It’s said that you can understand a lot about a culture by experiencing its food.
I often find it hard to get excited about traditional English food, mainly because at home, we don’t eat a lot of food that is traditionally British. We consume far too much rice and noodles for that, and even when I do cook British food, I tend to spice it up a bit to make it more exciting.
However, something that I can write about is the Sunday roast. We don’t have it so often now, but when I was growing up, my grandmother made it every Sunday, and I think now I enjoy the association and fond childhood memories as much as the food itself. Whatever was going on during the rest of the week, this was a meal where we sat down to eat together – sometimes just my grandparents and I, sometimes my aunt and cousins joined us.
What’s on the plate?
Basically, a Sunday roast consists of meat, potatoes, and other vegetables, often covered with gravy, a thick, meaty sauce, and sometimes a Yorkshire pudding.
The meat is usually lamb (my favourite!), chicken, beef or pork. In restaurants, there is often a meat loaf alternative for vegetarians. Although this doesn’t belong to the tradition – it’s an add-on to make sure vegetarians aren’t left out.
Then come the potatoes – usually roast potatoes, although sometimes boiled potatoes are served as well. You can buy frozen ones, and I do use them if I’m in a hurry, but the best ones are home-made – crispy on the outside and fluffy inside.
The vegetables can be whatever you want to have, but often include carrots, parsnips, swede, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, runner beans and peas – as a child I was always disappointed when peas were on the menu, and after a while I was excused from eating them!
Then comes the Yorkshire pudding, which is made using a batter containing mainly milk, flour, and eggs. The dish originated in Yorkshire, which is a county in the north of England. Originally the Yorkshire pudding was cooked under the meat, using the fat that dropped down from the meat, but now they are often cooked separately.
In the past, the Yorkshire pudding was sometimes served as a first course with a thick gravy, so that the guests would fill up on the less expensive ingredients. Now it’s served alongside the meat and other vegetables.
You can buy frozen individual ones, but again, I think the best ones are home-made, although it seems less and less people are making their own. My grandmother used to make a big rectangular one and then chop it up, like a cake.
Then comes the gravy, which is often made of the stock from the meat, although there are now also quick alternatives on the market such as granules, to which you just add some hot water and then you have to stir it to get rid of the lumps.
There are also accompaniments, depending on your choice of meat. Usually, mint sauce goes with lamb, apple sauce goes with pork, and horseradish sauce goes with beef.
The origins of the Sunday roast, also known as Sunday lunch and Sunday dinner, are thought to go back to the time of Henry VIII. Of course, only the rich would have been able to afford meat every day. Sometimes the very rich would make a big show of roasting the whole animal to feed everyone in their castle or large home. The poorest people would not have been able to afford meat at all. For many in between these two extremes, the Sunday roast was the best meal of the week, and they used the rest of the meat up in other dishes such as stews, soups, pies or it was eaten cold the next day – something we still do today if there is too much meat left over after the meal is finished.
Why do we need to know these things?
I remember reading about an ambassador to England complaining about being bored of lamb and potatoes in the UK. Maybe he had a serious dislike of lamb and potatoes, but it did make me wonder whether he had done his research, and whether he knew that a roast dinner on Sundays is part of our food heritage. Knowing this may have helped him to understand why this food kept appearing on Sundays.
Of course, there are always options for people who don’t like this, but in most traditional pubs and restaurants, you will be able to order a Sunday roast on a Sunday, usually with a choice of meat. I haven’t yet found one as good as my Grandmother’s, but I do opt for this choice from time to time, and I enjoy eating it at home with friends as well.
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