Chef Mario Sandoval and team | Jorge Lopez/Thrillist
Chef Mario Sandoval and team | Jorge Lopez/Thrillist
Food & Drink

Inside a Michelin-Starred Chef's Controversial Quest to Turn Fighting Bulls Into Gourmet Food

Juan del Alamo, at Las Ventas Plaza, Madrid | Jorge Lopez/Thrillist

The beast is hitched to a team of draught horses that parades its limp mass around the plaza. The horse team exits the ring through a tunnel, emerging on an exterior patio, near a concession stand where a dozen people are drinking beers from clear plastic cups. The air is thick with the smell of hot death and earth and metal. The horses trot past and come to a stop a few meters away, in front of an open garage door where a group of weary-looking men in knee-high rubber boots waits to butcher the beast.

What happens after that? If Michelin-starred chef Mario Sandoval has his way, we'll eat the vanquished bull. To be more specific, the bull will become a luxury product, elevated to the same exalted status enjoyed by Spain's famous Iberian pigs. And it will be really, really good. Good for diners, good for the culture. Sandoval swears this up and down. Even if his detractors think his venture will only perpetuate a barbarous spectacle that's long past its prime. 

Balls, blood, and tail

You can eat the bull. Some of the bull, anyway. The meat has long had a second life in Spain's food markets. Customers at Barcelona's historic Boqueria still remember the butcher who would set up a rolling cart in the entryway in the days after a bullfight, loaded up with various cuts of the deep-red flesh. King Ferdinand purportedly ate bull testicles to boost sexual prowess, and some folk legends hold that drinking the blood of the bull can ward off headaches and disease. There's even a rumor of a mystery woman who pulls up to the butchery area at Las Ventas in a car with tinted windows, drinks a single glass of blood, and disappears. 

"When you eat the meat of the bull, you're eating a being," says Borja, who grew up watching the toros alongside his dad, also a bullfighting critic. "You're consuming its energy, its power, its emotions."

As a supporter, it's easy for Borja to wax romantic, but if you strip away the mystique of the corrida, the meat itself seems decidedly unappealing: lean, gamey and hard as stone until you marinate and stew it beyond recognition. Bred for bravery, fighting bulls live a longer and wilder life than cattle raised for meat. By the time they get to the plaza, they're older and far more muscled than their domesticated cousins, and the stress of fighting leaves the tissues fatigued and acidic. As one friend put it, the regimen "seems like the opposite of everything you're supposed to do to make meat good."

Toribio Anta Anta, of Casa Toribio | Jorge Lopez/Thrillist

The one thing toro bravo meat has going for it is its cost. It's around 2.50 euros per kilo wholesale, because there's not much demand for it on the retail side. The most commonly eaten bit is the tail, or rabo, which is served in restaurants during bullfighting festivals like the Feria de San Isidro, held in Madrid each May. Stewing the rabo over low heat for several hours tenderizes the meat and melts the connective tissues into a rich gelatin, explains Toribio Anta Anta, whose Madrid restaurant, Casa Toribio, has exclusive deals to buy all the rabos that come out of some 70 Spanish bullrings. (Rabo de toro appears on the menu at countless other restaurants across the country, but fraud is rampant, with cow, veal, or even kangaroo tails passed off as bull.)

Anta, white-haired and wearing a royal-blue tie embroidered with a parade of tiny gold bulls, looks a little skeptical when asked if he thinks bull meat would make for good sausage, as Chef Sandoval is betting it will. "It's a tough meat that doesn't have fat, and fat is what gives it flavor," he says. "But Sandoval is a Michelin-star chef. Maybe he can do it better."

Chef Mario Sandoval | Jorge Lopez/Thrillist

"I'm taurino. One hundred percent."

Bullfighting is up there with the siesta and flamenco dancing when it comes to how tourists imagine Spaniards spend their leisure time, but each year the spectacle grows more controversial. Three weeks before this corrida, thousands of protesters shut down the streets of Madrid to demand a ban, chanting "torture isn't culture" and holding signs calling bullfighting a national disgrace. Attendance has been slipping for years, and some politicians have called for ending public funding for bullfights, or banning them altogether. 

Chef Mario Sandoval feels no such qualms. "I've been a fan of the bulls since I was really little," he says. Sitting on a velvet chair in the "dessert lounge" of Coque -- the third-generation family restaurant he runs with his brothers -- he explains that before his oldest brother Rafael became Coque's sommelier, he had a career as a bullfighter, starting his training when Mario was a toddler. 

Toribio Anta, at right | Jorge Lopez/Thrillist

"The first time I saw a bullfight, I was 6," he says. "I was my big brother's number-one fan. He was 18 or 19, and I remember it because he killed all six bulls by himself." As Rafael's career took off in the '80s, Mario had a front-row seat. "I was a sword page, I cleaned the capes, I dressed him," he says. "I'm taurino, 100%."

At 14, Sandoval got his first taste of fighting bull when the family attended a tienta, a sort of practice bullfight that gives toreros a chance to train while the ranchers evaluate the bulls' temperaments. "The rancher gave us some toro bravo stew to try," he remembers. "It tasted different: healthy, rich, with so much flavor. The rancher said, 'We eat this all the time.'"

After Sandoval finished culinary school, he apprenticed in the kinds of kitchens where chemistry beakers and liquid nitrogen were as common as sauté pans and olive oil, under such masters as Ferran Adrià and Juan Mari Arzak. He came back to the family restaurant -- located about 40 minutes outside of the capital in the dusty hamlet of Humanes de Madrid -- armed with new ideas about how to apply concepts from history and science to his centuries-old Spanish cooking. Those ideas found an enthusiastic audience. In 2004, Coque was awarded its first Michelin star. Last year, it earned its second.

One day at the restaurant, Mario's brother suggested he do something similarly innovative with the meat of the toro bravo. "He said, 'Nobody's done it, but we should start. We'll make it fashionable,'" Sandoval recalls. There were a lot of questions to answer -- including what to do about a suite of Spanish laws that strictly control how the meat can be used -- but the Sandovals decided to try and see what happened. The ranchers union donated a bull for them to experiment with, and Sandoval ordered a nutritional analysis of the meat. 

Coque | Jorge Lopez/Thrillist

"We saw that the meat is amazing," Sandoval says. "It has characteristics that other meats don't have. It's rich with vitamins and omega-3s, it's natural, and it's very Spanish: Why not defend it?"

But there was a problem. The stress of the bullfight raises the pH of the meat, making it more acidic. Sandoval's R&D team had to figure out a way to make this tough, fibrous meat tender enough to be considered a luxury product, without losing the nutrients or the flavor. They applied a technique called high-pressure processing, which breaks the fibers in the meat and gets rid of what Sandoval euphemistically refers to as the toro bravo’s "lively" flavor. He was pleased with the results, and set about touring the country, touting his discovery and preaching the gospel of the fighting bull, calling it Spain's most sustainable, ecological, and underappreciated meat. 

"If I can choose between bull and an animal that's raised in a pen, eating feed adulterated with clenbuterol and whatever else, and when you grill it and cut into the steak, the only thing that comes out is water?" he says. "I prefer to eat a steak that has flavor and nourishes me."

Rabo de toro ravioli, topped with bull sirloin | Jorge Lopez/Thrillist

Eating the beast

Because Spanish law limits how the meat of the fought bulls can be used, the meat Sandoval is working with comes from bulls of the same breed that never actually saw the inside of a plaza -- the desecho, or "reject" bulls that don't make it past the practice bullfight. According to Sandoval, about half of all fighting bulls raised in Spain wind up as desecho; they're sent to the slaughterhouse like any other steer, and he buys the cuts he wants from the meat packers. At a food event in Madrid last January, he served bull sausage with stewed tongue and bull-rump pastrami with sirloin stroganoff, and he says there's always something on the Coque menu made from the meat of the toro bravo

Today it's a paper-thin raviolo stuffed with the stewed meat of the bull's tail, served in a spicy cochinita broth and crowned with a petal of hot-pink seared sirloin and a few ribbons of mint. The flavor of the meat is direct and earthy, with an offal-ish hit at the back of the tongue, and the sirloin's texture surprises me -- something like meat butter.
Next, Mario emerges from the kitchen with a sausage board piled high with an array of cured meats. These are the real jewels in the crown of his "make bull meat trendy" campaign: There's a summer sausage called salchichón; thin leaves of lean, dry cecina, which tastes like gamey beef jerky; and soft pink rounds of lacón (a brined "ham" usually made with pork). Finally, there's a spicy chorizo made from 70% bull meat mottled with 30% beef fat. 

Sandoval wants the toro bravo to follow the path to fame that Iberian pork took: winning people over first with premium sausages and cured meats, in turn raising demand for fresh cuts. Under the brand Bravo Gourmet, he plans to sell the sausages at the plazas during bullfights to get the public used to appreciating it as a luxury product, and maybe even export it internationally. 

Sandoval's toro bravo sausage platter at Coque | Jorge Lopez/Thrillist

To add more flavor to the lean bull, Sandoval originally mixed the toro bravo meat with Iberian pork fat, but says the results weren't ideal. A switch to beef fat not only produced a truer-tasting sausage but also broadened the product's potential appeal to populations that can't eat pork. "I have an Arab cook that can't eat Iberico ham, but he can try this sausage," Sandoval says. "Now it's a meat that the Arab world can eat, and it's still an Ibérico because it's produced on Iberian pasture."

The sausages are good -- not jamón Ibérico good, but flavorful and novel enough to hold their own against other game meats like venison. And Sandoval's only trying to compete with the more humble pork sausages anyway, not the top-of-the-line acorn-fed ham that sells for $1,700 a leg. He just wants to create enough demand for the product to boost the per-kilo price collected by his bull-ranching friends. 

"I'd like to see the price double or triple, mostly to pay the expenses of the ranchers," Sandoval says. "A few years ago, some ranches with a lot of history had to shut down, and it's a shame to lose that."

He's already registered the Bravo Gourmet brand, but a full launch is still a few years away. There's no cohesive system for managing the animal supply, and all the relevant players are still negotiating how such a system would be built. There's also the matter of getting the government to loosen the laws that restrict chefs like Sandoval from working more freely with the meat of the fought bulls. 

And, of course, there's the politics, which grow more bitter by the day. 

Sides of butchered bull meat hang in a refrigerated truck after a bullfight at Las Ventas Plaza | Jorge Lopez/Thrillist

Blood and patriotism

The weary butchers in the rubber boots at Las Ventas go about their work quickly when processing the bull that died by Juan del Alamo's hand. As they unhitch its bloodstained body from the horse team, I fix my gaze on the animal's face, the muscles still twitching. 

"It's just the death spasms," Borja says. "Don't worry." 

A crowd has gathered to watch. Toddlers perched on mom hips. A kid who looks about 10 covers his mouth with his shirt against the stench. Pulleys hoist the bull's body vertical by its hindquarters, and the image sticks with me: It's the moment the mammal becomes meat. Right then, the butcher room's red garage door slowly lowers closed, concealing everything except the strung-up hind hooves, just visible through the transom glass. 

"In the old days they left the doors open," Borja says, almost nostalgically. "But now they keep them closed. Because of the antitaurinos."

It makes sense why they'd want to keep this spectacle from prying eyes. It's a visceral image -- one that won't win the corrida many new fans. And new fans are precisely what it needs right now to survive. Catalonia outlawed bullfighting in 2010; a year later, Barcelona turned its 110-year-old Neo-Mudéjar plaza into a monumental shopping mall. Bull meat subsequently disappeared from the marketplace, and if you believe the local butchers, nobody seems to miss it much. The number of bull-related events in Spain has fallen steadily from almost 2,300 in 2011 to just 1,736 last year, and today Las Ventas is only three-quarters full. The youth increasingly see it as a pastime for the old.

Further complicating matters, the controversy surrounding bullfighting isn't just about animal rights, but the entire concept of national identity. In Catalonia, which suffered decades of repression of its language and culture under Franco and now has a vigorous independence movement whose rallying cry is "Catalonia is not Spain," the bull's association with Spanish identity is a liability, not a selling point. Similar attitudes exist in other regions, including in the Canary Islands, where bullfighting has been banned for 25 years. 

This growing politicization of the bulls is evident at Las Ventas Plaza, which is done up like a fever dream of Spanish nationalism, with red-and-gold banners decorating the place like cake icing. Borja gestures at them and grimaces. "That's what bothers me," he says. "There used to just be one, but five or six years ago they put up all these flags, as if claiming the toros for the right."

Las Ventas Plaza, Madrid | Jorge Lopez/Thrillist

While Sandoval doesn't consider himself a nationalist, he says his project is "absolutely" a response to growing antitaurino sentiment, and like many bullfighting apologists, he describes his feelings for the bull in reverent terms, using words like "admire" and "defend." It's a logic that leaves animal activists baffled. How can you admire an animal you publicly mutilate for fun? His stance got him into trouble with the "antis" on Twitter last March, after he posted with the hashtag #DoyLaCaraPorElToro ("I Stand Up for the Bull"). "I defend the toro bravo, one of the healthiest meats in the world," Sandoval tweeted, along with a photo of one of his dishes. One critic replied, "I hope you don't defend the other things you love this way." "We don't defend the bull on the plate, my dear, we want it alive!" echoed another. 

"I defend eating of the meat of the toro bravo because it's healthy for humans," Sandoval counters, adding, with a poetic flourish: "It's not just the sacrifice of an animal for its own sake. It's also because it matters to society. The bull has performed its function in culture and art, and cooks can do really good things with it, too."

So does Sandoval's celebration of the bull as culinary art in any way justify bullfighting? If the animal has to die, is it at least better to pay a proper homage to it, even in death? I pose the question to Elies, a Catalan friend who runs a gourmet food company in Barcelona. He doesn't buy it. 

"It's like saying, 'Let's pass a law that everyone who gets murdered becomes an organ donor to save lives,'" he says, over a plate of jamón Ibérico. "I'm still anti-murder. It doesn't change anything."

Ssam of fighting bull sirloin in a lettuce leaf at Coque | Jorge Lopez/Thrillist

"This pure animal"

For now, Sandoval is holding fast, traveling, preaching the gospel of the toro bravo, seemingly unconcerned about wading into such emotionally charged waters. "There are always detractors in life," he says. And his claim that bullfighting is an indispensable part of Spanish identity -- the linchpin of his burgeoning project -- was bolstered in October, when the Spanish Supreme Court ruled Catalonia's bullfighting ban unconstitutional on the grounds that the spectacle is part of Spain's national heritage. That may or may not improve his prospects of elevating toro bravo to the pantheon of great Spanish food, but he believes he is on the side of righteousness, and that people will eventually come around.

"To defend the fiesta and defend this pure animal," he says. "I think it's worth it."

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Maya Kroth is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in New York, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and other outlets. And no, she has not read Death in the Afternoon.