We Brits are not, as a nation, that hot on communal dining experiences. You won’t find us having a déjeuner sur l’herbe — we’d catch our deaths — and there’s none of that decorative Mediterranean nonsense where eight generations of a family gather under the loggia for bowls of pasta. We’re British, dammit. For Sunday lunch we want to huddle around a table in a damp-smelling dining room that only gets used once a week; we want to bicker, moan and recriminate. It may not sound much but it’s our birthright, and a big roast dinner is how we bring it all together.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a 19th-century French food philosopher, once said: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” Given that he probably uttered those bon mots after a plate of garlicky molluscs, he can hardly have realised how right he was.
We like to think that we’ve had a food Renaissance here in the UK, that we only really discovered eating at all when Elizabeth David single-handedly abolished rationing or when Gordon Ramsay’s international restaurant empire expanded further than Queen Victoria’s, but in truth the Great British Roast (GBR) has remained a constant in our culinary history. It runs through us like a great, gravy-clogged artery and keeps us in touch with our culture. The GBR speaks of empire, of greatness, pluck in adversity and mild, though persistent, xenophobia.
We have long been masters of roast meat as many foreign travellers to Tudor or Georgian Britain were happy to attest. Before the oven was invented most homes had a spit or some other device for turning meat in front of the fire, but it was in Queen Victoria’s reign that the ‘roast dinner’ with all its ‘trimmings’ begins to feature in literature. We were a confident nation, at the peak of our powers and the meal was a convenient and powerful symbol for writers. The smiling paterfamilias, sharpening the carving knife over the vast, steaming joint was an image of prosperity, plenty and family unity.
Today the meat may have arrived bloodless from supermarket wrappings, the vegetables might be microwaved and the potatoes may be dispiriting ‘pre-roasted’ numbers from the freezer, but the soul of the great family feast is still there.
Like any ritual or sacramental event, the GBR has certain immutable elements. First among these is the meat. At the centre of the table must sit a great, groaning joint. For preference this should be a four-rib standing roast of British beef, so the assembled diners can gaze upon the abundance in rapt wonder before plunging in. It should be of a size that requires carving by the head of the family with maximum ceremony and cooked so everyone can have slices to their own definition of perfection — from the crisp and blackened edge to the lean, rare juicy heart.
There must be enough for everyone and sufficient for sandwiches days later. In his admirable book Beef And Liberty, Ben Rogers manages to fill around 200 pages with compelling and well-substantiated evidence that the English have regarded beef as a symbol of national identity since before the Battle Of Agincourt in 1415. In a just world our national flag would feature a great steak, red with juices with a thick band of glistening white fat, cooked ‘blue’.
There’s no dishonour in serving a leg of British lamb (though mutton is better), a long, slow-cooked shoulder of pork or even, at a pinch, some species of poultry. What matters most is the hospitable display of generosity. No one should be able to get up from the table without having eaten more of the GBR than they actually meant to.
While the joint is the unchanging, time-honoured core of the GBR, the roast potatoes are the place where the cook can display artistic flair.
There are many variations of parboiling, fluffing, tossing-in-oils, fats and flavourings. I favour a floury potato, boiled for 10 minutes, lightly bashed about to roughen the surface and then rolled in boiling goose fat, roasted hot and sprinkled with sea salt. These, I completely understand, will not be quite as good as your mother’s roast potatoes which are very nearly the best in the world — after my mother’s. The potatoes form the warming bulk of the meal. They provide carbohydrates, a variety of vitamins and minerals but above all, in the absence of a straw, they are the perfect vehicle for absorbing gravy and transporting it to the mouth.
Though, God knows, I love meat with all my congested heart, I confess that if I were forced to live on potatoes I could —provided there was gravy. Proper gravy is made from the juices of the joint, a fortifying stock, seasoning and perhaps a little wine. Gravy is the distilled essence of all that’s good in the meat, binding together the elements of the plate into a sumptuous and sublime whole. It can appear in a rich palette of colours and flavours, never exactly the same (as long as it’s not made from a powder), yet always perfectly matched to the meat. We should pity the French with their thousand various, yet rigidly prescribed, sauces — we have no need of them, for we have gravy.
“What about the rest of it?” I hear you ask. Hmm, yes. A huge fluffy Yorkshire pudding to soak up more gravy; mustard, horseradish, a little mint sauce perhaps? Aaah. I see. You meant vegetables.Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the sort of meat fascist who will only ingest vegetable matter once it’s been converted into flesh by an animal. Vegetables are nice, I like a few of them, but in his final seconds, no dying British man’s mind whirls back to a well-boiled carrot, a stout parsnip or a plucky little sprout. Vegetables are fine but not essential. Were some alien species to release a fungus on to the planet that consumed all vegetation in seconds, we could all continue to consume perfectly serviceable GBRs at least until the last cow perished. It may be controversial to say this in an era when we are all supposed to be careful about what we eat, but when it comes to the GBR vegetables, though they look nice either side of the meat, they aren’t really the point.
In spite of the importance of the key elements, the GBR is also infinitely customisable. Each family has their own variations grown from their internal traditions — idiosyncratic ‘favourite ways’ that mark the meal as their own. The fiendish genius of the monstrous spread is that there are enough dishes that everyone can join in and enjoy. Even the moody vegetarian teenager is accommodated, their tiny act of rebellion acknowledged by all. In this sense the entirely secular GBR has much in common with religious ritual feasts. The broader set patterns of the meal unify people, while the tiny variations bind the family. The GBR remains something we can all unite in appreciating; one of the few remaining sources of undisputed national pride.
Above all, let us remember this: there are only a couple of things a British man indulges in that involve a brief flurry of enjoyable physical activity and then require an immediate nap. Let us, as a patriotic duty, continue to take equal pleasure in both.
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