History of a British Sunday Lunch
The Noble Roast Beef of Britain and a British Sunday Lunch
When mighty Roast Beef was the Englishman's food,
It ennobled our brains and enriched our blood.
Our soldiers were brave and our courtiers were good
Oh! the Roast Beef of old England,
And old English Roast Beef!
"The Roast Beef of Old England" an English patriotic ballad written by Henry Fielding for his play The Grub-Street Opera, first performed in 1731.
The British love of beef, and particularly for lunch on a Sunday is nothing new. It is such a part of the national identity that even the French call us "rosbifs" (roast beefs) and the Yeoman of the Guard - the royal bodyguard - have been affectionately known as, "beefeaters" since the 15th century. A telling observation by Henri Misson who staying in London in 1698 tells how "it is a common practice, even among People of Good Substance, to have a huge Piece of Roast-Beef on Sundays, of which they stuff until they can swallow no more, and eat the rest cold, without any other Victuals, the other six Days of the Week".
Startlingly, contrary to modern thinking about meat eating, in 1871 William Kitchener, author of Apicius Redivivus or The Cook's Oracle, recommended eating 3 kg (6lb) of meat each week as part of a healthy diet (he also recommended 2 kilos of bread and a pint of beer every day). Today in the UK we eat approximately 1.5 kg of meat each week - only 200g of which is beef - and some think even that is too much.
Kitchener also describes in the book how to roast "the noble sirloin of about fifteen pounds" before the fire for four hours for Sunday lunch. This method of hanging the meat on a spit or in the 19th century, suspended from a bottle-jack and certainly that size of a joint, demanded a sizable fireplace and would be to feed a large household not only on the Sunday but as cold cuts, stews and pies throughout the week.
The less well off did not have the luxury of a large fireplace or the money for much meat, so the smaller weekly roast would be dropped off en-route to church at the bakers to be cooked in the cooling bread ovens - bread was not baked on a Sunday. With access for all to cook meat on a Sunday, the tradition of the British Sunday lunch began and still continues today.
Though meat is no longer roasted in front of the fire, but today is baked in the modern oven we still cling on to the term Sunday 'roast'. On Sundays throughout the UK, pubs and restaurants are packed full for the roast dinner - some even serve the meal on other days of the week such is its popularity. But for many, cooking and serving Sunday lunch at home is the very heart of British food and cooking. It is the time for families or friends to get together and share great food.