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“The problem with vegetarians is that they’re eating my food’s food.” Christian Stevenson, a.k.a. ‘DJ BBQ’, as quoted at Meatopia, London, 7th September 2013

Yesterday, we went to the Docklands – Tobacco Dock down Shadwell way to be precise – for Meatopia, which promised to be a carnivorous experience to remember. Meatopia, which as the name suggests is a foodie festival concerning all things meat-related – has been going for nine years in the USA (it was founded by the food writer Joshua Ozersky) but this was the first time it had come to London. I expected good things. Many good things.

On entering, we were greeted by a lot of smoke. The old warehouses of Tobacco Dock are partly covered, and with a couple-of-dozen barbecues on the go (one of Meatopia’s principal guarantees is that all of the meat served is cooked with wood or hardwood charcoal, no butane, propane etc allowed), the atmosphere was smoky to say the least. I got the distinct impression that the organisers hadn’t thought everything through – but it could’ve been worse, I’ve been to foodie events in parks that have been wash-outs thanks to the weather, and at least we were on solid ground here.

Glimpses of foodie heroes could be seen; Fergus Henderson was there, and Daniel Young (no relation) of Burger Monday fame was on the stage for an early Q&A session, while Jay Rayner seemed to have adopted an almost-furtive pose in a flat cap. My sometime butchery tutor Nathan Mills was on hand too, helping out on the main stand (a.k.a. ‘The Cutting Room’).

We started with a coffee; not just any coffee but a blend of Ethiopian, Brazilian and Kenyan coffee courtesy of Climpson Estates. Now I used to be the kind of philistine who would deliberately ask for Nescafe when I went into a branch of Starbucks or Costa Coffee, but in recent years I have come to appreciate good coffee and I am particularly fond of Ethiopian coffee, probably a direct result of having travelled in that country. My yardstick nowadays is that if it’s good enough, you don’t need to add milk and this blend passed that test with flying colours.

Following that, we split up to sample what we wanted to sample of the various barbecue stands that were giving off that tantalising smoky smell.

Tayyabs, the legendary Pakistani curry-house in Whitechapel, was doing their Chargrilled Lamb Chops (“marinated overnight using a 40 year old secret recipe”), which I passed on the grounds that I last dined there, and had the lamb chops among other things, less than a month ago and I was looking for something different at Meatopia.

Which was why I made a beeline for the St John barbecue, and not just because they did not appear to have much of a queue (although God only knows why). St John being St John, they’d gone for an offal offering of Ox Heart Bun. I wanted to start my culinary experience of Meatopia by having something I would not normally eat, and ox heart definitely falls into this category. The heart, so the man on the stall told me, had been marinated for 36 hours in a garlic and balsamic mixture before being grilled, and then allowed to stand in its own juices. I’m not much of a balsamic fan, but the meat stood out against all the flavour to create a wonderful eating experience.

Next up was the Wild Game Company. Now I happened to be walking past this stall when Andy, the kilt-clad head honcho of this most Scottish of meat ventures, came over and said hello to my dad. They knew each other from Broadway Market in Hackney, where until recently Dad sold the finest Cheshire cheese a couple of stalls along from the Wild Game people. When Allison and I stood in for Dad on the stall, we did spend some of our takings on their venison! Andy’s people were offering Venison Steak Frites with a spicy mayonnaise, and venison as part of steak-frites was a new one on me, so I went for it. It was lovely – my only critique is that I’d’ve liked more venison!

My next objective was to get a drink. Beer was courtesy of the Meantime Brewing Company, the Greenwich-based microbrewery who do a great Pale Ale, and their lager’s not so bad either (I say this as a dedicated real ale drinker).

The highlight of the day was without a shadow of a doubt the butchery demonstration by Dario Cecchini, the legendary butcher of Panzano whose restaurants Allison and I have visited on more than one occasion. To Dario, butchery is not a job but a way of life, and via his wife (who’s American; she did the translating), he espoused his philosophy on life – as he put it, “a story of hunger, intelligence and know-how” in which the butcher, who is the “most delicate link in the chain of food”, is at the centre of the community he serves. This was impressive enough, but this man did this while butchering a pig half-carcass and giving out information on what to do with the trotters (in Tuscany one can apparently be used to feed ten people) and the head (head cheese, a.k.a. brawn). With Dario as with Fergus Henderson, whom he hailed as a culinary hero, nothing is wasted.

The centrepiece of Dario’s demonstration was the porchetta, the central cut of the pig that starts four ribs down from the head. After deboning it with ease, this was rubbed with salt (not just any old salt but his own finely-ground herb-infused salt), fennel pollen (which represents summer, thus making this dish a combination of the seasons given that in Tuscany pork is representative of winter because that’s when the pigs are usually butchered) and rosemary (a symbol of “peace, and the love of good food”). It’s then rolled and roasted.

Apparently, porchetta thus cooked was served up to a summit between Orthodox and Catholic religious bigwigs in Florence in the early fifteenth century, and on tasting it one of the Orthodox delegation declared it to be ‘aristos’, which in Greek means ‘the best’. According to Dario, although this did not manage to resolve the Great Schism, it did lead to six years of peace between the two rival factions of Christianity! To this day, this dish is still called arista alla Fiorentina in Tuscany in honour of this feast.

While he’d been doing this, a ready-prepared porchetta joint had been roasting away, and this was cut up for us punters. Allison managed to get hold of some, and it was lovely, the herb combination combining very well with the pork.

The only problem was with the suggested wine pairing with this amazing dish. One of the sponsors was Casillero del Diablo, and although I have nothing against South American wines (they're lovely, honest!) I did think that saying that arista alla Fiorentina is best paired with a wine that happens to have their label on the bottle was a bit of a cop-out. Personally, I can think of nothing other than Chianti as the perfect accompaniment to anything Dario Cecchini serves up. But hey, that’s just my opinion.

Dario was followed on the main stage by another cookery demo, this time concerning beef that had been cured using salt from the Himalayas. My one-time tutor was on hand to cut the T-bone joints for the barbecue, courtesy of another of Meatopia’s sponsors (and who else but a barbecue company would you expect to sponsor this meat-fest?). 

The resulting meat was truly one of the best examples of barbecued steak I’ve ever tasted, although I could only get a couple of pieces from when they handed out samples to the crowd.

By late afternoon, some of the stalls were running low or running out of their food, causing long queues at the stalls that were left as punters were still hungry and keen to offload their ‘meatbucks’ tickets. Some people, and I’d not care to name names, evidently had not planned for the number of people who did show up. A lesson for future events here, I think. To their credit, Shake Shack had a plan B which consitsted of pork sausage to replace the sold-out pork belly, topped with an American cheese sauce and chopped cherry peppers. Now that is a topping I’d like to replicate.

But the biggest queue of them all was for Almost Famous’s Run BMC Burger, “a chuck, marrow and brisket patty with BBQ salt n pepper pretzel beef rib, pork cracking, crumbled beef monster munch [yes, really], peppercorn mustard cream mayo and a tangy beef stock beer BBQ jus dip”. 

We queued, and queued. And stayed in the queue. We saw them send someone to stand at the back of the queue to stop anyone else from joining it. One of us went to get more drinks, which led to a longer trip than expected as some of the bars had apparently ran out of drinks! We saw the smoke from the barbecue.

We sent one of our party to the front to ascertain that there were still enough burgers left (there were). Allison contacted Daniel Young on Twitter to check if the burger was worth the wait. We befriended the people next to us in the line, who shared the bounty of their goodie-bags (including a very quaffable Chilean merlot).

Then, after two minutes short of two hours, we made it to the front and were rewarded with our burgers. Anticipation, already running at record levels, was heightened by our bearing witness to the preparation line. We’d certainly earned them!

The burgers were, by the way, delicious. London does have a bit of a gourmet burger scene going on at the moment, and these were up there with the best.

After savouring our burgers, we took in the post-prandial atmosphere – the smell of the barbecue pervading throughout, and the ska band on stage adding to an end-of-the-party atmosphere – before heading off into the London night.

All in all, this was an event to be remembered and I’m very glad we went. Although there were a few teething troubles that are no doubt due to this being Meatopia’s first event in this country, I fully expect that Meatopia will return, and that these little problems will have been sorted out when it does so.

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