While some people collect works of art, José Gordón collects oxen. He has 200 of them, grazing on the pastures surrounding his celebrated restaurant in Jimenez de Jamuz, northern Spain.
You’ll know oxen — castrated bull calves — as placid, lumbering beasts of toil that pull waggons, but unusually, José raises them for their meat. Born to peasant farmers, he grew up in this area, a dry, scrubby landscape but for a small river and isolated clumps of shady trees.
“They produce superior meat due to less stress and have better fat distribution,” José tells me — and it seems he’s not alone in this opinion. His meat receives critical acclaim, and is served at luxury hotels in Spain and in one outlet in London. He also features in the Netflix film, Steak (R)evolution.
Ox meat is, of course, on the menu at José’s restaurant, El Capricho, which draws gourmets from all over the world. A self-taught chef, he’s been working in professional kitchens since he was 16. He set up his own restaurant in 1987, when he was 21, and the farm followed 12 years later.
Now 52, he’s a mild, slightly stocky man, who’s clearly passionate about his product. For optimum flavour he hangs the meat — sometimes for 180 days — in a natural cave behind the restaurant, formerly used for storing wine in the days before refrigeration. If he smokes it, he uses oak wood from his estate. “I try to use everything from the same land, so it’s a kind of circular thing,” he says.
The animals roam freely, eating acorns from the ancient oak trees on their grazing land, and are well cared for; they even have a stockman who just tends to their feet. José visits his animals in the fields most days. “They come over for me to scratch their necks.”
They’re raised for a minimum of four years, usually much longer. “I wanted to raise the best oxen to get the best meat,” he says. “Some of them are 12 years old.” He knows when they’re ready to be slaughtered; it isn’t down to the age of the animal, but how it feels. He carefully examines the beast and experience tells him when it’s at its best.
“I call it a ‘sacrifice’. I have given them a life as happy as I can, with minimal stress, so when it’s time to go, I want to get the best out of the meat they have given me.”
José has precise ways of cooking the meat, too; first it’s seared at a high temperature, and then it’s moved to a cooler position to cook through. There are no temperature controls on the open flames, so it all comes down to experience.
He serves other cuts, too, using the whole animal; its fat (lard) is even an ingredient in a dessert — the El Capricho tart with white chocolate foam. But it’s steak for which he’s famous. This must be rested for a few minutes, then served hot, with only good rustic bread as an accompaniment. So, no chips, salad or sauces? José wrinkles his nose at these suggestions but concedes, seemingly reluctantly, that they do offer those options in the restaurant.
Where to try it
In Gordón’s larder
Spanish sea salt
Salt needs to be rubbed into the ox meat before grilling, and José insists on Spanish sea salt from La Coruña, on the north coast. You can buy similar flaked salt online, hand- harvested in the salt valley of Añana, northern Spain. The company claims it’s used by over 20 Spanish Michelin-starred chefs. £3.50 for 125g. bascofinefoods.com
Fresh chilli paste
José combines fresh rocoto chillies and turmeric to make a paste, which is then covered in oil and kept cool in the larder. He also makes another paste using aji chillies, common in Peru, which he serves with his beef tartare. Buy a similar hot chilli paste online made from guindilla peppers. £3.50 for 125g. lunya.co.uk
Gordón only uses Castillo de Canena extra virgin olive oil — preferably the company’s Royal version — produced in Jaén, southern Spain, since 1780. It’s organically produced, and the estate encourages biodiversity with bat boxes, bird boxes and the planting of walnut and holm oak. £9.75 for 500ml. waitrose.com