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How to cook the ultimate steak - and how it gets to the pan in the first place

For foodies (and I loathe using that term, but I'm yet to come up with something better so bear with me), pursuit of the perfect steak is something close to a religious quest.

It has sequential, enlightening stages and it can cause controversy, or at least debate - everyone thinks their version is right.

I know how these people feel about meat, because I'm one of them. And so as I sit in audience of the 'ultimate meat evening' at the Edinburgh New Town Cookery School, I cannot help but feel that I am part of some sort of epiphany-inducing experience.

We are watching the perfect steak cooking. The perfection relates not just to the cooking, however, but also the steak itself - its cut, its provenance, and the story of its life.

Fiona Burrell, chef and manager director of the Edinburgh New Town Cookery School, is our guide. She removes the meat - a fillet steak the size and shape of a small European country on a map - from the fridge for thirty minutes before it even sees the pan. At room temperature the steak becomes malleable, you can put your finger in it (should you wish to). It is in this relaxed state that it should start to be prepared for the heat.

Burrell puts the meat in a bowl and coats the upturned side with olive oil, salt and pepper. The pan is on a medium heat and once it's hot - very hot - the steak goes in, oil side down to allow the other side its chance to be coated.

The reason for this lubrication method, Fiona explains, is so that only the exact quantity of oil is used so that a crust forms around the steak. It can't be too wet, you see. And when the crust forms: flip it.

The matter of how long a steak is cooked is a matter of personal opinion, naturally. But if you like your meat anything more than medium - we can no longer be friends. I like how Burrell describes the well-done steak: "Something you can walk home on". I enjoy a beautiful pair of shoes as much as the next person, but I'd never eat them.

I also like Burrell's method of knowing when the steak is cooked - because it should never be poked, cut, or stabbed while cooking. It goes something like this.

Hold your left hand out in front of you. Test with the forefinger of your other hand how firm the fleshy mound is that connects your thumb to your hand. Held out naturally, that fleshy mound is the same consistency as a rare steak. Now, lay the thumb on the forefinger next to it and touch the mound again. That's medium-rare. The middle finger is medium, and so on until the little finger - well-done. The mound is hard and unforgiving.

This evening is not just about the joy of consumption. It is education, too: I've written about food for years and never before have I come across this method.

Before Burrell cooks the steak, we see exactly where it came from - we watch a beast turn into dinner. I use the word beast because the butcher does - it's the term-of-choice of Gerry Neilson, of Campbells Prime Meat. And also, if I'm honest, because I like it. It feels more respectful, somehow, than animal. The meat itself - Mey Selections - has a smell we are asked to define. It is musky - that is the starting word we're given, but it is the kind of scent that eludes all the more you breathe it in, trying to get closer to the truth.

What Neilson does to the beast is the equivalent, I suppose, of me touch-typing a feature. Neilson rarely looks down at what his hands are creating, instead engaging with his audience of press and industry figures. But if he makes a mistake, he can't simply press delete: his knives are sharp enough to cut through skin and sinew as if it is nothing, and these are blades that do not discern between human hands and animal flesh. This is skill that transcends typing. He creates dozens of cuts, potentially hundreds of meals from the beast and allows not one scrap to go to waste - fat for haggis. Skin for sausages.

But of course he makes no mistakes, because Neilson has been doing this for more than forty years. He tells a story of his own 'epiphany moment' with eating: on holiday, some thirty years ago, he tried veal for the first time. Retelling it is a visceral experience - he remembers with the same precision he brings to the dissection of the beast how the white napkins on the table were; the waiter's enthusiastic topping up of his and his wife's wine; the alarming hammering of the veal in the kitchen.

As a food obsessive - or an obsessive with anything - it is easy to think that you are solitary in your passion, such is its depth. But of course we are far from alone, and a night like this, celebrating both superior Scottish produce and indeed its skilled chefs and butchers, really goes a long way in showing that community spirit.

 

How to cook the perfect steak

Ingredients

Your steak of choice

Salt & pepper

Olive oil

 

Method

1 30 minutes prior to cooking, remove the steak from the fridge

2 Put the steak into a bowl and coat with olive oil

3 Allow to cook without touching it, using the 'hand method' as the guide to when it is ready

4 Take off the heat and rest for at least five minutes before eating- longer for bigger cuts.

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