Peter Hertzmann / March 25th, 2013
There they were, two bite-sized pieces of raw chicken meat. They looked quite appealing on the square of lacquered pine that the server in the Kyoto restaurant placed in front of me. The chicken appeared to only be seasoned with a sprinkling of sansho. I had come to this restaurant expecting a surfeit of chicken dishes, their specialty, but for some long-forgotten reason, chicken sashimi wasn’t what I had expected.
I had already eaten so many new items on that trip in 1989 that even raw chicken didn’t seem out of the ordinary. I picked up my chopsticks and snatched one of the pieces off its perch. It was slightly cool, and the surface felt in my mouth like it had a thin coating of oil. The initial taste was somewhat plain, but when I started to chew, I found it unlike anything I had previously eaten. It was sweet—not sweet like sugar—but sweet nonetheless. The texture wasn’t dissimilar from raw, fatty fish, but the flavor was truly new and tasty. It was the best item I ate that evening.
Ever since then, whenever the opportunity arises, I eat raw meat. Whenever I butcher an animal, I sample small bites from most of the muscles. I’ve learned that even in the raw state, all muscles do not taste alike. I’ve learned that some muscles taste better raw, others benefit from a short cooking, and some require a long braise to optimize their flavor. I’ve learned that raw, grass-finished, dry-aged beef tenderloin isn’t as tasty as raw, grain-finished, wet-aged beef tenderloin. I’ve learned that raw tenderloin isn’t the tastiest part of an animal. I’ve learned that raw, ground meat isn’t as tasty as raw, finely hand-cut meat.
A few years ago, I was instructing a class of culinary students who were attempting to butcher a lamb. In a commercial setting, lamb is often butchered with a band saw. Speed and efficiency are more important than a careful dissection of the major muscles. The result is the variety of lamb cuts available in the meat case today. My students were required to accomplish their task with only a knife or two. Rather than keep the legs whole, I had them strip each major muscle—sirloin tip, inside round, eye of round, and outside round—from the leg and clean them of any excess membranous tissue. Since there was time, I showed them how to break the inside round down further into three individual muscles. One of the better students took the challenge and duplicated my moves on the opposite inside round.
I wanted the students to taste the subtle difference between the three muscles that a few minutes earlier were tightly bonded together. It was an offer that most of the students declined. (They all think that I’m a bit touched because I eat rare meat, and when they see me eat raw meat, they really think I have a screw loose.) When I tasted the abductor muscle, the smallest of the three, I experienced an epiphanic event that in the movies would be symbolized with flashing lights and musical fanfare. That lamb muscle was as good as that chicken meat was in Kyoto–maybe even sweeter.
I cleverly set both abductor muscles aside so I could take them home for my personal pleasure. (It would have been a shame to let the students cook them into two charred, shrunken lumps.) Once home, I cut one into 5 mL cubes and vacuum-packed the other for the freezer. Each weighed about 110 grams, which I have since learned is about average for an abductor muscle from a 30-kilogram, five-month-old lamb. I decided to forgo my usual, overly complicated tartare recipe, which I had learned while sharing a beer with Louis Outhier on a veranda overlooking a deep valley in the Jura in the summer of 2000. All I added to the cubed meat was a slight sprinkling of fine salt and freshly ground black pepper along with a few drops of roasted sesame seed oil. After a few hours of chilling in the refrigerator, my wife and I shared the lamb tartare as an amuse bouche.
Now, whenever I find myself with a group of butchers and an uncommitted abductor muscle, I insist that everyone try a sample of the raw meat. No one fails to agree with my assessment that this is the sweetest piece of meat you can find.
Last summer, I butchered a lamb that was raised by a woman who runs a pastry shop. She named the lamb Madeline. She had fed Madeline stale cakes and cookies in addition to grass and grains. Madeline was about 15 percent heavier than normal at five months. All of her meat was incredibly sweet.
Food Arts Note: Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish, or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness.
Besides being a proud member of The Butcher’s Guild, Peter Hertzmann is the author of Knife Skills Illustrated: A User’s Manual and the creator of à la carte e-zine, a rich and obsessive (his word!) resource for recipes and culinary technique, with lots of excellent articles and videos. He also teaches knife skills in many settings, including a county jail