Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Roast Beef of Old England.

Today, November 23 …

Sam Pepys wrote in his diary in 1661 “This day I had a Chine of beefe sent home, which I bespoke to send and did send it, as a present to my Uncle Wight”. What a gift for an Englishman! A chine – a huge piece of cow consisting of the backbone and the loin meat each side, roasted to perfection, and the envy of visitors to England such as the Swede Pehr Kalm (1716-1779) who disguised his jealousy with scorn:

“Roast meat is the Englishman's delice and principal dish. .. The English men understand almost better than any other people the art of properly roasting a joint, which also is not to be wondered at; because the art of cooking as practiced by most Englishmen does not extend much beyond roast beef and plum pudding.”

You cant get more English than roast beef. Unless you have chicken tikka that is. Anyway, beef isn’t roasted anymore. Baked in ovens, yes, but not roasted on a spit in front of an open fire, turned all the while by little boys or ingenious mechanical devices, basted lovingly by the cook at regular intervals, the juice (none of your fancy jus) and drippings falling down into a pan of batter, transforming it into Yorkshire pudding.

Sadly, truth is often more prosaic than fiction. Contrary to popular belief, the sirloin did not get its name when a particularly splendid example of that “joint of goodly presence” was given a mock knighthood (“Sir Loin” – get it?) by either King Henry VII, James I, or Charles II. The name simply comes from “surlonge”, i.e above the loin.

In case you should be lucky enough to have the right sort of beef, fireplace, and small boy, here is a recipe from Robert May’s “Accomplish’t Cook” (1660).

To roast a Chine, Rib, Loin, Brisket, or Fillet of Beef,
Draw them with parsley, rosemary, time [thyme], sweet marjoram, sage, winter savoury, or lemon, or plain without any of them, fresh or salt, as you please; broth it, roast it, and baste it with butter: a good chine of beef will ask six hours of roasting.
For the sauce take straight tops of rosemary, sage leaves, picked parsley, time, and sweet marjoram; and stew them in wine vinegar, and the beef gravy; or otherwayes with gravy and juyce of oranges and lemons. Sometimes for change in saucers of vinegar and pepper.

Tomorrow ….Green butter and the Art of Sandwiches.


Anonymous said...

When mighty roast beef was the Englishman's food, It enobled our brains and enriched our blood. Our soldiers were brave and our courtiers were good
Oh! the Roast Beef of England.
And old English Roast Beef!Mole

Anonymous said...

the above comment is also a song

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Anonymous - I must post the words of the song, and some note about its significance. As soon as I get time. Thanks for reminding me about it.

Anonymous said...

very interesting post. I have akways thought that it is very curious that the reputation of British beef began well before the foundation of the various famous breeds of British beef cattle.

Adam Balic

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Adam - I suspect, now that you have commented on it, that the famous breeds were developed in response to the love of roast beef, not the other way around. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Much of the improvement of beef breeds and development of herd books occured in the latter part of the 18th century and into the mid 19th. This probably occured as part of the large changes that were occuring in British agriculture at the time and the development of markets, then the taste of the beef. If you look at patriotic pieces like Hogath's "Calais Gate"'or "O'the Roast Beef of Old England" (1748)(named after the song maybe) you can see that "British Beef" was a potent symbol well before many British beef cattle breeds were defined. Also interesting is that "roast beef" would have been cooked infront of a fire (on a spit) not baked in the oven, so in many ways we will never know what the "Beef of old England" tasted like.