Eating the tail of a cow does not have a terrifically long tradition. It is a hard-won meat in which the consumer needs to skin a lengthy piece of vertebrae and cartilage to obtain a product that has very little meat on it. However, needs must when the devil drives, and when Beelzebub was lopping the heads of French nobles in the revolutionary ‘Terreur,’ cattle skins would arrive at the tanneries with the tails still on. The starving poor would lop the tails off, clean the shit off, skin them and work out how to cook them.
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that ‘oxtail’ (which is rarely from an actual ox these days because we have tractors – oxen are cattle trained to either be ridden or to pull something heavy), does well if cooked very slowly. Classic preparations are to turn them into oxtail soup, or to braise them forever in stock flavoured with vegetables.
In 1997, the UK instituted a ban on the sale of beef on the bone. This occurred in response to an outbreak of the brain disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). In turn, BSE was associated with a ‘species jump’ into humans that manifested as the devastating Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD) – also a neurological condition.
BSE had its roots in a 1980s change in the way that milk was valued. Margaret Thatcher’s government decided to do away with the idea of valuing milk on the basis of butterfat content, and instead pay for milk on the basis of how much protein was in it. In order to boost the protein content of milk, farmers looked to readily available byproducts of their own animal production. The one bit of the animal that nobody really wanted was the protein-rich brains. So farmers started feeding the brains of sheep to cows. Unfortunately, sheep suffer from a BSE-like condition called scrapie. Eventually, this feeding practice led to expansion of the prion responsible for BSE; and boom – we had a crisis that led to the burning of almost the entire British dairy and beef stock.
Oxtail was off the menu, not only because it contained bone, but also because it contained a nice length of super-dangerous bovine spinal cord.
After two years with no côte de boeuf, no beef ribs, no t-bone steaks and no oxtail, the British government declared in 1999 that British beef safe to eat on the bone, and all these classic dishes were once again legal. The French were a little slow to respond to that, probably due to their baseless confidence that French beef is somehow better than British (it isn’t).
Earlier in 1999, before the bony beef ban was lifted, the late Gary Rhodes was all over British televisions cooking bang-up, classic British dishes with modern twist designed to elevate them to greatness. Many of us were hooked in by the spiky-haired, silken-voiced Rhodes seductively narrating the careful patterning of creamy mash on top of a rich shepherd’s pie filling. I loved the series, and we bought the book.
As a reference volume for classic food, Rhodes’ New British Classics is overtaken somewhat by Prue Leith’s Cookery Bible, but that is only because NBC contains a load of nifty modern twists where Leith sticks with the recipes of our grandmothers. But as an inspirational volume from which to explore British food, it has no equal – it is almost our Larousse.
NBC includes a recipe for braised oxtail that is so simple, yet careful in its preparation, that Rhodes declared it as his new ‘signature dish.’ However, he acknowledged that, at the time of writing, it was illegal to buy the key ingredient. Rhodes signed off the recipe with:
“I wanted to include the recipe anyway, against the day when oxtail is available again”
When we ran into a bag of vac-packed oxtail at our local butcher in Chapel-en-le-Frith, we were compelled to have a go at Gary Rhodes’ contraband dish. Rather than following Rhodes exactly, we broke out the automatic slow cooker and used that to do the slow stage over about 6 hours. This dish is brilliant.
Please see the note in the recipe regarding the sieve pass. It needs some unusual gear to do properly, but you can blitz and pass through a normal sieve.
Since writing this article, Chef Gary sadly died.
Braised oxtail Gary Rhodes
- For the braise:
- 4 oxtail joints, (most butchers chop them up rather than selling whole tails)
- 100g beef dripping
- 250g each of carrots, onions, celery and leeks roughly chopped
- 450g tomatoes, chopped
- 2 sprigs of thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 clove of garlic, crushed with the back of a knife
- 600ml red wine
- 2l beef stock (the original calls for veal stock, but that is a special order to FrenchClick, and the dish does not suffer from the richer beef)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper.
- For the garnish:
- 25g butter
- 1 each of carrot, onion, celery and leek diced pretty small (brunoise size)
- 4 tomatoes, blanched, peeled, seeded and diced
- A good handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Heat an oven to 150˚C (or dig out a slow cooker). Season the tails.
Melt the dripping in a Dutch oven and brown the tail pieces on all sides. Remove the tail to a second Dutch oven or the slow cooker bowl.
Fry the chopped vegetables in the dripping residue until softened a bit. Add the tomatoes, garlic and herbs, and cook a little longer. Remove all this stuff to the second vessel with the tails.
Pour the wine into the first pan and reduce until almost dry. Add a bit of the stock and then pour the mixture over the tails. Add the rest of the stock until the tails are covered. If using a slow cooker, stick the thing on auto and leave it for 5 hours. If using a Dutch oven, bring to a simmer and place in the oven for 2 hours.
Lift the tails from the sauce and set aside. At this point Gary Rhodes makes the improbable suggestion that the vegetables are passed through a fine sieve. This will take years, and cost millions of lives. To do this properly, you need to pass the veg though a food mill with progressively finer screens until sieve grade is reached.
Once smooth, reduce the liquid and milled vegetables to a sauce consistency (coats a spoon). Skim off any scum.
While the sauce is reducing, fry the garnish vegetables in the butter until softened.
To finish, put the tails in the sauce with the veg and warm through on a simmer. Add the tomatoes, and sprinkle over with the parsley. Again, this warming can be done in a slow cooker over about 1 hour.