ANTWERP/HOVE - Last summer, thousands of visitors sampled Luc De Laet’s wares at the Tomorrowland music festival and in a pop-up restaurant in Antwerp. Next year, Luc will open his second butcher’s store at the refurbished De Koninck brewery site in the same city.
An accredited butcher (keurslager in Dutch), cook and caterer, Luc De Laet likes to go for the unusual but will always remain a professional through and through. Dry-aged steak made from mature white-blue beef injected with beer that has been reduced on the hob... it tastes far better than it sounds.
Luc, from Hove near Antwerp, is driven by his search for the best flavor pairings. When asked by the Duvel Moortgat brewery to invent a new combination of beer and meat, he came up with a blend of malt and hops with bone marrow.
This mixture produces a soft, knead-able substance that can be added to a steak on the grill, almost melting into the meat and giving off the fragrance and flavor of roast malt and hops – it produces a true beer experience. “To prepare this dish, I use fresh meat that has not been hung and so has a rather neutral taste,” Luc explains. “Mature meat has a strong taste all by itself. I don’t think that beer would enhance it very much.”
There are endless opportunities to pair beer with meat. Just think of dried beef as a starter served with a well-hopped beer that brings out its bitterness.
Nicolas Soenen, beer sommelier with Duvel Moortgat, is convinced that for every beer there is a meat, and vice versa. For example, meat can add the salty flavor beer lacks, or enhance roasted aromas and flavors in a brew.
Luc De Laet’s De Koninck pâté is a re-interpretation of a classic recipe from the Antwerp 'beenhouwersbond', or butcher’s guild.
“I have adjusted the recipe to modern preferences,” Luc explains. “In days gone past, customers wanted to taste liver and salt above all else. These days, people prefer a bit more subtlety. In my pâté the bitterness of the amber beer comes through.”
This meaty conversation quickly moves on to all the things you can do with hamburgers. Why not produce a hamburger that is flavored with malt and hops? The classic beer stew (stoverij/carbonade flamande) is also discussed at length. But what other ways are there to introduce beer to meat?
Luc mentions 'charcuterie' (cured meats) such as ham: salted and steeped in brine. A beer such as Duvel could be added to the brine to produce a Duvel ham in which the flavor of the beer shines through. Go one step further and you end up with game. This type of meat already comes with a strong taste and so it needs strong beers to bring out the flavor.
Venison makes an excellent combination with a sauce of cranberry or other red fruits that add a hint of sourness. To further enhance this beautiful pairing, you could choose a Liefmans Cuvée Brut for company. If you add caramelized onions to the recipe, you could partner it with a sweet-and-sour Orval.
The butcher suggests pig’s cheeks braised with a De Koninck or a Liefmans Goudenband. His chef also has an idea: rabbit with Thai herbs and gueuze. Who mentioned beer and meat again?
When Luc De Laet first introduced his dry-aged beef, he had to convince the Belgian Federal Food Agency (FVA) that this was a safe way to prepare meat. “There wasn’t even a law governing this type of beef preparation,” he laughs. “We worked with food experts and other professionals to draw up legal guidelines. Eventually I gained Europe-wide recognition so I am allowed to sell my dry-aged meat everywhere in Europe.”
In the past, the process of dry-aging was used both to enhance the taste of the meat and to tenderize it. Then as now, the process takes place at a temperature of 2°C and a maximum humidity of 60%.
In recent years, this delicious preparation method has come back into vogue. However, it’s still a very specialized process, only mastered by a small number of butcher’s shops who have the right expertise and a well-equipped maturation chamber.
The carcasses are hung for 2-3 weeks, after which between 20% and 30% of the moisture content will have evaporated. Enzymes in the meat are given time to interact leading to an extremely complex taste. Each breed of cattle - Hereford, Siementhal... - will produce their own range of flavors. Secreto 07 is an entrecote (a steak), or six-rib cut, made with Rubia Gallega, a type of beef from the Basque country.
It has matured for two months and spices have been added. “This alters the structure of the meat so it melts in the mouth,” Luc tells us. “You can also enjoy a Carpaccio prepared with an entrecote from Italian Chianina cattle. This has been dry-marinated so the taste is solely coming from the meat.”
“We are taking a fresh new look at existing products and preparations,” Luc De Laet explains. “For example, we have turned a 'classic beuling' (a blood sausage) into an oven dish. We will always investigate whether we can enhance the taste experience without losing respect for the product.
This also means that we are promoting our trade and increasing the esteem in which it is held.”
Luc is after a rounded taste experience that will make an impact on all the senses. The feel in the mouth is important too. This is why he will only allow steak tartare - hand-minced of course - from Piedmont cattle on his menu.
In 2015 Luc will open his second shop-cum-restaurant in the ‘artisan street’ at the renovated De Koninck brewery site in Antwerp.
“We want to increase the visibility of the butcher’s trade, like in the olden days,” Luc explains.
“Think of a butcher’s in the 1960s, where carcasses and hindquarters were hanging from the ceiling. You could point at the cut of meat you wanted and it would be sliced off before your very eyes.”
Bert-Jan Michielsen, currently sous chef at Wouter Keersmaekers' 'De Schone van Boskoop' restaurant, will be in charge of the new restaurant that will take meat back to the future and ever closer to beer.