Calf's head: The beef cuts Britain forgot

Watch chef Stefan Gates as he cooks a calf's head

British cuisine is synonymous with roast beef. But there are a wealth of beef cuts people have turned their backs on.

The guests are sitting down, the table is set, and the Sunday roast is brought out.

It is beef, it is full of flavour, and it is well cooked.

But it is not ribs, sirloin, topside, silverside, top rump or fillet.

It is a calf's head - cooked to a recipe from 1755. Good or gross?

While roast beef remains a firm favourite, and beef has made a comeback in all manner of dishes, most consumers tend to stick to a few tried and tested cuts.

Best beef:

Roast beef with horseradish on Mini Yorkshires

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Use tougher cuts in a beef bourguignon

Relish stewing beer-braised oxtail

Many that were once commonplace, like the calf's head cooked by the chef Stefan Gates in his programme Calf's Head and Coffee: The Golden Age of English Food, have fallen out of favour.

Stefan Gates says the era of Reformation in England in the 1600s was England's golden age of cooking - when beef first became its national dish.

"Beef is a quintessential English dish. The British crave beef, we relate to it as an identity," Stefan says.

Food historian Ivan Day says he loves a fillet of beef recipe from 1660, the year Charles II was restored to the throne.

"If anything we are a nation of cattle drovers, we are renowned for our beef," he says.

Stefan says the calf's head was "a symbol of the eminence of the British beef industry" in the 1700s, when England was the leader in terms of animal husbandry and technology.

Find out more:

Calf's head

Watch Calf's Head and Coffee: The Golden Age of English Food on BBC Four on Monday 19 November at 21:00 GMT

"I wanted to show there was spectacle with a reason to it.

"It's a forgotten dish and it's difficult to cook. It's essentially done these days in a different form... using throwaway meat."

Is it a dish that could be revived?

"It's not just difficult, it's graphic. It is relatively hard to get hold of, in no way am I suggesting people are going to make this for Sunday lunch.

"It's just an extraordinary symbol of our food being the best in the world," he says.

If it were attempted, cooks would need to source a calf's head first before following the recipe.

David Kelly, head butcher at Ruby and White, Bristol says calf's head "would be less hard to get hold of than a whole beef head".

He sees more demand for calf's tongue, cheeks and calf's sweet breads.

Beef image Cheaper beef cuts can be tender and delicious with the right recipe

"For a calf's head you're only really paying for the time it takes to process it, skin it and get it ready. There's no huge value to it as such," he explains.

"I imagine we could pick one up for under a tenner. It's very achievable, and certainly something we can get hold of."

The restaurant revival of nose-to-tail cooking has seen more experimentation with meat previously adored by past generations.

How roast beef became British:

Rack of beef ribs

Food historian Ivan says in the 1600s beef was the best of British food you could ever possibly experience.

"In the 17th Century farmers were beginning to think about how they could improve their strains, and by the 18th Century we are producing the best beef in Europe," says Ivan Day.

"We actually accelerated forward with cattle improvement."

Author Ben Rogers says it was in the 18th Century that beef eating became a sign of Englishness.

During continual wars with France, the English contrasted their "hearty" diet with elaborate French food.

The French coined the term Le Rosbif to describe the food, but by 1850 the phrase had been extended to mean Englishmen.

Other forgotten parts include cow-heel, tongue, ox-pith - the marrow of the spinal cord, ox-tail, and ox-palate.

Even hearts made meals in years gone by.

"In the beef-eating North poor folk sometimes cooked bullock's heart instead of goose at Christmas," says Dorothy Hartley in her book Food in England.

However things are different today. David Kelly's top-selling beef cut is rib-eye steak, then minced beef, followed by other beef steaks.

But he says "slightly more obscure things have come back into fashion partly because they've been highlighted by top chefs and partly because they're a bit cheaper".

"Ironically the cheaper cuts have now become more expensive because of supply and demand.

"Things like ox cheek, oxtail, or the various different skirts, onglet and bavette steak.

"So although it has traditionally been cheap, more people are asking for it now which has pushed the demand and price up."

David Kelly says abattoirs and suppliers say there is not enough beef being produced in Britain and he hopes that there will be a turnaround and the local market "will come back to life again".

"The price per kilo of bodies of beef has gone up over 10% in the last year and that's a phenomenal amount for any producer or abattoir trying to absorb that cost," he says.

Prices tend to rise for locally-produced beef if there is less of it about. However Stefan Gates is a big fan of using cheaper cuts.

"The only expensive cuts I buy are rib of beef, and fillet to make a carpaccio," he says.

Head butcher David Kelly Butcher David Kelly says cheaper cuts are becoming more expensive as demand rises

"Ox cheeks are enormously popular in my house... it's those deep, deep English flavours.

"Onglet, flank steaks and skirt have incredibly rich beefy flavours, but very, very firm structures, great flash fried, or feather steak… a feather cut, another cut, a very strong flat sinew through the middle."

But he says "oxtail is the absolute classic".

"Italians have osso buco (cross-cut veal shanks braised with vegetables, white wine and broth). Oxtail is our osso buco.

"In the 70s it was seen as a bad cut - we are rediscovering now though, with a little bit of care, incredibly cheap cuts are incredibly good."

David Kelly agrees: "All the cheaper cuts are essentially braising cuts that have to be cooked for longer, due to the nature of how tender the muscles are, they all come from the forequarter.

"You end up with real hearty winter food with a strong flavour."

Perfect to try out in the colder months.

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