Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Traditional British Food, Part 5: The Roast Beef of Old England

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

-Henry Fielding, "The Roast Beef of Old England"

Roast beef is the quintessential English dish. Colin Spencer, in British Food, writes that, after the Reformation, "roasted and boiled carcass meats, the exterior burnt and caramelized," became a symbol of "Protestant Englishness" (340). It was the antithesis of both highly-sauced French cuisine and the fish dishes of medieval fast days. Elizabeth kept the prohibition on meat on Fridays and during Lent, but the reason given was to support England's numerous coastal towns (ibid. 105).

In the eighteenth century, the unwitting roast beef was still being used as anti-French, anti-Catholic propaganda. Observe the remaining stanzas of Fielding's song:

But since we have learnt from all-vapouring France
To eat their ragouts as well as to dance,
We're fed up with nothing but vain complaisance
Oh! the Roast Beef of Old England,
And old English Roast Beef!

Our fathers of old were robust, stout, and strong,
And kept open house, with good cheer all day long,
Which made their plump tenants rejoice in this song--
Oh! The Roast Beef of old England,
And old English Roast Beef!

But now we are dwindled to, what shall I name?
A sneaking poor race, half-begotten and tame,
Who sully the honours that once shone in fame.
Oh! the Roast Beef of Old England,
And old English Roast Beef!

When good Queen Elizabeth sat on the throne,
Ere coffee, or tea, or such slip-slops were known,
The world was in terror if e'er she did frown.
Oh! The Roast Beef of old England,
And old English Roast Beef!

In those days, if Fleets did presume on the Main,
They seldom, or never, return'd back again,
As witness, the Vaunting Armada of Spain.
Oh! The Roast Beef of Old England,
And old English Roast Beef!

Oh then we had stomachs to eat and to fight
And when wrongs were cooking to do ourselves right.
But now we're a . . . I could, but goodnight!
Oh! the Roast Beef of Old England,
And old English Roast Beef!

Isn't it fun to ridicule the French and stick it to the Spanish, just by what we choose to eat? Poor Paul. It seems I'm well on my way to subjugating his heritage through my cooking. I may have to make some paella to make it up to him.

Anyway, the recipe for the roast beef is adapted from Jane Grigson's British Cookery. I used a 3 1/3-pound rump roast instead of the (impossible-to-find) standing rib roast. Just make sure it's tied, so it doesn't lose its shape. I must say making roast beef out of a rump roast is much more satisfactory than making a pot roast, which can be so disappointing (at least, I've never made a very good one). This recipe should feed up to 8 people. The ingredients:

For the roast and vegetables:
3-4 lb rump roast, tied
1 teaspoon mustard powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Beef or bacon drippings (lard would work, too)
1 potato per person
1 parsnip for every 2 people

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit. Put the roast, fat side up, in a 9x13 Pyrex casserole. Mix the mustard powder, sugar, and Dijon together in a bowl. Add enough drippings to make a paste that will cover the top of the roast (I have no idea what quantity of dripping I actually used). Scrub the potatoes and peel the parsnips. Boil in salted water 5 minutes. Drain and lay aside. Add a few spoonfuls of drippings to the pan around the beef and put the beef in the 475-degree oven for 5 minutes while you peel the potatoes (prick them all over with the tines of a fork, as well) and slice the parsnips. After 5 minutes, turn the oven temperature down to 400 degrees and throw the potatoes and parsnips into the pan, surrounding the beef. The vegetables should take 45 minutes. Be sure to turn them half way through. The beef will take 15 minutes per pound for medium rare. (Don't make this if you want fully-cooked meat. Make a pot roast instead.) Remove the vegetables when they are done. When the meat is done, place it on a carving board to rest and tent with foil. DON'T turn off the oven or clean out the pan. Advance to Yorkshire Pudding.

For the horseradish sauce:
1/2 cup heavy cream
juice from 1/2 lemon
prepared horseradish

Whip the cream until stiff, then whip in the lemon juice and horseradish to taste. This can be done in advance and refrigerated.

For the Yorkshire Pudding (not pictured, I took the photo while it was baking):
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk

Sift the flour into a mixing bowl. Make a well and add the egg, salt, and a little bit of milk. Whisk enthusiastically while gradually adding the rest of the liquid. Pour into the hot pan that your roast has just occupied (If there is more than about 1 tablespoon of drippings, strain into a container and save for next time.) and return to the oven for about 20 minutes (time will depend on the size of your pan) while the roast rests.


Serve roast and vegetables as soon as the Yorkshire Pudding comes out of the oven. Season the beef, potatoes and parsnips.  Don't forget the horseradish sauce. I also boiled some asparagus, but you're welcome to pick your own green vegetable. Brussels sprouts or cabbage are common.

Paul and I really enjoyed the roast beef (Paul even liked the parsnips, which I found to be rather cloying) and we were left with more than enough for sandwiches, like this one (toasted white bread, horseradish sauce, roast beef, cheddar, and arugula):


  1. "Ridicule the French and stick it to the Spanish"...you and your culinary subversiveness.
    The sandwich looks delicious by the way.

  2. YUMmmmmm!!! So, we're opening the bakery and tea house on the corner lot, when???


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