Friday, 22 July 2011
Burgers - the fight for a Happy Medium
A battle is being fought for London's burgers. If you have no interest in burgers, and I know for a fact there are at least a handful of you out there, you poor joyless things, you probably couldn't care less. But speaking as someone with a less than healthy (literally) obsession with the placing of minced beef in between two slices of bread, and for whom the search for London's Best Burger has been a bit of a personal quest over the last few years, I do care. And for once, the bad guys in this battle aren't international chains plying lowest-common-denominator ingredients, or even hugely ill-conceived "gourmet" offerings containing pineapple (ugh) or rocket (go away). No, this time the enemy is the Food Standards Agency and their team of almost comically bureaucratic Environmental Health Officers. People who have no interest in furthering Britain's reputation for food, no interest in making it any easier for struggling independent restaurants trying to do something right for a change and actually, let's face it, probably no interest in food at all. People, in fact, like Philip Harris.
I don't know what kind of person Philip Harris is. I have an image of him, stood alone in his vast, spotless kitchen using rubber gloves and a face mask to make his cheese and pickle sandwiches for work (I'm guessing he's also a vegetarian), but this might be unfair. He has a job to do, and my God he'll do it, even if it means coming up with heroically misguided rubbish like "This trend of the rare burger is becoming fashionable and is something we, as a profession, should be alert to." Alert to! Yes, Phillip, the rare burger is "becoming" fashionable (another glaringly obvious clue these people are as far removed from real life as it's possible to be - "becoming" fashionable in 2011? Really?). People are discovering juicy, tender pink beef burgers made from carefully aged meat and - horror of horrors! - actually enjoying them! Well, Philip Harris isn't going to take this kind of thing sitting down in his shrink-wrapped armchair. It's his job to sanitise, to dumb-down, to suck every bit of soul and joy out of the experience of eating out, and he has the infinitely unlikely possibility of an E. coli 0104 infection to help him along the way.
"The only way", says Harris, "such a product can be cooked to ensure the pathogens are destroyed is if the burger is totally cooked throughout, with no rare centre." And to be fair to him, that is the only way, just as the only way of ensuring you never get struck by lightning is to spend the rest of your life in a cave a thousand feet underground with a wet towel wrapped around your head. But I have it on good authority that with the combination of food safety standard in any half decent restaurant and the rigorous processes involved in the production of modern British beef, there is next to nothing at all to fear in eating pink burgers; certainly no more than there is in, say, eating raw oysters or fresh sashimi, which our friends from EH seem strangely to be far more relaxed about. There is a risk in eating anything, of doing anything, the sensible thing is to make people aware of those risks and then if they still want to have that chicken sashimi dinner (Harris would red-tape himself to an early grave if he ever visited Japan) then go ahead, why not.
You may think clueless pen-pushers from the FSA are too much of an easy target, and after all it is still possible to get wonderful juicy pink burgers from Goodman and Hawksmoor and the Meatwagon and Byron, and so, what's the problem if some obscure paranoid "directive" is drawn up by civil servants with OCD if it is only going to be heartily (and quite rightly) ignored? Ah, but you see, it isn't always being ignored. Take Barbecoa in the city, for example, who have decided that, on balance, the risk of being falsely (or otherwise) accused of food poisoning following serving someone a pink burger is not worth the damage to the Jamie Oliver brand, and have come up with a patty mix that supposedly holds its juiciness despite being cooked through to a rather unappetising monochrome. It tasted livery and strangely vegetal, like a sort of meatloaf sandwich, and was faintly unpleasant, but hey, I guess Jamie Oliver Co. is more interested in safeguarding against the reputation hit of Poisoned of East Sussex being splashed across the weekend tabloids than the damage done by serving an inferior product. And that's entirely up to them.
A couple of days earlier, and a press release from the Malmaison and Hotel du Vin group proudly announcing a "safe way of offering guests a cooking preference for their burgers which will keep the Food Standards Agency content, but without detracting from the great taste and dining experience." It seems the Mal too have been given the choice to either make a worse product, or be slapped with a prohibition notice, and being a large luxury chain with a nationwide reputation to uphold, they chose the former. Of course, I am only assuming the overcooked version of the Mal burger is worse than a juicy pink version because I have never tried either, but I think it's a fair assumption.
So, the battle continues. You may think that the right to enjoy a nice pink beef burger is sacred to every Londoner, but it is only thanks to a fearless group of restaurants actually willing to risk their businesses to produce the very best food they can that we are in such a fortunate position. From what I gather, it only takes one person to turn up at the door of the FSA claiming their dicky tummy is due to raw mince and yet another fine example is taken off the capital's menu. And if you don't care about beef burgers, think of a London without the Opera Tavern Iberico pork burger or even the pluma Iberica from José. Fantastic, exciting, unique dishes that the FSA would happily see banned. Enjoy while you can, then, the Great Burgers of London, spare a thought for the brave souls willing to stick their heads above the parapet in the name of good eating, and have a huge, heaving, cheese-soaked, juicy, bloody beef burger on me. Just don't tell Philip Harris.
Burgers pictured are, from the top, Byron's Uncle Sam, the Meatwagon Bacon Cheeseburger, Hawksmoor, Draft House, and Bar Boulud