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Filet mignon. These two words grace the menus of desirable dinner spots and the boards of most seasoned butchers, and they’re a pleasing sight – except for the price tag. So lean and tender a cut, you might think that matters of taste alone are what drive up the price. But the truth is, like most rare or desirable foods, quantity matters, too. And this particular cut comes from one of the smallest muscles on a steer.

To understand the filet mignon – why it’s so delicious yet not so plentiful – requires a short lesson in beef butchery, or rather, bovine anatomy. Beneath the backbone of an animal, where the ribs meet the vertebrae toward its rear, lies the tenderloin. There are two on each animal, but only the choicest part makes up the delicious medallions of filet mignon. Hidden beneath its bones, the animal rarely – if ever – uses this muscle, and an underworked muscle means a tender steak.  The tenderloin never bears the 1,000+ pounds of a steer’s weight, and we reap the tender results on our plates.

Its remarkable leanness is a good thing for both ascetic and indulgent gourmets. Filet mignon is tender without heavy marbling, but it also invites richer foods to its side. The French dish Tournedos Rossini defines the world of filet mignon marriages: a piece of the loin, pan-fried in butter and topped with a heart-racing addition of seared foie gras atop the tender cut. Wrapped in buttery puff pastry or, in a newer twist, bacon, filet mignon invites all sorts of rich additions to its lean sides  The delicious results are the stuff of special occasions around the world – and happily so.

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