'When mighty Roast Beef was the Englishman's food' - Tom Parker Bowles
PUBLISHED: 09:41 04 February 2013 | UPDATED: 22:04 21 February 2013
'When mighty Roast Beef was the Englishman's food,' cries Henry Fielding in The Grub Street Opera, 'It ennobled our brains and enriched our blood.' So close to so many a Britons' hearts', but just how well do we know our treasured roast beef?
When mighty Roast Beef was the Englishman's food, cries Henry Fielding in The Grub Street Opera, It ennobled our brains and enriched our blood. Here was patriotism made flesh, literally, as a great side of cow becomes succulent, fat-marbled battering ram with which to bash all-vapouring France, with their strange and finicky ragouts. Back then, in Albions glory days, we had stomachs to eat and to fight. And when wrongs were cooking to do ourselves right.
Now Fielding was a fine writer, and the play far more satirical than serious. But The Roast Beef of Old England quickly became branded into everyday culture, and remained popular long after its 1731 debut. The British, or Les Rosbifs, have been closely associated with it ever since. Partly due to our temperate climate, with all that lush grass. And a profusion of breeds ideally suited to specific geographical areas. Plus our skill at roasting (first on a spit, then in the oven) was one of the few culinary spheres, along with puddings, where we traditionally excelled. Wood was always plentiful. As was meat. Well, for the rich at least, where it was seen as a sign of status. The poor, as ever, got by on a meagre, dreary diet of pottage. With the odd scrap of salt pork thrown in for a treat.
But dull would he be of palate to be unmoved by a great, burnished rib of beef, cooked pink, sliced tissue paper thin and surrounded by an adoring entourage of crisp roast potatoes, billowing Yorkshire pudding and rivers of deep flavoured gravy. The same goes for golden skinned chickens, crackling-coated pork and legs of lamb studded with garlic and rosemary. This is feasting food, miles removed from the quick-fix, flavour-free horrors of the average ready meal. The roast is rich in succour and good cheer, eaten with pleasure and digested at leisure.
So why do we so often get it so wrong? Well, for a start, theres no sauce behind which to crouch, no spices to mask any shortcomings. Pick a shabby, tasteless imported bird to roast and the skin will refuse to brown. And the flavour will be but a distant dream, a sorry cipher of the real thing. Now its all very well for me to wag my finger from my food writers ivory tower, telling you to eat good meat. But when it comes to roasting meat, its all about quality. Which does cost more.
Buy British, and the best you can afford. Go to the butcher and talk to him. Thats what hes there for. And forget all the labels of organic and free range and the rest. Flavour is all that matters. Trust your palate, rather than falling for the marketeers silver-tongued spiel.
Of course, cooking times vary from oven to oven, and cut to cut. The tougher bits, shin, shoulder and the rest, demand a low, slow cooking time. While the parts that have done less work, fillet, sirloin et al, want a quick blast of serious heat. But whatever the animal or cut, the resting is as important as the cooking. Leaving the joint in a warm place for 20 minutes or so allows the juices to redistribute around the meat. You get more succulence, and more satisfaction too. This is the sort of lunch that, done properly, gets the taste buds hollering with patriotic delight. Oh! The Roast Beef of England. And old English Roast Beef...
Thanks to Tom Parker Bowles.