OLD ALBION TEACHES THE BIG CITY SOME NEW TRICKS
Many, perhaps most, reading can claim more connection to Christmas tradition than I. Still, they must be wondering, “what is ‘Spiced Beef For Christmas’?” I will elucidate.
First, “beef” is not a typo for beer. In England in past centuries, a special dish reserved for this season was a cured and spiced round, leg, or chest of beef. It was prepared originally in manor houses or on prosperous farms. The great English cookery writer, Elizabeth David, devotes almost three pages to the dish in Spices, Salts And Aromatics In The English Kitchen (Penguin, 1970). She explains it was largely forgotten in the London of her day. In 1958 she told, “Mr. Ducat, master-butcher and creator of the famous French boucherie at Harrod’s” that she would publish her recipe in the Christmas issue of Vogue. Hearing his, he suggested he would make it for Harrod’s Food Halls as a Christmas offering.
He did, and it was was an immediate success. By 1970, Harrod’s was selling thousands of pounds of it a year.
Spiced beef was scarlet-coloured, prepared in a very large joint as the British would say, a minimum 20 lbs in the old days. It was a dish intended as a set piece on a table festooned with roast goose and chestnut stuffing, roast turkey or sirloin of beef, baked apple, mince pudding or pie, baked ham, and other festive foods of the season.
Elizabeth David’s lengthy treatment of the dish is a sign of her respect and interest in ancestral foods. She specifies it is to be dry-, not wet-cured, and that the character of the beef will be very different as a result. She specifies it must lie in the pickle upwards of a month. It is a type of old-style ham, really, an old country specialty, made by those who could afford a haunch of John Bull’s best beef to gladden the season. This is what it looks like, neatly trimmed in thin slices:
When I first moved to Toronto 30 years ago, a number of small butchers 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”. When first seeing it I wondered what it could possibly be. Being from a tradition that knows not a little about corned beef/smoked meat/pastrami, I was puzzled that (just a few, evidently) Anglo-Canadians took an interest in something similar. Who knew? I was acquainted with Irish-style or London boiled beef, also called salt silverside and cooked with cabbage or carrots, say.
Finally, I mustered the courage to walk in and buy some of this Britannic specialty, and was intrigued with the taste: spicy, salty, with hints of clove, nutmeg, and other scents of the Noël season. It was quite different to boiled beef and cabbage, much drier and more like a good ham again.
Slowly as the years passed these small shops disappeared, but before they did, I read up on the dish, and Elizabeth David filled me in. She explained its origins and gave a detailed recipe. The dish must, she specified, be long-baked: “On no account should anyone allow themselves to be persuaded that dry-spiced beef should be boiled or simmered on top of the stove”. With cold spiced meats of this type, she advised sliced tomato and cucumber as an accompaniment, and especially avocado salad. Sage advice, as all her writing is.
A couple of years ago, shopping in the wonderful larder which is Rosedale’s Summerhill Market in Toronto, I spotted a small sign behind the glassed deli counter, “Spiced beef, only at Christmas”. Ah yes, that’s what the little stores on upper Yonge Street used to sell, that’s what Elizabeth David memorialized in her wonderful book. Somehow, this store knew about it and I’d guess made some each year for some tenacious old customers, or maybe just from sheer habit. I bought some and it tasted really good, similar to what Elizabeth David described.
The ingredients of Summerhill Market’s recipe appear here (and the scarlet slices above are from this packet):
A few slices with good brown bread, mustard, a salad, and Champagne or Imperial stout make a fine meal of an early winter evening in Toronto. Very few people anywhere in the world really remember or know what this dish is, but I do, and now you do, too.
Cover of Elizabeth David’s book:
A short except from her three pages on spiced beef: