A long-standing gourmand’s rule of thumb states that when it comes to cooking red meat: 1) Fat is where the flavor is; and 2) When in doubt, add butter. The culinary documentary Steak (R)evolution is written and directed by a Frenchman, Franck Ribière, so we can assume the rule applies in full force. It does. And perhaps not coincidentally Ribière’s mouth-watering doc proves — in its jovial, informative quest for the “world’s best steak” — that omnivore foodies got it right: The joy of a fine cut of beef is one of life’s classic pleasures.
Filmmaker Ribière and his crew search in all the likely spots and hear all sorts of on-the-hoof hypotheses. Parisian butcher Yves Marie Le Bourdonnec traces the fashion for modern steak back to the “Anglo-American influence” that caused Europeans to stop boiling beef and start grilling it, post-WWII. Heavy Euro beef was not suited to the grill — cattle needed more fat, less muscle for the best steaks. And yet at the same time, Le Bourdonnec disparages the “flabby” American Black Angus. Clearly, there’s still a bit of cultural sniping between the French- and English-speaking camps.
In Tokyo, we learn from a female butcher that the Japanese think of their famously prized beef as more or less a condiment for rice. The practice of raising “Kobe beef” in a spotless pen, where it listens to Mozart and is massaged with straw and sake, produces the fat marbling that makes the world pay attention. You can expect to pay €20,000 for a side of Tajima Kobe with just the right combination of fat and muscle. But wait, there’s a new “best Japanese beef” in town: Matsusaka, from virgin females of that breed who spend all day eating.
These days, corn- and grain-fed factory animals are definitely out, free-range grass feeding is solidly in across the beef-producing world, in places such as Argentina and Brazil (the top two beef-consuming countries on the planet), Italy’s Tuscany (home of the Florentine T-bone), and Bérénice Walton’s Bazadaise cattle farm in the Sauterne region of Southwestern France. Her wine-making father swears the best way to grill Bazadaise steaks is over a fire made with three-year-old branches of Cabernet Sauvignon vines.
Breeds are an endless topic of competitive comparison. While the USA seems stuck with early-maturing (and thus quick to market) Black Angus, the breeders of Charolais (France), Pure Aberdeen Angus (Scotland), Japanese Black, Aubrac (up-country France), and the Tigre breed, which chows down on everything from tree branches to weeds on the island of Corsica, all claim their steaks are the finest. One thing’s for certain — once a beefsteak-producing breed gains fame in the marketplace, food-biz suppliers will do anything to get it for their customers. Anders Larson, who raises Swedish Wagyu cattle that he says he got in an embryo transfer from an American farm, tells tales of Japanese Wagyu sperm being stolen from a Dutch lab, whence it turned up all over the globe.
But sometimes it just comes down to contented livestock and sustainable feed. In northern Spain’s province of León, José Gordon goes against the received wisdom and slaughters his Blond Galician beef when they’re twelve to fifteen years old, then hangs them up before butchering, in the traditional Spanish style. American restaurateurs are astonished, but the “old cattle” method gets the nod from Ribière; he calls Gordon’s long-horned Rubia Gallega the best meat in the world. Some call the resulting steaks “dry-aged”; the Spaniards refer to them as, ahem, well hung.
Steak (R)evolution functions perfectly well as a travelogue, with the South of France, Corsica, and the Scottish Highlands taking top honors for attractiveness. Above all, Ribière’s lovingly made doc is about people as much as red meat; even a vegan could applaud the notion that sustainability is a concept that has arrived everywhere in the world. For beef eaters, the experience is one of pure joy. The future of steak is this: grass-fed, better beef, higher prices. That’s evolution, baby.