Published on September 7th, 2014 | by Alastair Gilmour0
The roast dinner is perhaps too glorious a meal to reserve for Sundays, writes Vincent Zeller
The Sunday roast rests at the very heart of British food and cookery. For some folks, Sunday wouldn’t be Sunday without large helpings of meat, vegetables, Yorkshire puddings and pools of gravy.
We can all remember kitchens steamed up to ceiling height while the cabbage boiled, the potatoes simmered and oven trays smoked with red-hot dripping ready for that all-important batter mix to be dropped on for its whisked, trapped air to rapidly expand into crunchy Yorkshire hillocks.
Preparing and cooking Sunday lunch is a hugely complex affair, like a military exercise where every division needs to be ready for action at precisely the same moment – or else. Roast potatoes, check. Turnip, check. Joint, check. All-important gravy, check.
The Sunday roast is all-consuming, but these days most of us are time-poor and leisure-rich, so there’s precious little time left for slaving over a hot stove for three hours on what is supposed to be a day of rest.
So, what do we do for our Sunday roast? Go to the pub, of course. Anyway, it’s national Roast Dinner Week between September 29 and October 5, so if you ever needed an excuse to get to the pub to dine, there it is.
Most pubs offer a range of weekend roasts – a lot of them carvery-style – and the choice usually comes down to beef, pork, lamb or chicken. Beef usually wins this particular race; a beautifully marbled joint, its edge wrapped in a precious inch or so of fat leeching flavour and moisture in equal measure is difficult to beat.
After the initial blast of cooking, its exterior should wallow in delicious browned, smoky flavours. The fat should crisp sensationally to enable deeply savoury flavours to influence every slice. And those slices should be thick enough to taste, but thin enough to add to a fork already primed with vegetables, roast potato and a coating of gravy.
A properly slow-cooked leg of lamb will fall apart at the mere sight of a fork; chicken skin is a rare pleasure when its crunchy texture is contrasted with succulent breast meat, and pork simply cries out for that layer of salty, thirst-inducing belly fat. Sunday roast is not for the picky.
Then you need shards of roast potato and their contrast of rough, exterior and fluffy innards for mopping round the edges. Mash is fine but is often one-dimensional in flavour and texture and its ability to do the job properly is not up to scratch. The challenge of facing up to the big guys lurking behind that pile of Yorkshire is just too demanding. Similarly, boiled potatoes are too prim and proper – Sunday roasts revel in a lack of class and etiquette.
Yorkshire – or batter – puddings have a long history and exist in many forms, mainly sweet. It was Hannah Glasse, a Northumbrian, who was the first to categorise Yorkshire puddings as such in her 1747 cookbook The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. In that she made it clear that Yorkshires should be brown and dry, remarking: “It is an exceeding good pudding, the gravy of the meat eats well with it.”
Of course, in canny, thrifty Yorkshire there’s a good case for serving them up first – laced with gravy – to take the edge of appetites before the costly meat arrives. JB Priestley observed in The Good Companions that a Yorkshire pudding is best “eaten by itsen and not mixed up wi’ meat and potaters, all in a mush”.
Too much gravy and the plate is sodden and far from an appetising sight. Too little and you’ll bemoan the dryness of your joint, so along should sail the gravy boat for topping up at regular intervals as you arrange your potatoes and vegetables into a dam that a beaver would be proud of.
And, what of a piquant accompaniment either sharp or sweet enough to tease every last flavour combination out of the roast meat? Cranberry sauce isn’t just for Christmas – that and its redcurrant cousin should never be overlooked. Lamb and mint are the classic combination, as are pork and apple sauce. Horseradish and mustard have their undoubted merits and do their utmost with beef – but a touch too much of either is playing Russian roulette with your well-earned meal.
Finally, as a liquid companion, if you follow the basic rules you can’t go far wrong. Roast pork and a medium-dry cider (a “proper” cider) are great mates – or even a highly-hopped beer with fruit in every mouthful. Beef and an earthy British malt-leaning ale such as Black Sheep Bitter or Wells Bombardier will love one another.
Let’s go with a Belgian Trappist Chimay Bleu with the lamb – both will thank you for the pairing – and a flavourful lager or blonde ale would do your chicken proud.
There are four Sundays in September; a quartet of roast dinners to look forward to with “exceeding good pudding” to enjoy – plus that Roast Dinner Week. Bon appétite, as Hannah Glasse might not have said.