It would be impossible to count the number of hamburgers eaten throughout the world every day as it’s a figure that now increases daily and which would certainly go into billions. Trillions perhaps? What is it about this flattened little pattie of ground beef served in a soft bun that has made it so popular? It not only dominates the fast food market but is now becoming established in countries such as China, Africa and even Mongolia, where multinational restaurant chains are now effectively marketing the hamburger.

Well, it is certainly something that can be cooked quickly, eaten on the run and served with chips and ketchup. As to its taste? Well obviously this varies greatly depending on seasonings and what has been added to the ground beef to reduce the cost of raw materials and give it a longer life.

The exact origins of this dish are vague, as mankind has ground and chopped meat since ancient times. Serving the meat in a bun, however, is a relatively modern idea, dating back to the mid-19th century when it was first known in America as the hamburger sandwich. This was the time when a massive wave of German immigrants was infiltrating America, bringing favourite foods with them, one of which was their ethnic dish of seasoned ground beef.

The Americans took a while to embrace this new food with enthusiasm, mostly because of their distrust of the meat industry, a mistrust fanned into flames by Upton Sinclair, who exposed the unsanitary and dangerous conditions in meat processing plants. Meat as used in hamburgers was particularly suspect, since only meat that was beginning to go off was ground and sometimes seasoned to disguise its taste.

Nevertheless, the appearance of hamburgers at restaurants considered to be trustworthy and clean did evolve gradually, thanks to the restaurant chain owner Billy Ingrams. He aggressively marketed the concepts of cleanliness and purity by white-washing the exterior of his restaurants and using only gleaming stainless steel containers and fittings in the cooking area. The beef for the hamburgers was ground within the customer’s sight so they could see there were no unsavoury cuts of meat going into their meal. By selling his hamburgers at a reasonable price, Billy Ingram gradually persuaded America that this was a dish to be taken seriously — as they have!

By the mid 1960s, the McDonald’s era began, emerging as market leader with its inexpensive burgers served in soft buns with ketchup, mustard and pickles. The hamburger became America’s undisputed culinary favourite. An interesting phenomenon is taking place now. The hamburger is making its appearance on stylish menus. What’s more, the public are responding positively, some even paying more than £20 for hamburgers served in a trendy London restaurants. Last week, the doors opened at Oxford’s latest restaurant, Byron, which specialises in what proprietor Tom Byng calls “proper” hamburgers. Tom has already opened more than 20 restaurants like this in London. The Oxford’s Byron is his first venture out of town and he says its arrival is in response to customers’ requests. He selected a George Street site as it is close to both a cinema and a popular theatre.

And why does he have no other meat dishes on the menu (there are main course salads, too) apart from hamburgers? Tom says he believes in doing one thing properly. “Rather than cooking and serving lots of different things, I wanted to do one thing really well — and that is hamburgers. That’s what the Byron restaurants do”.

First Tom had to find a name for his venture, and chose Byron as it is the medieval word for ‘from the cowshed’. On selecting the meat for his hamburgers, he looked north, and found several small Scottish suppliers who reared the very best Scottish beef, which is minced fresh every day for his restaurants by a London butcher. He said: “These farmers don’t enhance the weight of their cattle by intensive rearing; their stock roams free. By mincing it as needed, the meat retains its flavour and does not taste stale.”

The buns are cooked by a London baker, who has developed a recipe that provides a bun which is both firm to the touch and soft to the mouth.

Only six hamburgers feature on the Byron menu. They include a chicken burger and a veggie burger created from grilled portobello mushrooms, roasted red peppers, goat’s cheese, aioli and baby spinach. By aiming for the top end of the hamburger market, just as American restaurateur Billy Ingram did all those years ago, and stressing the importance of well-sourced beef and authentic ingredients, Tom is convinced that he has got the formula just right. It will be interesting to see what the people of Oxford make of this new venture.