growth-promoting hormones.)

Caillebotte, the impossible-to-get-into bistro opened late last year by the owners of the successful Le Pantruche a few blocks away, is serving a Black Angus bavette from Kansas. Restaurant Unico specializes in beef imported from Argentina. The Beef Club, which serves English and Scottish beef chosen by Mr. Le Bourdonnec, has installed its own butcher shop on the premises to comply with strict European Union rules about aged beef.

The most Americanized new arrival on the Paris restaurant scene is Café des Abattoirs, part of the small empire of the two-star Michelin chef Michel Rostang and his daughters Caroline and Sophie, in central Paris.

Inspired by New York steakhouses, it offers clients orange-and-white checked mini-aprons instead of napkins, oversize black-handled steak knives and a variety of cuts of Black Angus imported from Kansas and Angus from Scotland. (In a nod to France, one-pound entrecôtes from Nantaise and Armoricaine cows from Brittany are served.)

On the table are plastic squeeze bottles of homemade sauces, including barbecue, tarragon mayonnaise, mustard, pepper and ketchup made with horseradish and lemon that seems a better fit for shrimp cocktail. Short ribs, a cut that does not exist in France, cook for 72 hours on a super-low heat in a state-of-the-art oven, then are finished off in a Spanish-made Josper closed grill fueled with wood and grapevines. The result just might win the prize for the most thoroughly marbled meat in Paris.

“We are not in France here,” says the chef Yann Lainé. “No one cuts meat like this. If I brought this piece of meat to the butcher across the street, he’d reject it as too fatty. But we love American beef. The  animals are raised in the same climate with the same feed all year round. The meat is uniform and nice and fat. 

At Le Sévero, a sliver of a restaurant with only 28 places in a dead zone in the un-chic 14th Arrondissement, William Bernet, the owner, serves mostly Simmental aged beef from Bavaria. Mr. Bernet started out as a butcher and has been running Le Sévero for 27 years. Some beef lovers consider it the best steakhouse in Paris.

He doesn’t ask most clients how they want their meat cooked. If you come here, it is assumed you want it somewhere between bleu — raw except for a quick searing — or saignant — rare. “Once in a while someone asks for medium-rare,” he said. “If we are forced, we do it.”

He explained that historically, French cows were raised as lean, muscular beasts of burden. Serving up their flesh was an afterthought. “The key to good meat is slow feeding with good feed, no stress, no illnesses, no additives,” he said. “The problem with French cows is that their owners thought they were horses.”

That’s why just about every region in France has its own traditional recipes with beef that has been ground into small bits (like beef Parmentier) or simmered until it resembles something soft (like pot au feu), he said.

Despite the invasion of imports, the French can be fierce protectors of the reputation of the superiority of their beef. In 2011, 40 writers, historians, designers and intellectuals came together with the French Confederation of Butchers to produce a large-format, limited-edition book of essays and illustrations in praise of French meat. 

One essay, entitled “Beef-Being,” discussed the bovine sensuality of a woman and the femininity of a Limousine cow. For a man to share a côte de boeuf with a woman, the author wrote, is an “eminently erotic act,” not because of words spoken, looks exchanged or under-the-table touching, but because it’s a shared “amorous favor.”

Some celebrations of foreign beef are as sentimental as they are gustatory. The Joulie family, for example, has been in the restaurant business for nearly 40 years and now owns 10 restaurants in Paris.

“Since I was 14, my father took me to New York and we ate at all the steakhouses,” said Christophe Joulie, the director of the business. “We’d be at The Palm, Gallagher’s, Morton’s, Smith & Wollensky, you name it, and he’d say to me, ‘My dream is to open a steakhouse in Paris.’ ”

In 2002, the younger Joulie bought Au Boeuf Couronné, an Art Deco institution in the northeast of Paris where most of the city’s slaughterhouses and butchers were once based. It offers 1.1-pound Angus T-bone steaks, aged for 15 days and imported — from Scotland. He serves them with a special Béarnaise sauce.

“The T-bone is a sign of love for my father,” he said. “The rest of my beef is from France. Yes, I admit it. We are a steakhouse, a French steakhouse. It’s not very nice to bad-mouth our French cows.”

Brent Young, one of the butchers at the Meat Hook butcher shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, disagrees. On a trip to France in 2011 to learn French butchering from Mr. Le Bourdonnec, he and his business partner couldn’t find a good steak anywhere in Paris. “The steaks weren’t aged enough,” he recalled. “They tasted like watery chicken breasts. It became a running joke: ‘Let’s go out and get a good steak.’ ”

Mr. Le Bourdonnec thinks he has a solution. He wants to import live animals to France, not dead ones.

He tells the story of a businessman, Yves-Marie Morault, who loved the look of his Blonde d’Aquitaine cows on the fields of his chateau in Normandy, but considered their cereal feed much too expensive. So he asked Mr. Le Bourdonnec to help replace them with some smaller, more delicate, easier to feed Angus. Shortly afterward, 100 Angus cattle arrived from across the English Channel. Today he has about 60 cows and 4 bulls. The two men are aiming to market them.

“We don’t need to import meat here,” Mr. Le Bourdonnec said. “Every cattle ranch in France has a field of grass behind it. We need better animals and crossbreeding. The best solution would be to put an Anglo-Saxon animal together with a French butcher — like an American woman with a French lover. Perfect.”



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