OLD ALBION TEACHES NEW TRICKS
In Britain in past centuries a special dish was reserved for this season: a cured and spiced round, leg, or brisket of beef. It was often prepared in manor houses or prosperous farms. The great culinary writer Elizabeth David devoted almost three pages to it in her classic Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (Penguin, 1970).
She explained that the dish was largely forgotten in postwar London. Intent on restoring the old specialty, in 1958 she informed “Mr. Ducat”, the “master-butcher and creator of the famous French boucherie at Harrod’s”, that she would publish a recipe in the Christmas Vogue.
In response he offered to make the dish available at Christmas in Harrod’s Food Halls. So he did, with her help, and it was an immediate success. By 1970 Harrod’s was selling thousands of pounds of spiced beef each year.
Once cooked spiced beef is scarlet, similar to corned or salt beef in that sense. It is best prepared in a large “joint”, as the British would say. Not less than 20 bovine lbs were deployed in the old days. Spiced beef was typically a set piece among festive dishes that might include roast goose and chestnut stuffing, roast turkey, sirloin of beef, baked apple, mince pudding or pie, or baked ham.
Elizabeth David’s extended encomium on the dish showed her deep respect for, and interest in the traditional foods of Britain. She stated that the beef must be dry-cured, not brined, and that the character is vitally affected as a result. She specified too placing the meat in dry pickle for upwards of one month.
She held that properly prepared, spiced beef gives some indication of the food eaten by Britons centuries ago, at least those who could afford the best to gladden the season.
Spiced beef can be viewed as a kind of a vintage ham, a dish of the piquant and the salt. Not something for every day, but few things are, really. 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 few small butchers still offered it at Christmas. Often a full leg or other joint would be displayed in the window labeled “Christmas beef” or “spiced beef”. Seeing this, I wondered what the taste could possibly be.
I’m from a tradition that takes pride in its corned beef and pastrami – we know from corned beef, you might say. I knew of Irish or London salt silverside, often boiled with cabbage or carrots, but Davidian spiced beef seemed a thing apart.
I mustered the courage to buy it and was intrigued with the taste: spicy, salty, with hints of clove, nutmeg, and other scents of Noël. The taste was unique in my experience. Good ham is the closest analogy but the beef taste, married to the confectionary spicing, sets it apart. It was both similar and dissimilar to Jewish corned beef when served cold.
As the years went by these small butchers mostly disappeared. Of the one or two that continue, or the odd revivalist, I hope they offer still the dish.
But as Elizabeth David explains, anyone up for it can make it at home. She is specific on instructions. Writes she, “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 a simple accompaniment: sliced tomato and cucumber, or avocado salad. These work perfectly, of course. A couple of years ago when shopping in the larder that is Summerhill Market in Rosedale, Toronto I noticed a sign in the glassed deli counter, “Spiced beef, only at Christmas”.
I thought, that’s what the little stores up on Yonge Street used to offer, what Elizabeth David memorialized in her book. Summerhill Market has kept it going, perhaps for a few tenacious old customers, or maybe just from sheer habit.
Buying some, I thought the taste excellent, similar to what David described. The ingredients in their recipe are in the label below and the slices above, from the same package.
A few slices with good whole-grain bread, mustard, and a salad makes a satisfying meal of a late-autumn or early winter evening. With some sparkling wine or good ale you’re in clover, of a fashion. Tea goes well too, Indian tea by my lights.
Salt advisory: these old foods from pre-refrigeration days can be fearsomely high in sodium minerals, once prized for their preservative power. Spiced beef is not for those shy of the saline hit. Still, just a few slices satisfy, and eaten with vegetables and good bread, it makes a reasonable – and historically interesting – meal, of occasion, or so we think.