Messada di bue – Italian-style cured beef

Food & drink
Messada di bue – Italian beef cured with herbs and garlic

I’ve said this before, many times, but it bears repeating – the best thing about cooking is the transformation of unpromising ingredients into something better.

Take this dish… normally, I’d never dream of eating a piece of brisket without at least a couple of hours on a low heat, let alone raw, but here it is – a raw piece of brisket that tastes much more expensive than it should.

It’s brisket masquerading as fillet steak.

So, how do you add so much value to a piece of the cow’s cheapest meat?


Salt, herbs and time.

Start with a piece of beef.  The fact that the meat will be given a short cure means that you don’t have to go for a tender cut – the salt will tenderise even the toughest cuts if it’s given enough time.

Any cut that’s very lean will do, but I plumped for a flat piece of brisket this time.  The butcher cut me a 400g piece and tried to avoid as much of the fat as possible, such is the value of using a proper butcher and getting to know him or her.

Incidentally, my butcher is great – she knows I cook some slightly out of the ordinary things, and takes a genuine interest in them.  That’s a very good quality in a butcher, or any local business person, for that matter.  There should be more butchers like Binns of Saltaire.

Now for the magical part…you’ve got some beef, now you need to get some flavour into it.

Italian cured beef

Chop together a couple of handfuls of mixed, fresh herbs such as thyme, marjoram, parsley, rosemary or oregano.  The exact quantities and the exact mix are up to you.  Go with whatever flavours you think taste good together, jut make sure that you’ve got enough to cover the beef completely on both sides.

Chop the herbs very, very finely, and mix in two finely chopped garlic cloves, a healthy grinding of black pepper and about twenty-five grammes of salt.

Spread the herb mixture out on a shallow tray and roll the beef in it until the meat has picked up all the herbs and salt and it’s completely covered.

Lay the beef, flat, on top of a pair of bay leaves in a non-metallic dish and cover with sheet of plastic.  A sandwich bag slit open is perfect.

Y0u need to press the beef, so now’s the time to head for the shed/garage and get one of those small offcuts of wood that you knew would come in handy one day.  You need a piece of wood that fits the dish snuggly, so that you can lay it on top of the plastic covered meat and weigh it down with a few tins of baked beans.

Once you’ve finished with the saw and got the wood to fit the dish, put the whole lot in the fridge.

Turn the meat every day and leave it there for at least two days and up to four or five says if you want a stronger flavour or are working with a very tough cut of meat.

Italian cured beef

When the beef is ready, wash away all the salt and herbs and slice the beef very, very thinly with a big, sharp blade – a long bladed knife will give better results.  This takes some practise, but the finer, the better.

Serve with salad and cubes of Gorgonzola.

I’ve had some difficulty translating the name of this dish.  The recipe came from a cookery course at a big Italian restaurant in Leeds, but when I tried to get a translation of the word ‘messada’ the otherwise trusty Google Translation service scratched its head and shrugged its digital shoulders.  I asked a few of Yorkshire’s finest Italians  what they thought on Twitter and the general consensus was that they’d never heard of it before, but it might be a dialect word, perhaps from Tuscany.

The only thing everybody agreed on is that ‘bue’ means ‘beef’.

Or ‘ox’…

Any ideas on ‘messada’, though would be gratefully received.