It seems appropriate to write about Sunday Roast today.
Those of us in England are nursing a hangover this Sunday, 1st November, whether we were drinking last night or not. Instead of trick or treating with our kids, or getting ready for a Halloween party, we gathered around the telly to watch Mr Johnson announce a second month-long lockdown starting next Thursday.
We saw it coming. Local measures, confirmed cases and death tolls have been rising alarmingly on a daily basis. Our continental neighbours started imposing stricter measures, curfews included. It was never an if, it was always a when.
As we push through today with broken spirits and in dire need of comfort, let’s find it in the most British way possible: with a proper Sunday Roast.
For the love of roast beef.
Brits, by birth or circumstance, have been comforted by roasts since 1485. The meat of choice has been predominantly beef, something that helped to coin more than one nickname.
The first is “Beefeaters”, an affectionate name for the Yeomen of the Guard, who have loved their roast beef since King Henry VII’s reign. Another interesting nickname is “(Les) Rosbifs”, one that came from across the Channel.
Perhaps there is a hint of envy behind the latter. In her book Cuisine and Empire, historian Rachel Laudan explains that the English bragged about the fact that even the less fortunate could enjoy a decent Ox roast. The French, to their neighbours’ understanding, had to make do with bland soup.
Those with the luxury of a large fireplace had the opportunity to roast their 6 pounds of beef at home. However, the majority of families would take advantage of the baker’s day off and have their roasts cooked in their ovens while they attended church.
Bakers in Britain only really started resting on Sundays when ovens became a household appliance.
Pour me some gravy.
The key to a good roast beef may well be cooking the meat slow and long enough for it to keep it as moist as possible. However, and very much inevitably, the meat will release much of those juices during the roasting process.
Turning those juices into a velvety sauce is an art. The art of gravy.
Too much or undercooked flour will give it a starchy flavour. Too thick and it will look like brown porridge lumped on top of the beef. If not thickened enough, the sauce will run wild through the plate.
In my opinion, a perfect Sunday Roast will have just enough gravy to coat the beef. Perhaps a little leftover to eat with pieces of Yorkshire pudding, or a stray piece of potato. Whichever your choice, there shall always be enough gravy at the table for everyone to soak their plates, at least twice.
Crispy Roast mates.
In early days, the English served Sunday Roast with bread and “pudding”, a steamed batter of flour and eggs. The pudding was also sometimes baked, and when placed under the beef, the drippings would fall in the batter, making it sizzle. According to Rachel Laudan, in 1730, they started calling it Yorkshire pudding. And there is no roast without it.
The other main partner in the Roast business is the potato. It must be served in chunks that are crispy on the outside, and fluffy on the inside. Each piece should crack when hit with the fork. Equally, the light and airy inside is meant to soak up any juices lingering around. It’s their main purpose.
Some of your 5 a day.
Before we were obsessed with calories, the nutritional advise back in the 1800s had meat at its core.
Multiple sources online quote William Kitchiner, a Doctor and one of Britain’s earliest food writers, advising brits to eat 6 pounds (2.72 kg) of meat each week to keep a healthy diet. His recommendations also included a pint of beer and 2kg of bread per day. He died of a heart attack at 52, not surprisingly.
The evolution of the Sunday Roast started seeing the introduction of vegetables to accompany the large amounts of beef. Steamed peas, runner beans and broccoli are the healthiest of the common options.
However, French preparations have their place at the table as well. For instance, Vichy carrots (cooked in butter and sugar) and Cauliflower cheese: blanched cauliflower, drenched in bechamel sauce and cheddar cheese.
Tried, tested, and store-bought.
I had been looking forward to making a couple of test runs ahead of the shoot. This would give me plenty of practice as well as writing material. Most importantly, it was a great opportunity to have friends over to share the meal, as British Food gods intend us to do.
The idea was to have the first trial run, just for the two of us. That way, if my roast were to poison anyone, it would be myself and the person that voluntarily agreed to become the guinea pig of all my cooking adventures over eight years ago.
I reached for my Alma Mater’s textbook, Leith’s How to Cook, and read through the individual recipes: Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, Roast potatoes, Vichy carrots, runner beans, Cauliflower cheese. All in. The only one I hadn’t cooked before was the Yorkshire pudding. Not surprisingly, I failed.
My Yorkshires burnt, were oddly shaped, and left a pool of oil in the oven. I also over-boiled the potatoes, leaving them too fluffy to create a good crust when roasted in the oven. At least they were tasty. Everything else went as planned.
For the second round, we would have our friends over. However, and in typical 2020 fashion, the dismissal of the rule-of-six threw my plans out the window.
Because our friends weren’t coming over, I didn’t see the point in making Cauliflower cheese again. Maik is not a big fan of food au gratin. I swapped it with pan-fried tenderstem broccoli which we both enjoy. I also tweaked the Vichy carrots by adding a small clove of garlic, grated. A nod to a family recipe.
I freed myself from recurrent disappointment and bought ready-made Yorkshire puddings. No regrets.
The British, and many of those in Commonwealth countries, have shared a roast on Sundays for over 500 years. Sitting at the table, discussing the week that’s gone by and the plans ahead is also part of the ritual. At home or at the local Pub.
Over the next four weeks, and likely long after that, those living in England will find ourselves at home on Sundays. It is clear that this second lockdown will have a significant impact on the economy.
Most of our local businesses bravely pushed through the first round in the best way they could. Those that survived only did because of our support. For this second lockdown, they are counting on us again.
Therefore, if you can, please consider ordering a takeaway Sunday Roast over the next four weeks. Even if you find pleasure in making your own, knowing you’ll be supporting a business with a family or more on its shoulders will bring you comfort, in more ways than one.