Drawn together: the meat ageing chamber

Categories: Behind the stalls

Award-winning blogger and Borough Market regular Ed Smith displays a talent for illustration as well as the written word, as he talks to stallholders about the tools of their trade. This month: the meat ageing chamber

Image: Orlando Gili
Illustration: Ed Smith 

Dom McCourt, Northfield Farm

We have a farm up in Rutland where we raise British native breed cattle—pedigree angus, white parks and shorthorns too. We also have our own lambs, but it’s predominantly cattle. Farming cows suits our land, it’s what my brother and dad like to do, and it’s what we have most demand for here at Borough Market.

Dad started bringing meat here in the late nineties, and we’ve been on this site proper since 1999. Meat from British native breeds is trendy and desirable now, but 20 years ago a number of the breeds were close to dying out. He worked hard to help get numbers back up, white park and dexter cows in particular, and it continues to be a focus for us. The ultimate result, the meat, is something that we want to present to our customers in the best way possible—which is why our prime cuts, like ribs, sirloins and rump, are on display in the ageing chamber to the side of our stall, which we had built about three years ago.

The idea behind ageing beef is to store meat in a fairly dry environment at a low temperature, to achieve the goal of tenderising the meat and developing flavour. The chamber here at Borough Market helps us do that, though we also look after carcasses and prime cuts in a similar way back at the farm.

Illustration of meat ageing chamber

Crisp and clean
A lot of people think that with ageing you’re letting bacteria do the work but actually it’s enzymes, which exist in all meat. Post mortem, enzymes break down muscle fibres. Over the course of weeks and months that tenderises the meat, because it’s those fibres that make meat chewy. At the same time, the dry atmosphere removes the water and lactic acid contained within the muscles. This helps develop flavour, which intensifies as the meat loses moisture. You can think of it a bit like reverse dilution—the flavour gets stronger as the moisture leaves the meat.

The chamber is temperature and humidity controlled. We keep the temperature between two and three degrees, so colder than a normal fridge but above freezing. I think humidity is about 65 per cent—you don’t want the meat to dry out like a salami, but also don’t want it to be favourable conditions for bacteria to develop.

There’s also a fan to encourage airflow, which helps to wick moisture away. That air comes in through the top of the chamber and passes through a blue UVC lamp, which kills bacteria. In theory the only bacteria in the chamber is that which existed on or in the meat at the beginning of the process. But the air coming in is clean—you can smell how crisp and clean it is.

Personal preference
We age the sirloins and ribs for about four weeks; the rumps a bit longer, because they’re a hard-working muscle and their texture can benefit from being set aside for a little longer. But we can and do put things aside for customers for as long as they want—we’re very happy to age meat to personal preference. You can see the tags on some of the cuts. It’s a really nice way of creating a relationship with people.

The chamber makes quite an impression, doesn’t it? It’s a very visual thing. That was definitely part of the plan—when the Market’s really busy, we found that our butcher's counter gets hidden and perhaps people don’t really see quite what we do, and the quality of meat that we farm.

We’ve always offered aged meat, but the chamber provides a way for us to show people what we have. It’s also so open and transparent, it shows that we’re not hiding anything. We don’t have to do much to make the chamber look good. The natural form of the beef is an amazing decoration. I think it’s a beautiful thing.