Kathryn Tomasetti is an award-winning food and travel writer whose work appears in Delicious and The Guardian. Her favourite food is artichokes.
Like pufferfish or sell-by-date sushi, ordering Steak Tartare exudes a devil-may-care attitude. Buying cheap doubles the risk. Perching an Asda yolk atop a pound of mince is a lottery as to which ingredient will kill you first? Even preparing the dish at home - a five-minute prep that garners wows of excitement - smacks of a stuntman’s penance.
Steak Tartare’s reputation canters with its cavalier history. The dish supposedly dovetails with Genghis Khan’s Mongol warriors, who conquered Europe by horse. Legend states that these Tatars, or mounted nomads, would secrete a piece of horsemeat under the saddle prior to a day’s marauding. By nightfall the tenderised piece of equine putty could be munched with a glass of mare’s milk. Or, in extremis, a shot of plasma from a blooded animal. There was no place of snowflakes in the Golden Horde.
Over centuries the dish evolved from Tatar jerky to French delicacy. Eating raw was associated with freshness, vitality and health. Horse was still used (boucheries chevallier still proliferate around France) although beef’s longevity made it the meat of choice. In 1921, legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier listed it in his cookbook as "Beefsteack à la Tartare". As a dish with so few ingredients there was no place to hide. Escoffier’s recipe called for the best Breton shallots, Provence sea salt and Dijon mustard. Only top Parisian restaurants, among them Le Grand Véfour, could source such fine fare.
Globalisation marked the dish’s decline. In the 1970s, when Concorde flew CDG-JFK, gourmet cuisine meant French. That meant the Steak Tartare recipe flew to every business hotel from Tokyo to Torquay. The quality controls required for such a simple platter were disregarded at great peril. Also exported during this naff jet age were Steak au Poivre Flambé and Crêpe Suzettes. If you dined in a posh restaurant, the male waiter would set both dishes aflame to impress female dining companions. If it was really posh, the lady’s menu would omit prices. Heaven forfend if two women ate together.
Now Steak Tartare is back on the menu. Little Social in Mayfair serves one with juniper cream. Omnino in Leadenhall a mini version with a quail's egg on top. Angela and Nigella are both fans. The prepare-at-home recipe requires a hand-diced striploin or sirloin from your local butcher. Then simply crack the egg, ask Alexa for Françoise Hardy, then party like it's 1972. Like sushi, the dish is best served with a Sancerre or similar dry white; a meaty red will overpower these surprisingly subtle flavours.
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