The Txuletón in Basque Cuisine. The story of an old, fat cow
We don’t know exactly since when Txuletones have been eaten in the Basque Country, we do however know that since the XVIII century it has been a whole gastronomic and festive event in certain rural areas of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa.
Bovine animals, both female and male, had a very clear role in the economy of the homestead: females would dedicate their lives to give birth and most of them to produce milk. This would be done in micro-exploitations, meaning the farmer had one or two birthing cows and five or six milking cows. The cows would be milked every day without over-exploiting them, and the milk would be sold or exchanged in nearby areas.
As to the males, one was always designated to mount the cows, and another couple of them would be used for the many and very heavy labours of the homestead, the land and the mountain. They were castrated very young so their bodies would be able to develop the proper size and strength to fulfil their duties. Alas, the ox.
All of these animals were the greatest treasure and main source of sustenance of the extended families at the homestead. They were treated as any other member of the family, they each had a name, quirks well known by everyone at home, and they were fed and loved just like anyone else. In times of good weather they would normally be found pasturing freely, and when winter came, they were put in stables on the ground floor, which in turn served as animal heating for the residents. It was not uncommon for the landlord to cook the first meal for them to eat at five in the morning on a cold winter day.
So far we are referring to habits widely extended all along the Cantabrian coast and other European breeding zones.
The difference in Euskadi was that, when these animals reached their old years and their productivity would wane or completely end, they were still kept in the very same conditions, sometimes for over a year. During this period, without any kind of exploitation or activity, the animals would digest and accumulate all the nutrients in their bodies, thus gaining weight and having all the natural fats from homemade food infiltrate their muscles.
Past this period, the animal was sacrificed. All of its parts were used as the main ingredient of a myriad of recipes which are now fundamental to Basque cuisine. The loins, the highest valued cut, were shared in communal parties where they would be roasted in large grills and enjoyed as a community.
To this day there is no knowledge of any other people who would turn caring, preparing, roasting and sharing the old and fat cow into a social and gastronomic value. This is where the story begins…
In the 1960’s and 1970’s the tractor was brought into the small and tricky exploitations of the Basque fields, which lead to a surplus in oxen. They ceased to be productive in the homestead and besides became too expensive to maintain if they didn’t justify their maintenance. I am sorry, the idyllic version we all knew is over. In the country life things happen for a reason, and in most cases economy is the main one.
It was around that time when festivals became popular, as well as the first roasters and the first “txuletero” towns. Old goers will remember Berriz, Tolosa, Casa Julián, etc.
I remember as a child, going to Berriz on cattle market day with my old man and seeing those fantastic pieces of meat over the hot coal of the roasters. The people there would compete and bet (sorry, the Basque bet on everything) to decide who was the best roaster or who could eat the biggest txuletón. I distinctly remember one time when an “artist” cut three magnificent txuletones, piled them up as a sandwich, roasted them as if it were only one, and at the end ate only the one in the middle, raw, with the heat and flavours from the roasting of the other two. Well, just to see who would make it bigger.
In brief, the txuletón as a social, gastronomic and cultural concept is popularized. The Basque eating fat and old cows.
From that day until today this phenomenon has become a signature of identity of our cuisine. The territory of Euskadi is full of wonderful grills around which this gastronomic event is daily perfected.
The quest for the lost treasure
Nowadays, things are very different. The countryside and the homestead have changed, you know, because of the economy. The ox has disappeared as a productive animal, as well as the cow for small exploitations. They have now been cornered by the massive milking exploitation, the milk prices, the illegalization of direct consumption and the spite of huge multinationals that produce fodder for humans.
Nowadays the roasters use meats coming from Holland, Germany, Poland, etc, some of dubious quality, and some others much more acceptable. That is the way it is, this is a phenomenon and we are now the largest importers of old beef meat in Europe.
How about those animals from the old days, have they disappeared? Not fully. In certain areas of the interior of Galicia and northern Portugal, and some other little corners in Europe (which I will not tell you about) we can still find some specimens. It is usually in the least developed rural areas where you can find small family units living out of self-consumption. These units are sustained by the “paisano”, mainly an elder person whose continuity is not assured by their children, and who hangs onto the traditional way of life. Without attempting to generalize, it is in an environment like this where it is most likely to find these animals, like the ones from the old days.
In Galicia and northern Portugal there are eight or ten slaughterhouses where these animals are sacrificed. Attending weekly, being known as a buyer, having the capacity to buy and sell and, definitely living in them is the key to having the first hand on these jewels.
And then the selection will come. Some will say they have an ox from a “paisano”, they have it put aside and will sacrifice it for their restaurant. A full on Russian roulette.
The bovine world is very similar to the human world. Take two sibling animals, with the same genetics, born, bred and lived in the same homestead. On the day of their sacrifice you may be faced on one side with a jewel and on the other, a mediocre product. Why is that? It is basically the same as two siblings from the same family: one turns out easy going, bon vivant and chunky, whereas the other one turns out to be taciturn, reserved and skinny. We wouldn’t eat any of these two, but I assure you the result would be similar with a pair of cows.
This is why the selection process and the selector role are so important. Put differently, you need to be confident and capable enough to see several hanging carcasses and only keep the best to yourself. Not to worry, the rest of them will also end up in the market, usually in restaurants of misters (I am talking about both owners and chefs) who think the meat is just another product brought in by any supplier. They are sure, of course, they have the best meat: they have been told so.
After the sacrifice, the animal must remain cold and resting to allow all the cells to die. Just like any other animal, the cow goes into a state of “rigor mortis” which would usually last the first week after the sacrifice. We would then go into the meat maturation stage. The main objective of this process is allowing for the muscles to relax and for all the superficial and infiltrated fats to blend into the meat, as well as letting the natural chemical processes take place. This process should be done in a ventilated cold chamber, between 1º and 3º Celsius and 70% humidity. According to my own opinion and the Basque tradition, this period may last between 2 to 5 weeks according to the quality, size and type of fat. This will allow tasting a healthy, clean, animal flavoured meat, along with the flavours of its terroir and its sweet “pastry-like” aromas. All in all, a noble gastronomic product.
Now the trend of ultra-maturation has arrived. It entails continuing this process for a very long time; one month, six months, a year or indefinitely… there are others who also apply all types of ointments to the “body”: its own fat, fat from other animal species, herbs, whisky, etc… Those in favour of this practice claim that the chemical processes which take place in the piece will strengthen and concentrate the flavour, resulting in a new and interesting evolution. They compare it with the maturation of wines and cheeses.
In my opinion, meat must taste like meat, even more so if it is of the type described earlier. The only process that occurs in an animal corpse after a moderate amount of time is putrefaction. In an exceptional piece of meat, I do not look for hints of tobacco, hide or anything of the sort. I look for the flavour of meat, the metallic taste of an older animal conjugated with the clean and pastry-like smoothness of its digestive fat. I look for the aroma of green herbs, autumn grass, cream, and home.
Many would probably not dare confess what I am about to, but many a time have I felt very indisposed and with an “aromatic” memory that persists for days after eating one of these “super-matured” beefs.
And now we get down to business. Nowadays there are multiple contraptions which are used to cook this product. Iron pan, chrome pan, grill pan (the one with the stripes), conventional ovens, charcoal ovens, Argentinean grill, etc…
I stand by the Basque grill. It originated in the old town roasters and has continued to evolve and be perfected through experience and the input of many roasters. Its mechanism is very simple:
A platform to combust a big volume of charcoal (holm oak, break axe or any other strong wood which is in turn soft when giving out aromas)
Stainless steel grill, with the bars faced from back to front.
The grill is slightly tilted so that the fat can slide down the bars and drip away from the fire, thus avoiding its combustion and the infusion of burnt flavours and fumes into the meat.
A support to adjust the grill’s tilt.
And that is pretty much it.
I have to give my opinion on the charcoal oven, this closed-up model which has emerged across many kitchens. It may be useful for other culinary preparations, I have no doubt, but to me it is the greatest enemy of good quality meat. Extremely high temperatures, fats combusting inside, concentrated toxic fumes and gases giving out their “smoky flavour”… most of the time, all they do is ruin and adulterate this excellent product. This is just my personal opinion.
Real vegetable charcoal, that is all. It is important to avoid substitutes, compact chips or any other gas station products. We need strong calorific power, so we will use at least 20 or 30 kilos, even if we only intend on roasting two txuletas. We fire it up and leave the first combustion to consume, for the flame to disappear. This is when we obtain the maximum calorific power.
The loin, along with the rib bone, should be cut at least 4 centimetres thick. The piece must be tempered outside the chamber for at least 2 hours. It is not the same to roast from 2 degrees than from 20 degrees.
During the first phase of the roasting we intend to seal the meat so that all the juices are locked inside of it. We place the meat on the grill until we notice that face is golden, and then we flip it over and do the same thing on the opposite face.
Salt should only be added to the face that is already roasted, never raw; it would extract all the juices. We use thick, clean sea salt.
During the second phase we are looking for the inside fats and juices to fuse and preserve. We move to a cooler area on the grill and flip the meat over a couple of times on each face.
I imagine some of you will say “you call that a recipe…I do it differently and it turns out excellent.” Well, my friends, the grill is nothing if not a craft, it is about experience, hours, heat and sacrifice. Don’t expect for a seasoned roaster to give you a recipe with exact temperatures, times and distances. It doesn’t exist. When it comes to the grill you have to be there, watch, observe, listen to the evolution of the fire and the meat. Every animal and every piece are different. This way of roasting has been learned from Basque roasters and 22 years of experience, although there are evidently other ways of doing it, equally respect-worthy to me as long as we all pay respect to the jewels in our hands.
On to the table
Ceramic trays and hot plates (no more than 60º C). A good knife, we separate the meat from the bone and slice the piece not too thinly. The fat is as much or even more valuable than the meat, so we slice it as well.
Good, sharp table knives; never serrated knives.
This is a very personal recommendation. You have to be hungry for a txuletón. This is not the day to taste several other dishes. A clean palate, some good lettuce, end of story.
Now, to finish…
First of all, I would like to say that everything I have written here is just an input, I have no intention to lecture and I have the utmost respect for different opinions and visions. My input is based on my experience, observation, many roasting sweats, learning from good friends, many hours of talking over wine and txuletones.
Second, a plea. Fellow cooks, let us respect Nature, let us respect this wonderful jewel we are still able to enjoy and offer on our grills. Let us learn from the paisanos, the land’s logic (which is apparently the most illogical), from the old roasters, from what is simple, from the real flavours. Let us show our friends and clients how to taste and appreciate meat. Let us observe plenty and touch very little. Let us guide and prescribe the authentic.
And to thank…
The old Basque roasters, loving, humble, uncomplaining.
Miguel Zapiain, my grill master almost since I wore short pants.
Viejo Armindo. People like you should never die.
Juanito, the butcher at SAGARDI. He can cut a good meat.
Imanol Jaca from Txoguitxu, our sherpa in the world of meat. Great friend, tirelessly rebellious
All the roasters at SAGARDI, the friends of hells, sensitive animals.
Mikel, my brother of blood and thousands of roasts.
Iñaki LZ. De Viñaspre
Anthropologist of food
Founder of SAGARDI Basque Country Chefs
Iñaki Lz. De Viñaspre
I have always described myself as a lover of cooking. From when I was a child and my amona, grandmother in Basque, taught me how to cook to my days at the university studying the Anthropology of Food, traditional Basque cuisine has long been my obsession. Twenty years ago, my brother Mikel and I opened the restaurant IRATI in Barcelona, today a benchmark in Basque cuisine in the city, with the clear goal of sharing traditional Basque cuisine all over the world.
IRATI was the seed of SAGARDI Basque Country Chefs, our most ambitious project with which we are trying to spread Basque food culture beyond our borders. It is a solid, high-quality, authentic venture which is now present in 8 cities. Our mission is to explain the values of traditional Basque cuisine and to revive the flavours of our childhood. In short, we want to show affection via food. We encourage you to learn about our fascinating culture and savour its amazing products.