The GBK Cookbook
The British Food Trust
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The Sunday Joint - Meat In Britain
by Helen Gaffney
British meat, and beef in particular, was once the envy of the world although this is hard to believe in these times of BSE. For flavour and quality there was none so consistently good. An unknown eighteenth-century visitor from the Continent found that our ox, calf, sheep and swine (today's beef, veal, lamb and pork) were of "unsurpassing fatness and delicious taste, either because of their excellent pasture consisting of nourishing sweet-scented hay, or, owing to some way of fattening ... known to their butchers alone".
In fact, until the mid-eighteenth century our cattle were not especially fat but small and tough. It was largely due to the work of one single man, Robert Bakewell of Loughborough, that our beef became such a splendid example of fine-boned meatiness. Bakewell's breeding experiments were followed by more work, this time on the Aberdeen Angus, by a Victorian farmer-drover, McCrombie of Tillyfourie. He was responsible for the fame of this great beef breed and the result was that Britain became the stock-market of the world.
But long before the days of Queen Victoria and her beef-breeders, the British had been renowned as a nation of colossal meat-eaters. Although today we eat less than 225g (1/2 lb) of beef per head each week, there was a time when the Englishman was advised, for his health's sake, to consume not less than 3 kg (6 lb) of meat per week, with 2 kg (4 lb) of bread and a daily pint of beer. Dr. Kitchiner, author of this hefty diet, which appeared in the 'Cook's Oracle of Health' was not over-estimating the British appetite of 1817.
In those days meat was cooked in huge pieces, carefully balanced on a revolving spit before a glowing fire. The joints had to be large or they would have dried out long before they were cooked. Besides, houses with large fireplaces were generally inhabited by very large households who could do more than justice to large joints of meat - one of 5 kg (10 lb) was called a Tom Thumb joint in an early cookery book.
Spit-roasting was an ancient art. The joint was treated with great respect, basted and dredged with flour continuously in front of the much-tended fire. It would then go up to the table where the carver would give the choicest cuts to the master and his favoured guests, while the less juicy pieces would be sent further down the table to those who 'sat below the salt'. In Tudor times, this term was literally true, less well-born guests sitting well down the table beyond the salt cellars.
In less well-to-do houses, fireplaces were economically small for, while meat was cheap and plentiful, fuel was expensive and hard to come by. So the poorer families, when they had a piece of meet to be cooked, would stop by at the baker's on their way to church on Sunday morning and put a large joint in his brick oven, empty and cooling, since bread was not baked on Sundays. The service was often tediously long, but the joint was large enough to hold its succulence and the family could depend on bearing home a beautifully cooked Sunday lunch.
These Sunday joints, ancestors of today's weekend feasts, were often destined to last all through the following week; hot on Sunday, and then reheated or cold in endless succession through the next five or six days, in hash, bubble and squeak rissoles and cottage pie.
Even thirty or forty years ago there were still many households whose nightly suppers consisted solely of cold mutton, beetroot in vinegar and the pickle jar, followed by cheese and the biscuit barrel. In middle-class households this meal would be laid out on lace mats, with shining silver, but what an ineffably dreary occasion it was on the whole.
Nowadays, although we still cling to the comfortable notion of a Sunday joint, our ovens are designed to cook small pieces of meat to perfection, so the burden of eating reheated meat has been largely removed and small joints can appear on the table in top condition and disappear in a single meal. This means that we can have fresh meat, braised, grilled, stewed, fried, or boiled, during the week and enjoy different cuts, differently treated, as often as we like.
There are all sorts of interesting cuts which a good butcher can prepare for you if you give him a day's notice. Ask for a Guard of honour - two best ends of lamb joined back to back - their neatly trimmed bones crossed at the tips, like swords at a military wedding. Or a top-rib of beef for braising - or griskin of pork, the loin of a large bacon pig with the fat and chine-bone removed. It is true that from Marlborough westwards through Calne and on to Stroud and the South Midlands, lies good pig country and in this area bacon factories abound, and pork-butchers too. Here it is possible to find home-made faggots and pork pies, salt-pork, cooked trotters, creamy freshly made lard, crackling by the quarter, pig's head brawns and excellent fresh pork.
Further west and into the hill-country of Wales, lamb is the thing. In late spring, the legs of lamb, slender and small, are exceptionally sweet and light and the shoulders have a tender melting quality found in no other country. Queen Victoria would eat no other. However, as the poacher's poem says:
The mountain sheep are sweeter,
Fatter sheep come from Sussex and Kent and the low-lying salt-marshes. It is said that the salt gives a most particular flavour to the lambs that graze these windy marshes and certainly the local lamb of the area is excellent.
On the other hand, British veal in the recent past has fallen into something like disgrace. Ever since the Second World War, calves have been badly reared and their meat is dry and grey and very expensive. In addition the rearing process is considered nowadays to be very cruel. The result is that veal is almost never eaten in this country today, although it was, up to Edwardian days, a great favourite.
It is possible that things may change. Your butcher would be pleased to advise you. If he is someone who cares about his customers and the quality of his meat, you can safely ask him which cuts to buy for which purpose. Then with the basic rules of simple British meat cookery in your head, you will be able to make delicious dishes out of virtually any bit of any animal. For once you understand the art of braising, you can braise a pig's ear as easily as a piece of topside. It may not turn out to be silk purse, but like so many of the lesser known cuts of meat, it will repay the trouble by being tasty and quite different in character from anything else.
Grilling means exposing to the dry heat of a preheated grill thick pieces 3 - 6 cm (1 - 2 1/2 inch) of very good quality meat, which have first been rubbed with either oil or butter to prevent them drying out. In the US this is called broiling under a broiler, as opposed to our grilling under a grill.
They can be flavoured beforehand by rubbing with pepper, garlic etc., although salt should not be added until halfway through the cooking as it keeps the surface of the meat moist and prevents it from sealing. This means that the juices are lost and the meat will not brown easily. After flavouring, the pieces of meat should first be sealed by searing each side under a hot grill. The heat is then turned down and it finishes cooking more slowly with all its juices sealed inside.
Grilled meat is often served with a sauce or a pat of herbed butter, as there is no natural juice or gravy produced by this method of cooking.
Grilling over a wood fire
Meat grilled over a wood fire is really quite different from anything else. The smoke, of which there should be rather little, since an intense bright fire is the best for grilling, gives a very subtle taste.
Oil the well-trimmed meat lightly before grilling. Try not to let too much fat drip into the fire as this may burst into flames and blacken the meat.
A sandwich-type grill which encloses the meat, is best for this kind of cooking, since it can be turned without anything dropping into the fire. Clean it immediately after use and keep it well oiled.
Frying is cooking small pieces of good quality meat in a little fat or oil in a heated shallow pan. Always see that the meat is at room temperature before you start cooking. The pan and the fat must be hot when the meat goes in, so that it is sealed immediately on contact with the heat. As in grilling, salting should be done after the meat has been sealed.
The meat can be turned once or twice during cooking, but should not be pierced with a fork, as this will let the juices escape.
Do not use too much fat during frying, as this produces a hard crust. Keep a fairly brisk heat going, but do not overheat the pan or the fat will overheat too and burn any loose particles of meat, giving the food a bitter flavour and unpleasant appearance.
Roasting in the oven is really baking. The meat, which should be top quality, is cooked in a shallow open tin and basted frequently with hot fat to seal the outside, imprisoning most of the meat juices and preventing it from drying out. Many people like to put meat on a rack to keep it out of the fat in the roasting tin and to turn the meat from time to time as it cooks.
Roasting times and temperatures vary according to the quality and type of meat, which should always be at room temperature before going into the oven. Meat should not be seasoned with salt until after roasting, and then again after carving.
Allow all roast meat to rest, covered, in a warm place (either on top of the stove or in the oven, turned off and with the door slightly open) for 20-30 minutes before carving. This settling time makes it firmer and easier to carve. Kitchen foil makes a good cover.
The juices that collect in the tin, when skimmed of fat, form the basis of the most delicious gravy. The fat (except in the case of lamb fat, which tastes too strong when reheated) can be kept and used for frying potatoes and so forth.
To improve the juices for the gravy, some people like to add a glass or two of wine or cider to the fat in the roasting tin half an hour before the end of cooking. Wine or cider can also be used to baste the joint.
Braising, used for large pieces of medium quality or dry meats, can be done in the oven, or on top of the cooker. The meat, previously browned and sealed, is placed on a rich bed of chopped vegetables, bacon and herbs, which can also be fried and lightly browned in fat beforehand. It is then moistened by pouring in enough liquid - stock, water, wine, cider or beer - to cover the vegetables. A tight lid is put on the pan and it is cooked at a very moderate temperature, perhaps 170 ºC / 325 ºF / Gas 3, until tender. This normally takes about 30-35 minutes per 450g (1 lb) and 30 minutes over.
The meat should be turned and basted once or twice during cooking and seasoned halfway through. Serve with the braising vegetables and the juices skimmed of their fat and reduced a little by boiling.
This is cooking a medium quality or dry joint of meat in a tightly covered pan or casserole dish with fat to prevent drying but without liquid. The steam from the cooking meat condenses on the lid and bastes the joint.
Pot-roasting is done slowly, or moderately slowly. The meat is sealed and browned before seasoning and before you cover the pot. Turn the joint once or twice. The juices, skimmed of fat, make very good gravy to serve with the meat. This can be stretched by the addition of wine or stock shortly before the end of cooking time.
Stewing consists of cooking the tougher cuts of meat slowly and long in liquid, either water or stock with wine, beer or cider, or whatever the recipe specifies, to break down tough fibres and connective tissues. To improve the flavour of the meat, onions, garlic, carrots and other vegetables, herbs, spices and seasonings are added.
The meat to be stewed must be carefully trimmed and cut into smallish pieces - this helps the cooking process. It can then be fried and sealed, or left plain, depending on whether you want to have the juices from the meat completely mingled with the gravy or not.
The cooking liquid can be thickened with flour. In Britain this is normally done by frying the meat with flour and then adding the liquid. Some stews are not thickened, in which case some form of starchy vegetable, such as boiled potatoes, is necessary to mop up the gravy. These are very often placed on top of the stew where they absorb any fat that rises. Hot pot is a good example.
Stew generally takes from 1 1/2 - 3 1/2 hours, according to the quality of the meat and the oven is always kept very low, or the meat will shrink, 140-150 ºC / 275-300 ºF / Gas 1-2.
Boiling is used for large joints of medium-quality meat, either fresh or salt. However, boiling is really a misnomer, since the meat should actually be simmered very gently and steadily throughout the cooking and never boiled. The liquid is normally flavoured with vegetables, spices and herbs, but not seasoned with salt until halfway through the cooking, or not at all, in the case of salted meat (which may need soaking before cooking starts).
There are two schools of thought about boiling: the meat can either be started in cold water and brought to the boil, or plunged straight into boiling water or stock. The first method is the more traditional one, but means that you must skim very carefully for the first half hour as masses of scum will rise. Then cover the pan and keep the heat fairly low so that the waters simmer steadily. This method gives you a very good rich broth. With the second method, plunging into already boiling water or stock, most of the flavour remains trapped inside the meat. Either way the meat absorbs some of the flavour from the liquid and gives some of its own flavour in return.
The liquid must only simmer. As a rule allow 20 minutes per 450g (1 lb) and 20 minutes over for large pieces of meat over 3.6 kg (8 lb), 30 minutes per 450g (1 lb) and 30 minutes over for smaller joints.
Of the vegetables chosen for flavourings, probably carrots, leeks and onions, with a little turnip, swede or celery, are the most usual. Parsley, bay leaves and peppercorns are also good flavourings for boiled meat, notably beef.