Vive les Rosbifs
Roast Beef is indisputably a British – nay – English signature dish since before the first performance in 1731 of the patriotic ballad ‘The Roast Beef of Old England’, which is used by the Royal Navy and the United States Marine Corps as well as most units of the Canadian Armed Forces as the entry tune to Officers’ Mess Dinners. That roast beef is eponymous of the English is not in dispute as the French nickname for Englishmen since the 18th century was “les Rosbifs”.
After being falsely arrested by the French as a spy in 1748 while sketching in the old English enclave of Calais in France, William Hogarth painted his famous ‘The Gate of Calais’ or ‘O, the Roast Beef of Old England’. The secondary title refers to the ballad from Henry Fielding’s ‘The Grub-Street Opera’ (1731), which told of how the food “ennobled our brains and enriched our blood” and laughed at “all-vapouring France.”
Hogarth placed himself as a background figure in the bottom left corner sketching scenes at the Gate of Calais just before the pikeman arrested him. You can just see the pike sticking out behind him.
Wikipedia: The Gate of Calais
Linguistics expert Prof. Richard Coates of Sussex University noted that “les Rosbifs” originated as a cookery term describing the English technique or cooking a joint of beef. “In the most popular cookery books of France…roast mutton and lamb are designated Rosbif de mouton, and Rosbif d’agneau” – ‘Kettner’s Book of Table, a Manual of Cookery’ (1877) by Eneas Sweetland Dallas, who wrote under the pseudonym, A. Kettner. Later, the term was used as a “pretty inoffensive insult” much like the Jesuits, Dutch and French were called “frogs” by the English.
Today, the traditional Sunday Roast is far less common in family homes than it used to be. Our social habits have changed and smartphone addiction has rendered three-generational family dinners no longer the norm. We have become more cosmopolitan in our taste profiles, and just as likely to eat a Moroccan lamb tajine at home or go out for dim sum lunch as Roast Beef with Yorkshire puddings. Paradoxically, we are more likely to order Roast Beef when we eat out at gastropubs across the nation, and not just on Sundays!
Deconstruction of the Rosbifs
For the kitchen, there are basically five elements to the dish to perfect: beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, vegetables and gravy.
Gastropubs tend to aim for a safe, medium roast just pink in the middle but without blood. The flavour will be imparted by a delicate char and rendered fat at the periphery of the joint.
There could be a separate treatise on the perfect Yorkshire pudding but I’ll restrain myself. It is a baked pudding ‘art form’ made from batter combining eggs, flour and water. Posh people substitute milk for the water. It is served in many ways depending on the ingredients, pudding size and the accompanying components of the meal.
In Yorkshire, (bottom right) they feed you up on cheap batter pudding and gravy before the main course. It is served again with the main course of roast beef and gravy but can also be filled with other elements such as bangers (sausages), meatballs and mash to make a different meal. I included a wristwatch for scale in the images above.
‘Roasties’ or roast potato is another evocative culinary icon as the perfect roastie has been known to bring grown men to their knees in supplication. The methodology for the perfect roastie is a topic to start world wars with. Suffice to say that the perfect roastie is creamy and fluffy inside with a crisp, crunchy coat after roasting in hot fat; there are proponents of duck, beef, canola, olive as the sources of fat. The key, probably, is the high temperature and heavy roasting pan that retains heat. Secret tricks include parboiling the potatoes and tumbling them in a colander to roughen the surfaces before roasting.
For our “meat and two veg”, Brits had previously been mocked for soggy overcooked vegetables but it is different, today. Carrots, cabbage and peas are the most commonly served but we get fancy with Brussel sprouts or roasted parsnips on high days and holidays.
Finally but not least, is the gravy. On this matter, the Brits are adamant that they do not mean a “sauce”, “jus” or “reduction”. Those foreign imported terms have no place on a Sunday Roast Dinner. Your food has to be swimming in gravy to be mopped up with the Yorkshire pudding.
After a fine walking tour in Oxford on a Sunday morning guided by an American postgraduate student (Oh! the irony), thoughts turned to the Sunday Roast Dinner. Note that “dinner” in Britain is the main meal of the day served around noon. Our intrepid guide recommended the Turf Tavern near New College.
Bear in mind that New College is not so new, being founded in 1379 by William of Wykeham (1324-1404), bishop of Winchester, as ‘the college of St Mary of Winchester in Oxford’, and soon became known as New College to distinguish it from an earlier Oxford college (Oriel, founded 1326) also dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The important point is that early colleges were built inside the city walls for protection and are essentially hidden. Turf Tavern is also hidden next to the city wall and accessible only on foot through a maze of medieval passages near the ‘Bridge of Sighs’.
Turf Tavern, Oxford, England
4 Bath Place, Oxford, OX1 3SU
Claimed to be the oldest pub in Oxford, “the Turf” was founded as a malt house and drinking tavern in 1381, while the “new” extension low-beaned front bar area was installed in the 17th century. The original name was ‘Spotted Cow’ but the name changed in 1842 to disassociate it from the previous illegal gambling activities like cock-fighting. Along one side of the pub is a section of the old city wall because the ‘Turf’ was built just outside the jurisdiction of the city and college authorities, who banned gambling.
A roster of old alumni commemorates famous past clients like the legendary former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who set a Guinness World Record for quaffing a yard glass of ale in 11 seconds as a student in 1963.
It is alleged that former U.S. president Bill Clinton, while a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford, “did not inhale” one evening when smoking ‘special’ cigarettes.
Other celebrities and public figures at the tavern include Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Margaret Thatcher, Stephen Hawking, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy, David Cameron, Tony Blair, CS Lewis, Ernest Hemmingway, Ben Kingsley, and Jack Gleeson.
The cast and crew of the Harry Potter movies also hung out here during filming in the nearby colleges.
Food and Drink
As a Greene King pub, the selection of ales, beer, cider and gins was bountiful and irreproachable.
The star of the show was the Sunday Roast Dinner with a choice from beef, lamb, pork and chicken and any combination. I stayed true to the traditional Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with all the trimmings. It even came with a side of creamy horseradish sauce.
I declare that it was and still is the best pub-style Roast Dinner that I have consumed…ever! Every one of the above-mentioned five elements was ‘perfect’ and the combined melange a veritable ‘tour de force’! I actually licked my plate for every molecule of the best gravy after I had run out of Yorkshire pudding to mop it up. It is beyond my ken how the kitchen could produce this quality when there were, literally, hundreds of diners eating in a two-hour period. Even as we were leaving, there were scores more expectant customers waiting in line.
Going through a temporary Macaroni & Cheese phase, I also ordered one.
It may surprise our American friends that ‘Mac n Cheese’ is an English invention. Although pasta and cheese casseroles are known since the 14th century in Italian cookery, a cheese and pasta casserole known as ‘makerouns’ was recorded in the famous medieval English cookbook, ‘The Forme of Cury’ written at that time in Middle English: “Take and make a thynne foyle of dowh. And kerve it on peces, and cast hem on boillyng water & seeþ it wele. Take chese and grate it and butter cast bynethen and above as losyns. And serue forth.”
Modern English translation: Make a thin foil of dough and cut it in pieces. Put them in boiling in water and seethe them well. Grate cheese and add it with butter beneath and above as with losyns [lasagne], and serve.
The first modern recipe for macaroni and cheese was included in Elizabeth Raffald’s 1770 book, ‘The Experienced English Housekeeper’. Raffald’s recipe is for a Béchamel sauce with cheddar cheese – a Mornay sauce in French cooking – which is mixed with macaroni, sprinkled with Parmesan, and baked until bubbly and golden. Our Victorian cookbook ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’ contained two macaroni and cheese recipes.
In any case, the example at Turf Tavern was merely adequate and I am glad that I’m not a vegetarian.
AlphaLuxe Four-Tongues Rating
The reader would have surmised by now that the Roast Beef Dinner at Turf Tavern, Oxford easily attained the AlphaLuxe Four-Tongues Award.
Other Grazing and Lazing articles from Oxford
Author’s Biography: Melvyn Teillol-Foo (MTF)
Dr Melvyn Teillol-Foo is a contributor on AlphaLuxe web magazine. He was former CEO of PuristSPro.com horology discussion fora. He blends his scientific medical objectivity from the pharmaceutical industry with purist passion, in his musings about watches, travel, wine, food and other epicurean delights.
His travelogue ‘Lazing’ and feasting ‘Grazing’ series of articles have now passed into “mythic legend” on the original ‘ThePuristS.com’ website. Those were the halcyon days when he was “rich and famous” that he remembers with bittersweet fondness.
Dr Teillol-Foo is a quoted enthusiast on the watch industry, appearing in feature articles and interviews by Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Sunday Times (London), Chronos (Japan), Citizen Hedonist (France) and other publications. He has authored articles for magazines like International Watch (iW) – both U.S. & Chinese editions, ICON (Singapore), August Man (Singapore), Comfort (China) and The Watch (Hong Kong).