Wednesday 7 December 2011

Roasting the Christmas Beef

A 22 lb sirloin roasts in a cradle spit in front of my kitchen fire
By the end of this week I will have given five lectures on the history of Christmas food, run two practical courses on the same and written an article on the subject for the current edition of BBC Countryfile Magazine. As a result, I have cooked my way through a lot of ancient Christmas dishes and it isn't even Christmas yet! I am not exactly jaded with Yorkshire Christmas Pie, hack pudding, plum pottage and spit roast goose, but they are beginning to lose their appeal. On the big day a simple Christmas lunch of a digestive biscuit and a cup of cocoa would suit me just fine!

My roasting range has been particularly active over the last month with joints of beef, mainly large sirloin and rib joints rotating slowly in front of incredibly hot fires. On my last Taste of Christmas Past Course, we roasted a 22lb sirloin. This was a bone-in joint with the full fillet tucked away inside, a cut quite rightly once considered the beef joint of choice for roasting in front of the fire. It took four and a half hours to cook to perfection. All who tasted it said how moist and delicious it was. It was so tender that it was like carving a slab of marshmallow! Of all our Christmas dishes, roast beef served with plum pudding is the most evocative of past traditions of hospitality. It was once Britain's prime celebration dish and a potent symbol of the nation's character and cohesiveness.

A 15lb rib joint spit roasted to perfection
A rib joint is a great alternative to a sirloin and a few weeks ago I roasted one for for the BBC magazine photographs. This weighed in at just fifteen pounds and was perfectly cooked in just three hours. These cooking times might surprise those who have only had experience of 'roasting' meat in an oven, but they make sense of the ones suggested in early cookery texts, which often seem rather on the short side to contemporary readers. This is because very few people living today have experienced just how hot and efficient a generously fuelled roasting range is when roaring at full capacity. However, my little farmhouse range would be dwarfed by the roasting facilities once employed in the great houses and royal palace kitchens, like those below at Windsor.
Roasting the baron of beef at Windsor - Christmas 1856
Every year a full baron of beef was roasted in the Windsor Castle kitchen. According to Dr. Johnson, 'a Baron of Beef is when the two sirloins are not cut asunder, but joined together by the end of the backbone'. In other words, the whole bum of an ox! Once roastedthis gigantic Royal cut was displayed on the dining room sideboard, together with a very large game pie, a boar's head, a shield of brawn and a woodcock pie. In fact surviving royal menus for the Christmas season indicate that all these dishes were displayed on the sideboard for the whole twelve day holiday, at least at dinner time. I expect they were all moved to a cold larder between meals. Queen Victoria kept up this tradition when she moved to Osborne on the Isle of Wight, but there was not a large enough range in the kitchen there to roast the baron, so it was roasted at Windsor and sent to Osborne by train and ferry! It was always served as a cold cut. 

Some very large Christmas pies were also prepared for the Royal sideboard. I have made four of these so far this season. Here is one I baked for the BBC magazine article. If not opened, these could be kept for months, as the meat inside was embedded in clarified butter. I once stored one for three months in a cold larder before cutting into the pastry. The meat was still perfectly sweet. But to get this to work successfully is incredibly difficult, as there must not be a single hairline crack in the pastry and all the gravy has to be drained out from the pie before it is filled with clarified butter. 

A Christmas Pie with a filling of boned turkey, goose, fowl., duck, partridge and pigeon
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  1. Your insights into the past are so addictive... I love the blog and seeing more of your work.. those pastry cases are magnificent.

  2. Truly wonderful, takes the past to the present and comes alive with your care and expertise through food! I would love to know if you have an 18th century rabbit stew recipe? I would love to connect with you further, please email me at

  3. How right you are to say that roast beef and plum pudding was "once Britain's prime celebration dish". If you read old newspapers, they are full, at Christmas time of stories of giant feasts of roast beef, plum pudding and ale.

    Martyn Cornell