Anatomy of a Roast

03/12/2020 — By Robert Eastham

Few things inspire such collective patriotism in the hearts of Englishmen as the traditional Sunday Roast; so beloved is this great unifier of families that songs have been written in its honour as far back as the 17th Century. Have you ever thought about how it came to be the enduring symbol of the Great British family mealtime? As with many things in Britain, it's even older than you'd think.

The origins of the Sunday Roast stretch back to the 15th Century and King Henry VII, celebrating his victory over Richard III in the War of the Roses. Well-to-do Englishmen ate so much meat in these times that the Yeomen of the Guard, the royal bodyguards, came to be known as Beefeaters (a nickname that persists today). In fact, a cooking manual published as late as the 18th Century recommended eating 6 pounds of meat every week - by contrast, it's considered a lot to eat 3 pounds a week now! Beef in particular was a popular meat due to the excellent conditions for cattle herds in the limited farmland available.

Sunday itself became the day of choice for large family meals as many people made use of the day of rest after Church to gather together all sides of their extended relatives. The common folk without the time and space to roast their own meat would drop the beef off at local bakers who had the only large ovens in the village, who would roast it during the service for collection on the way home. 

This long, slow roasting method also created the tradition of having several root vegetables alongside the meat, as parsnips and carrots would be added part way through both as aromatics to enhance the flavour of the meat and cook in the rich beef dripping. As many common folk lived on subsistence lifestyles in these early periods such vegetables were a common and convenient source of vital nutrition, and roasting them gave a welcome break from the usual boiled fare. Interestingly enough, carrots were actually purple right up until the late 17th century when Dutch farmers bred the mutant orange strain we know and love in tribute to William of Orange (also known as William III of England).

For many of us, Northern folk especially, a roast isn't a roast without Yorkshire's finest contribution to the British culinary stable: the Yorkshire Pudding. Stemming from early medieval breads used to hold a day's meal the first recipe for the modern-style pudding was published in a book called, perhaps unsuitably for this day and age, The Whole Duty of a Woman in 1737. It advised making a batter 'as for a pancake' and having it cook in a heavy pan directly underneath the spit-roasted meat in the hearth, so it would catch the drippings and richly flavour the pudding. It remained an obscure local delicacy however until 10 years later when Hannah Glasse, one of the most famous food writers of her time, included it in her own book and the Yorkshire Pudding shot to widespread fame.

So where do we stand today? After a fair few years of decline the Sunday Roast is having a resurgence among British families, with over 1.2 billion eaten in 2019 alone. Curiously enough, while the number of Roast Dinners eaten on Sunday itself has continued to decline a significant amount more are now eaten mid-week, with nearly half of all traditional 'roasts' no longer eaten at the end of the week. 

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