ALBION TEACHES SOME OLD TRICKS
Many, perhaps most reading can claim more connection to Christmas than I. Still, they must be wondering, “what is ‘Spiced Beef for Christmas’, exactly?”.
In England in past centuries a special dish was reserved for this season: a cured and spiced round, leg, or chest of beef. It was prepared in manor houses or prosperous farms. The great British culinary writer Elizabeth David devotes almost three pages to it in her classic work on English cookery, Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (Penguin, 1970).
She explains that the dish was largely forgotten in the London of her day. Intent to restore interest in this old specialty, she told “Mr. Ducat”, the “master-butcher and creator of the famous French boucherie at Harrod’s”, that she would publish a recipe in the Christmas 1958 issue of Vogue.
Hearing this, he suggested he make the spiced beef as a special Christmas offering for the Harrod’s Food Halls. He did so with her help, and it was an immediate success. By 1970 Harrod’s was selling thousands of pounds a year.
Spiced beef is scarlet-coloured and best prepared in a large joint, as the British would say. A minimum 20 lbs was deployed in the old days. Spiced beef was intended as a set piece on a table featuring other festive dishes such as roast goose with chestnut stuffing, roast turkey or sirloin of beef, baked apple, mince pudding or pie, and baked ham.
Elizabeth David’s lengthy elucidation of the dish is a sign of her respect for, and deep interest in ancestral foods. She specifies that the beef must be dry-cured vs. brined, and that the character of the beef is vitally different as a result. She specifies that the meat must lie in dry pickle upwards of a month.
She states that properly prepared the dish gives some indication of the type of food eaten centuries ago. It’s a kind of vintage ham, a venerable country specialty made by those who could afford the best butcher’s meat to gladden the season.
This is what the cooked result looks like, neatly trimmed as it should be for plating:
When I moved to Toronto 30 years ago a number of small butchers still offered it at Christmas. Often the full leg or other cut would be displayed in the window with the legend “Christmas beef” or “spiced beef” affixed. Seeing this I wondered what the taste was like and how it was served.
I’m from a tradition that takes pride in its corned beef and smoked meat or pastrami. So I was puzzled so few Anglo-Canadians took an interest in their equivalent. I knew about Irish or east end London boiled or corned beef cooked with cabbage or carrots, but this seemed different.
I mustered the courage to buy some of this Britannic specialty and was intrigued with the taste: spicy, salty, with hints of clove, nutmeg, and other scents of Noël time. The taste was unique in my experience. Good ham is the closest analogy but the beef taste, and “Christmas” spices more associated today with baking or confectionary, set it apart.
It was both similar and dissimilar to Jewish corned beef when served cold.
As the years went by these small shops disappeared. I read up on the dish, and Elizabeth David explained all one needs to know: origins, curing style, and detailed recipe.
Spiced beef must be long-baked. Writes David, “On no account should anyone allow themselves to be persuaded that dry-spiced beef should be boiled or simmered on top of the stove”. Yes Madam.
She advises sliced tomato and cucumber as an accompaniment, and especially, avocado salad. These all work perfectly, of course.
A couple of years ago when shopping in the plentiful larder that is the Summerhill Market in Rosedale, Toronto I spotted a small sign in the glassed deli counter, “Spiced beef, only at Christmas”.
I thought, “That’s what the little stores on upper Yonge Street used to sell, what Elizabeth David memorialized in her wonderful book”.
Summerhill Market clearly kept it going for some tenacious old customers, or maybe just from sheer habit. I bought some and it tasted excellent, similar to what David described.
The ingredients of their recipe are below, and the scarlet slices above, from this package:
A few slices with good whole-grain bread, mustard, and a salad make a satisfying meal of an early winter evening. Add some sparkling wine or one of the old English beers such as Imperial stout, and you’re in clover, well, of a fashion.
Few people anywhere in the world know what this dish really is, but the culinary-minded will do well to bone up. Vegetarians will have to read, if at all, purely for intellectual enjoyment. This is one carnivore’s specialty of which a veg imitation is impossible.
Salt advisory: these old foods of the pre-refrigeration era used great deal of the sodium minerals to cure and preserve the dish. It’s not for those shy of the saline hit, accordingly. Still, just a few slices are needed and eaten with the vegetables and bread specified amount to a balanced diet, or so we think.
Cover of Elizabeth David’s book:
Short except from her discussion: