We all love a Sunday roast, be that at home with our family or in a cosy pub with friends. As the nights begin to draw in and the days get colder, we may find ourselves indulging in this classic British dish more frequently, possibly in an attempt at gaining some sense of normality during this strange time. Let’s face it, Covid coupled with winter is pretty miserable without the smell of a slow-cooked, perfectly seasoned, beef joint or roast chicken wafting into our living rooms as we wait patiently to sit and stuff our faces (and then regret it the next day).
As I sat and ate my roast last weekend, I thought to myself how did this meal come about?
It turns out the history of the Sunday roast goes back a fair bit, coming to prominence during the reign of King Henry the VII in 1485 (yes, that’s the King Henry before the one who killed his wives). The Sunday roast was a meal traditionally eaten after church on a Sunday. Sundays were special because all types of meat and dairy were allowed to be consumed, and celebrated, with a roast. Unlike on Fridays when many Roman Catholics and Anglicans abstained from eating meat, eating fish instead.
(Fun fact: Only eating fish on Fridays led to the famous ‘Fish and Chip Fridays’ that we all know and love, you can find out all about the history of fish and chips here.)
Fast forward a few hundred years to the 18th century, and the English had developed somewhat of a nickname for themselves, with the French calling us ‘rosbifs’. (Named after our love of roast beef of course!) From the late 19th century, recipe books began to recommend eating 6 pounds of meat each week as part of a healthy diet. With roasts on a Sunday making up an important part of this diet. William Kitchener, (what an appropriate surname) author of ‘The Cook’s Oracle’, also recommended 4½ pounds of bread and a pint of beer every day – building the stereotype that British people love to eat beef and drink beer since the 1870s!
How things have changed, well not so much the beer part. Today in the UK, a meat eater’s diet would include approximately 3 pounds of meat each week – with only a fraction of that constituting a red meat like beef. Now the emphasis is on high quality and locally sourced meats. With pubs and restaurants using them to add a level of provenance and to distinguish their menus from their competitors’. You can even treat yourself to a nut roast, which some people claim is better than the real thing. I’m yet to be persuaded on that one however.
So, there you have it, a brief history of the great British roast. Created as a tradition over the course of more than half a millennium. Who says British food is all bad?