Originally published May 21, 1984
When Erasmus described, more than 400 years ago, the things upon which various nations in the world prided themselves - the Scots their nobility and logical sense, the French their refined manners - he said of the English that “they particularly challenge to themselves Beauty, Music and Feasting.” The excellence of English food had been a by-word for centuries before Erasmus wrote, perhaps because the penalties for slapdash cooking were so severe, for Edward I once ordered all the cooks of the inns on the road between London and York to be executed because their dishes were not to his taste.
But even as early as the seventeenth century the English were looking back nostalgically to the good old days when “poor boys did turn spitts and lick’t the dripping pan, and grew to be huge, lusty knaves.” The meat they were roasting, the meat of meat for the English, was beef. The roast was brought to the table on a spit, a servant holding it while the guest cut off a piece, which was eaten with the fingers and often without a plate. Indeed, medieval directions for setting a table often referred to ‘trencher pieces’ a piece of bread on which guests could lay down their portion of meat.
Nothing can compare with roast beef, charred on the outside, mostly tender within, served with King Edward potatoes (baked in their skins) and a melting Yorkshire pudding, happy recipient of the noble juices of the roast.