Pleased to meat you

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The Texan barbecue has made it to the UK, so dig a fire-pit, chop up the coleslaw and celebrate July 4th with a piece of lusciously marinaded brisket. By Edan Ambrose

An April specialising in arctic winds and blizzards of snow which turned the tulips into stiff white lollipops above a sea of mud may not immediately have said ‘Let’s have a picnic!’ But just wait… it’s July now, second week of Wimbledon and all that… Surely in this gloomiest of years, the sun will now make a belated appearance and we can at last proclaim 2016 the year of the al fresco meal, specifically an al fresco meal in the form of a barbecue…

But not barbecuing as you know it. This is the Texan version where the emphasis is on the meat – pure, unadulterated sides of brisket, ribs and pork chops, dry-rubbed and slow-smoked over oak, producing spicy, meltingly tender fare.

In Texas, this method of cooking originated with the arrival in the mid-19th century of German and Czech immigrants who had worked out ways to preserve and then cook meat using a combination of spices and smoke. In the Lone Star state this devolved into four distinct styles of barbecuing ranging from the barbecoa in southern Texas to the seasoning and smoke of Eastern and central Texan fire pits. It’s the latter that is best known, employing a potent mix of chilli powder, cayenne, salt and pepper rubbed into cuts of meat which, after five hours slow-smoking in a covered pit over indirect heat from oak wood, produces a blackened, spicy crust (the bark) edged with a red smoke ring, sealing gloriously moist and tender steak, chicken and pork.

It’s hard to resist – especially, if you happen to find yourself in Texas where every town from Lockhart and Giddings to San Antonio and McDade, boasts its own supply of joints called things like Chicken Doc’s and Hop Doddy, Get Your Bib On and Kebabalicious. You can even go on a barbecue trail or visit one of the many barbecue festivals that take place throughout the state.

So, if you’re in cowboy country,  lusting after a piece of brisket, a good place to start is the City Meat Market in Giddings, an hour’s drive from Austin. The City Meat Market has been on the corner of West Austin and Main streets for 75 years but with its blackened interior and ornate plaster ceiling yellowed by decades of smoke, looks as though it might have been dispensing food and liquor since the Alamo in 1836. This is the institution that inspired Tom Adams who set up Pitt Cue in London to graduate from food truck to ‘full-blown’ restaurant. In Giddings, the menu written on the wall is short and to the point: brisket, chicken, pork chops, ribs, sausage, steak, carved as you watch, and priced by weight. You can add on a cup, pint or quart of beans and tater salad and consume the results at tables surrounded by pictures of long deceased country and western singers, tubs of Texas all-purpose barbecue seasoning and signs which instruct ‘whiskey for my men, beer for my horses…’

If Giddings represents the essence of basic Texan barbecue, Lockhart gives you its roots. Aka the barbecue capital of Texas, Lockhart is 30 miles south of Austin. Arriving is to enter a world almost entirely composed of fire pits and antique shops bisected by a single track railway on which goods trains wail mournfully as they slog through en route to Louisiana. This is where you’ll find Kreutzs, Smittys and Blacks – present day incarnations of meat markets set up by European settlers from Germany and Czechoslovakia in the early 30s. Smittys is perhaps the most European; Blacks and Kreutzs manage a manly combination of country and western and mittel-european angst. In Blacks you get red-checked tablecloths, cowboys and stupendous American puddings as well as huge ribs of beef and melting brisket. Kreutz, built like a B&Q warehouse, can feed 500 at a sitting and seems never to close. The pit master here hasn’t had a holiday in 29 years. In all three an inclusive mix of Texans tuck into subtly spiced chops, beef sausages, prime ribs and brisket, all with the now familiar, oak-smoke tang, and dished up in layers of brown paper which serve as plates, eaten with plastic knives and forks and fingers.

Although several restaurants have opened over here in the UK, claiming to serve this kind of food, they’re much fancier than their Texan cousins, missing the un-fussy ethos of like-minded venues in Lockhart or Giddings. And, riding the trend, a slew of books on the subject has also appeared (see bookshelf) for DIY barbecuers. But what if you just want a great piece of meat, cooked in the authentic Texan way without going to all the trouble of building a fire pit…? Well, surprisingly M&S can help. They’ve worked out how to sell pre-prepared barbecue meat, based on Texan recipes, that lets you by-pass the barbecue and do the final cooking in an oven…

The process (hot smoked meat, vacuum packed, cooked sous-vide and then skin packed with a pellet of fat) is the result of some hardcore research trips to Texas undertaken by the development team at M&S. Led by Nicola Swift, they’ve visited just about every barbecue venue of note in Texas, on one occasion notching up 14 restaurants in 48 hours, in order to discover and then develop the elements that make Texan meat and its seasoning so delicious. ‘The biggest thing about Texan barbecues’ says Nicola, ‘is that it’s all about the purity of the meat. In terms of barbecuing it is absolutely different from what we already had in the UK. In terms of cooking techniques, it’s so simple – the smoky purity of unadulterated meat with a little bit of sauce on the side.’

M&S Smokehouse range includes beef brisket £7/433g; Smokehouse pork shoulder £6/429g,