THE Dexter bullock is a handy lad, far more a flyweight than even the milder Klitschko brother. Tiny by today’s standards it is descended from the hill cattle of the south-west of Ireland. It’s so petite it seems more like a strong calf of one of today’s commercial beef breeds.
Compared to the intimidating Panzer divisions of Simmentals, Charolais, or Belgian Blues catwalking, albeit muscle-bound and stiff, around country showrings, it is more like the little Shetland ponies that used to frisk excitedly, pulling on the bit, as Shirley Temple learnt to ride under the eyes of a doting, morning-suited papa.
Dexters are the smallest European cattle, standing at about half the size of a Hereford and about one third of a Friesian Holstein. If Paris Hilton kept cows, and it is probably unfair to describe them as a kind of lapcow but what the hell, Dexters might be her breed of choice, though even they are not small enough to fit in her handbag. How many you’d need to make one — or how many you’d make with one — are high-stool questions for a rainy day.
Though still pretty uncommon, Dexter enthusiasts are working to re-establish the breed. They are being helped by the interest in trying to achieve the glowing karma self-sufficiency might bestow, the earnestness associated with reviving that which was almost lost and, maybe most of all, the breed’s comparative manageability.
And of course the best argument of all — Dexters produce wonderfully distinctive and subtly-flavoured beef. At a wine tasting they’d be the super-smooth, depth without bluster, well-layered richness of Burgundy’s most contented grand cru. A Dexter may not stand out in the showring but it makes a real statement on a plate.
How better to celebrate the breed’s revival than to eat one, to make it the centre piece of a lovely look-what-wecan-do dinner?
The usual drill in this frivolous-but-serious business is that a table is booked, my shotgun rider and I turn up, unannounced and hungry, and do as everyone else in the restaurant is doing — hope that we’ll have a nice, and occasionally even a memorable, meal.
Occasionally that cycle is broken and a group is invited to a particular place to mark a changing of the guard or a new emphasis. That is what happened recently at Waterford Castle when head chef Michael Quinn invited a dozen or so trenchermen (and trencherwomen) to his wonderful dining room to remind us why Waterford Castle has such an array of gongs for its food and hospitality.
Celebrating the venue and the idea of what can be achieved by using all the gifts of a good beef animal bestows he built a menu around a Dexter. It was a wonderful experience and went well beyond anything needed to remind the indulged and self-indulgently jaded how good the food at Waterford Castle can be.
Set on an island — with a ferry, a golf course, and lodges — Waterford Castle is one of those magical Irish settings we might forget about, only to be reminded how wonderful it is by foreign visitors. Like the Dexter cow we may take it for granted.
The menu was exemplary, wonderful, indulgent, and memorable: Oxtail croquette with roasting juices; Castle-smoked Woodstown oyster; braised brisket and Madeira; consommé with bone marrow; Dunmore East monkfish; autumn baby vegetables, mussels and beef jus; trio of Dexter beef, daube, fillet tartare and roast rib and blaa pudding, all matched with wines and a local, spikey, and sharp Metalman pale ale with the starter.
It was hard not to admire the steadfastness of the vegetarian in our company.
In this time of recession and worry, such a meal might make anyone with a sliver of conscience look over their shoulder, but it was inspiringly defiant, reassuring, and bolstering. If a plate of excellent produce, treated with imagination and hard-learned professionalism, can represent hope then this was it. Even if we were lucky enough to be indulged, only a curmudgeon would not be impressed by the food, the setting, and the attention. My enthusiasm for all of these things made this one of the most memorable meals I’ve enjoyed in years.
Starters €8.50 to €14.50, dinner €28 to €36, Table d’Hote menu €40 per person plus 10% service charge