Morning fades to midday, the kitchen fills with the sense of Sunday: steam clouding everywhere you turn; nose tickled with the aroma of meat, oil and fresh vegetables; and the light glowing in the oven back in business to bake a feast.
There I am, whisking up a mixture of eggs, milk, four and to top it all off, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, in a glass jug. Once the batter is thick and smooth, I pour it into circular tin moulds greased with oil, smiling to myself that I have contributed to the reincarnation of my ancestors’ greatest achievement: ladies and gentlemen, the Yorkshire pudding.
Back in the 18th century, when my relatives were shaping the modern Sunday roast, the Yorkshire pudding became an invention that was a frugal lifesaver to the average family. The pudding would not be part of their main plate, the way the modern roast is now, but as a starter- with of course lots of gravy to add that extra burst of piquancy. The idea was that people would fill up on the crispy treat and not eat as much meat in the main meal, meaning the meat could fill more people as it was expensive at the time- ‘them ‘at eats t’most pudding, gets t’ most meat’ - the saying went. The pudding would also be cooked beneath the beef as it was heated on a spit, so that juices from the meat would drip down, adding flavour and colour to the pudding (hence its previous name ‘dripping pudding’) as sources of fat were also costly back then for the people of North England, like myself.
I watch the Yorkshire puddings rise to a hollow, golden dome through the yellow light of the oven door. My mother is beside me, tying string around a large hunk of beef that could see us through for a week or two. The meat, in it’s raw and blood-red state, looks unappetising now, but I know that when the oven bakes it in its sunlight and it’s on my plate, the taste will just be heaven, a national taste that makes me proud of where I come from.
Roast beef made my ancestors just as proud back in the 15th century, during the reign of King Henry VIII, where they would consume a substantial amount of beef. King Henry’s yeoman of the guards were fondly named ‘beefeaters’ because of their passion for eating beef- reinforcing how much we all adore roast beef as a nation. In fact, there was even a song performed in 1731 about England’s love of roast beef, which goes:
‘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 main taste of home is coming together as the beef roasts in the oven. However, apart from beef, there’s a more nourishing and fresher side to the Sunday Roast that takes into account the needs of the people, the vitamins and minerals to keep us healthy and happy: the underrated carers, vegetables.
I look over to my mother peeling, cutting potatoes and carrots; slicing sprigs of broccoli; and tearing cabbage ready to go into the steamer to make up for our servings. All these freshly-grown vegetables she prepares makes me wonder how phenomenal it is that a significant part of my diet came from a seed the size of my thumb, a seed which spent its first days spreading and climbing from the ground to me above. I think of all the farmers in the world in either huge areas of lands, or a just a small patch of soil, continuously growing vegetables for me to gain the nourishment I need to live a long life. I also think of my ancestors again back in the 17th century when they began to add parsnips, turnips and swede to their plates and these vegetables never went to waste as the juices drained from the boiled vegetables made stock for the gravy.
Yet, out of all the vegetables on my plate, my luckiest star is as golden as the ones that light up the night sky: the fluffy delight- the roast potato. Perhaps, the potato is not as healthy when cooked in lots of oil, but that crispy, crunchy outer layer with a soft inside, combined with the aroma of hot oil, is what puts the roasties to the top with the British. I see my mother ushering peeled and cut potatoes into the oven, but not before rolling them in a snow land of flour to make sure they come out of their sauna crisp and tan. My ancestors should have never looked upon this glorious treat with such distaste. At least soon they knew what they were missing when they added it to the staple ingredients of a Sunday lunch.
It’s only time when the Yorkshire puddings are risen and swollen; the beef tender with a pink middle; the vegetables soft and warm; and the roasties fit for a treasure chest that everything is ready to be plated up and served. Yet, there’s just one thing missing: thick, beefy gravy (lots of it) to moisten and enhance the flavour of the glory on my plate.
Gravy has been the backbone of the Sunday Roast since it’s beginning when my ancestors found that the dripping from the beef and vegetables could be used as stock. When I take a mouthful of the different foods drizzled with gravy on my plate, they just taste that bit more divine: I taste the eggs and batter of the Yorkshire puddings; the chewy texture of the roast beef; the soft and leafy vegetables; and the fluff and crunch of the roast potatoes.