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

22 comments:

fourstar said...

Hear, hear. Bravo. Encore. Spread the good word :)

Paul said...

I really *really* want a burger now...

Falaise said...

Not sure I really understand this. Persumably, they are not worried about sashimi, oysters or even steak tartare, all of which are regularly served and consumed in London (not least by me!).

Presumably, the FSA would argue that, with these, you know what you are putting in your mouth and have accepted the risk.

If so, why don't restaurants just put a note at the bottom of the menu to the effect that their burgers are served pink? Presumably, problem then solved?

If someone then gets ill, they can sue if they think the restaurant has breached health and safety rules or has been negligent but they can't run of whining to the Food Nazis to complain.

Or am I missing something here?

Dave said...

Undercooked minced beef! Perish the thought. Mr Harris has presumably never been to France then. Good article.

Hugh Wright said...

As you well know Chris I'm no burger enthusiast but I most certainly AM a good food enthusiast so heartily salute & support this 'campaign'! Poor Philip Harris; it must be a terribly lonely life being scared of EVERYTHING and EVERYONE.

Bravo, hear hear, etc.

Dave said...

On a serious note, the environmental health piece is very annoying in that there is no acknowledgement of the widely varying quality of meat available. Would I eat a rare burger from a grotty high street takeaway, no. Would I eat a rare burger from the places you list, yes of course. The inference in the EHO's article is that beef contaminated with something nasty is the norm, rather than the exception.

Andy K said...

The answer to one of your questions is here:
http://youngandfoodish.com/burgers/my-confidence-cracked-in-the-bistro-du-vin-burger/

I agree with everything, obviously. A risk-free life is not really worth living and, as long as cigarettes and alcohol are legal, rare burgers certainly ought to be...

Pavel said...

All this talk of ecoli on the meat is absolute gash, if any suspect matter were spilled on the animal during slaughter the meat simply wouldn't get into the food chain.

The most common way for people to get ecoli is from unwashed hands pure and simple. Anyone with a basic food hygiene certificate knows this to be true...

Valid piece well said Chris, if you need any help forming a baying crowd to protest outside the EHO and FSA I'll be there!

Sashimi Girl in Stroud Green said...

This happened to me just yesterday. I am happy with medium but actually I prefer rare. I use it as a test. If the establishment declines to serve the burger medium or rare then I don't order the burger. Their attitude tells me that the chef/owners neither know nor care about the provenance of what they are serving and they are incapable of sourcing quality product. Yesterday, I ended up with a very delicious, perfectly cooked fillet of smoked haddock with a nicely cooked poached egg and some wilted spinach. It was very nice, but it wasn't the burger I'd fancied originally.

Sashimi Girl in Stroud Green said...

This happend to me yesterday. I'm happy with medium but I actually prefer rare. If someone says they cannot serve burgers any other way than completely cooked through I don't order the burger. Their attitude tells me that they neither know nor care about the provenance of that particular product and are incapable of sourcing quality meat.

In fact I ended up with a delicious and perfectly cooked fillet of smoked haddock with a nice poached egg and some wilted spinach. It was lovely, but it wasn't the burger I'd initially fancied.

I'm over the age of 18, which means I'm an adult. I can do all kinds of things but apparently I can't choose what I eat and how I would like it to be cooked (whilst paying for this privilege you understand)?

As I said, I can only conclude that the establishment in question must believe their product is so rubbish it can't be served as anything other than the consistency of a large bouncy rubber ball - in which case I wouldn't want to eat it anyway.

Becca said...

On the subject of burgers I can heartily recommend you give new contenders Honest Burger in Brixton Village market a spin. They don't ask how you'd like it cooked, which at first worried me that I'd be getting something "safely" cooked all the way through. Thankfully not, they don't ask because all burgers are cooked medium rare by house rules. Tasty, juicy, pink centred goodness.

On the subject of food standards, I might be displaying my ignorance here, but is there a reason why no-one gets up in arms about steak tartare, sashimi, oysters, or even rare steaks etc? Is there a specific difference I'm missing that makes them safe while burgers apparently aren't?

gastromummy said...

So where can I find London's best burger?! Or is that on another post?

Mzungu said...

Good article, but if the FSA are on a mission against the burger should as pointed out by many above, must firstly go after all raw foods served in restaurants before laying siege to food items cooked to medium rare or less.
They mean well.

Mariel said...

I think you should come to America and do a strictly "Cheese and Biscuits Burger Tour". Think about it. :)

Anonymous said...

Completely in support of everyones right to eat what they want. I think the issue here is the mixed up nature of mince. A rare steak might have been touched by nastiness but only on the outside and the grill / pan kills it. When meat is minced the outside mingles with what's within and, if not cooked through, any nastiness isn't dealt with. It all depends on what you have no real control over - what comes in contact with the meat ( flies, toilet hands) before you buy it.

right_writes said...

Interestingly the FSA is a completely pointless organisation...

If anyone has read any of my other millions of comments around the internet, they would know that I am virulently opposed to the EU. However, the FSA merely duplicates the work (with copious gold plating) of the EFSA.

Go to almost any other EU member state, and you won't find a local version of the EFSA, and you certainly won't find monochrome burgers, solid eggs or much of the other "grey food" that seems to find its way onto many of the tables here (particularly outside London).

What the EFSA does, and may I say badly... is to insert their appointees into every slaughterhouse, every farmyard, every food processor and every fish quay across "Yerp", for which they charge an absolute fortune...

And still we get the regular outbreak of something or other... bluefoot, listomania, e-whatsit...

I am an old man, and I reckon that this stuff didn't happen much before these "agencies" became all the rage, as a kid I stayed on some filthy farms and ate their "earthy" produce...

And I am not that mad... Honest!

SpikeyD said...

Had the misfortune to be in a GBK recently, where my request for a rare burger was refused on the grounds that "we're only allowed to serve burgers medium now". As others have pointed out, if the chain can't guarantee the provenance of its basic materials and/or the hygiene of its staff, then it's probably best avoided. To add insult to injury, the burger was a miserable hunk of dried out, tasteless (and expensive) mush - a final confirmation of the terminal standards at what was once a halfway decent chain.

thelittleloaf said...

Long live the rare burger! If the meat's not good enough quality to allow this then shame on the restaurant. Great post :-)

Monkey See Monkey Eat said...

On a slightly different note, i was watching Rick Stein the other day who said that it's total rubbish that you can't eat mussels that haven't opened in cooking. If they don't close before cooking throw them away but if they don't open afterwards, they're fine. How does everyone feel about this?

Catherine said...

Get everyone wanting a rare burger to sign a contract absolving the restaurant of anything happening.....

johnseomaven said...

It is really important not only for managers but also for employees who handle and prepare foods to undergo a Food Hygiene certification training. This training will teach employees about proper cleanliness and preparation of foods for customer's health and protection. This training is also designed to protect both food handler and customer from the contact of bacteria, food borne illnesses and other diseases.

Anonymous said...

just to let you know... environmental health officers do not work for the food standards agency. they are employed by the relevant local authority. might want to check your facts before writing such an opinionated piece. however, overall i agree with the sentiment.