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Roast dinners

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

"It’s wrong to pop a roast dinner on your lap in front of the TV. It deserves a full presentation, and your full attention. A vast wedge of meat carried out and sliced before you. So many side dishes that you can’t fit them all on the dining table. Congratulations to the cook. Sweating. Belt-loosening. Semi‑voluntary unconsciousness. A roast is a ceremony."

Stuart Heritage - The Guardian

It's a while since I have had a roast dinner - a meal that is simultaneously simple, even ordinary, but also a bit of a challenge. We don't eat them much in our household, mostly I think because my husband is not a real big fan. He does love a slow-cooked lamb roast, but to my mind that is almost a pot roast rather than a roast, and besides lamb is currently hugely expensive. I shall look some out next time I go to the market though. And I know he is definitely not a fan of roast chicken. The other reason though is that a roast dinner should really be a family affair shouldn't it? And virtually all of the cooks and chefs I consulted said that it's not worth doing with a small piece of meat. The bigger the better. And there only two of us.

The Brits like to think that the roast dinner - particularly the roast beef of Old England - is theirs by right. Heavens even the French nickname for the English is les rosbifs. But really roast dinners are created and eaten around the world. It's fundamentally the oldest form of meal surely?

We watched a documentary on the Neanderthals last night. The thing that really hit me was that they apparently roamed the earth - well Eurasia - for 300,000 years! 300,000 not the mere 40-50,000 of Homo Sapiens. That's an enormously long time, and although we have not given them credit for a whole lot of things, in all that time they did not really develop or change the way they lived. They adapted to sweeping climate changes but that is virtually all. Which makes my complaint that men should have evolved from caveman attitudes over a few thousand years, look a bit optimistic. Anyway my point is that the Neanderthals were nomadic hunters and gatherers, who probably only ate meat roasted.

But did they cook? Did they even know how to make fire? Well I just checked on all of that and it seems that they definitely used fire - to cook and for other reasons too, but the jury is out on whether they could actually start a fire, or whether they had to use natural wild fire to create a fire. And it also seems that all those other much older versions of Homo also used fire to cook. Which would have been a simple roasting process probably with possibly some cooking in the ashes. So the roast dinner is very old - and with the cooking of it, went the communal eating - and talking - well no they think that the Neanderthals may have been able to communicate with each other but not with a very sophisticated language. Although there may well have been dancing and song.

With the birth of civilisation - well what is known as civilisation - came simple ovens and more sophisticated ways of harnessing fire for cooking, Here are the Greeks roasting something - maybe a chicken with a sort of hand-held spit, but even earlier civilisations would have had similar ways of roasting meat. And on through the middle ages, when your hunk of meat, cooked on a spit that was turned by some lowly almost slave, was served on a trencher - a large slice of bread - or maybe a piece of wood, and the tudors too did the same.

In the nineteenth century in London Town gentlemen gathered together at Simpsons in the Strand, initially to play chess apparently, and eventually to eat large quantities of meat. It is still there, and it's an institution that I wish I had visited in spite of the expense. It's supposed to still be the best place for roast beef in London. Well it has that reputation anyway. And it is served as a huge piece of meat on a trolley which is sliced at your table. And English pubs do this too though on a somewhat more humble scale.

And finally, also in the nineteenth century the poor could also afford the meat for the Sunday roast. It was put in the oven as they went to church - whether the oven was your own or the baker's if you didn't have one. So after church and possibly the first and only opportunity to relax in the working week the family would gather together for the Sunday roast.

And I think this is when the tradition of the father or the man of the house anyway carving the roast began. I remember my father doing this. Standing at the head of the table, with a huge grin on his face, first sharpening the knife on a steel with a fair bit of flourish, and then carving the meat. It's interesting that I remember this, because, being in the merchant navy, he would have been away for the majority of our Sunday roasts. Did my mother make less of a show about it? Yes and no. Actually I think she carved it in the kitchen and plated it up out there with all the potatoes and vegetables that went with it. So that's why I remember my father doing the carving. The Sunday roast when he carved was obviously much more of an occasion than in our 'ordinary' lives. And it sort of still is.

"The Sunday roast, joyous, generous, the pinnacle of shared meals. A gathering of family, in some cases the only one of the week, or a long and leisurely meal for friends. For all its generosity and pass-the-peas bonhomie, the dish itself splits into two halves, the hot roast and the glorious leftovers." Nigel Slater

Although apparently the tradition is gradually dying over there in Old England. Today they are barbecuing instead or cooking something ethnic and 'interesting' or just not eating meat at all. Which is rather sad.

And I guess the ultimate roast dinner for the Brits and the Brit related - like the Australians, is the Christmas dinner - here is our last year's take on the tradition with some of our now large extended family (there could have been 17 there if four of them had been able to come), serving themselves from the bounty on the kitchen bench in my younger son's home. It's a joyous as well as delicious occasion.

"The smell of a roast lunch is a powerful weapon. It always transports back to childhood; to boring Sunday mornings watching Black Beauty and Worzel Gummidge repeats on Channel 4. It’ll trigger a different memory for you, but it’ll trigger one nonetheless." Stuart Heritage - The Guardian

And it's not just the smell - the very idea can evoke memories - like the one of my father carving. And there are more. Another writer mentions Family Favourites on the radio - a program of viewer requested songs - and we too would have that on as the dinner was being prepared. We called it dinner even though it was technically lunch. And we all thought that it was delicious, whether it was that roast beef - always with Yorkshire pudding, roast lamb with mint sauce and peas, roast pork with crackling and apple sauce and maybe roast chicken - somehow a special treat. I also remember eating the most delicious and buttery roast chicken in France - so the French too had the Sunday tradition of a roast meal after church.

But what about the vegetables? Well my mother's potatoes were sublime and I did enjoy the cabbage or the brussels sprouts and carrots, but from my perspective now I see that the cabbage at least was probably in the alleged English tradition of being boiled to death. She would just roughly cut or tear the cabbage and then simply boil it. When it was done the water was used for the gravy, (bolstered with Bovril - oh dear), for the goodness in it, and the cabbage was roughly chopped in the saucepan. But I did like it. Especially the potatoes. These days though, I serve braised cabbage which I learnt from one of my Cordon Bleu cookbooks. And the carrots are glazed not simply boiled. I confess though that I do nothing fancy to brussels sprouts, although I try not to boil them to death. Not for a roast dinner anyway. Such is the nascent desire to cook it like my mum did. And her Yorkshire pudding was divine.

"Few meals retain a capacity for disappointment like the classic British roast dinner. Expectations are usually high, and there is just so much that can go wrong: tough meat, soggy veg, claggy gravy, ill-advised departures from traditional methods and ingredients. Most of us have probably had more bad ones than good." Tim Dowling - The Guardian

And yes it can be tricky but if you do it enough it's pretty easy. And I don't actually think I have had more bad ones than good. The other way round for me. And so comforting. It was one of the Dearman top ten recipes that I passed on to my sons when they left home. So here are a few random pieces of advice on how to cook perfect roast dinners, a few general musings, and a few tempting pictures - and yes beef is really the thing:

"The winner is rib of beef. Even at its greatest, pork falls short next to a rib. Just look at it, it's totemic, a great hunter-gatherer hunk of beautifully marbled meat, its edge wrapped in a precious inch or so of fat." How to Eat - The Guardian

On getting the timing right - "If the gravy is hot and the plates are warmed, everything else can be hovering around room temperature." Nigella Lawson

"Never cover a roast with a lid, foil or any other device that will cause steam to accumulate around it." Robert Carrier

"The “two veg” component of the meal should, ideally, be just that. One vegetable is not enough, and three is probably too many." Tim Dowling - The Guardian I wonder if he is counting the potatoes as a vegetable? Because they are crucial.

"If you never learn any other lesson about meat cooking, please learn this one. If you you want to enjoy meat at its most succulent and best you need to understand that fat is absolutely necessary. It doesn't have to be eaten (my husband never eats the fat), but it does need to be there. The fat in the meat contains a lot of the flavour and provides natural basting juices both from without and within. So don't choose meat that is too lean - let the fat do its wondrous work of enhancing flavour and succulence during cooking." Delia Smith

"The Sunday lunch is an archaic reminder of a working-class past, a commemoration of an age in which no meal was worth eating if it lacked meat." Phillip Hoare - The Guardian - just to show that not everyone loves a roast. Well he is a vegetarian and nut roast is not quite the same is it?

"The sense of accomplishment is terrific. All that food, cooked well. You did this. You fed all those people. Look how happy they are. Look how sleepy they’re getting. This was all you. You cooked a roast. You can do anything." Stuart Heritage - The Guardian

And I do think that one of my favourite cooks (I can't remember which) said that if you can make roast beef then you can cook anything. Or is that a rather backhand way of saying that cooking roast beef is difficult?

And as several writers commented when you've gone to all that effort, somebody else can do the washing up - of which there will be a lot - and most of it not suitable for the dishwasher.


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