My entry for the London ‘Best of British’Challenge
I was inspired by the subject of this challenge as London traditional dishes from bygone years are under-marketed and are being lost amidst a plethora of cuisine available in our capital city. I have always had a love for researching and trying regional foods, not just from my native England, but also from other countries across the world. Each region of each country has its own signature food, many of which have become popular both nationwide and worldwide.
The ‘London Challenge’ proved very thought provoking for me – to find a dish that ‘meant London to me’. Agreed, there are many dishes that are ‘London’ but I wanted to find a food that was historically London, that people would think about when you said London, a traditional London food. I loved the idea of Pie and Mash with Parsley Liquor, but when researching I found that there is superb network up and running, and being well supported, fighting to stop old Pie and Mash shops closing.
My research led me to look at Salt Beef…. An intriguing journey…. And I decided to make a home cured Salt Beef Sandwich, served on a bed of peppery watercress on homemade white crusty Farmhouse bread, drizzled with an English mustard and vinegar dressing. The peppery watercress, full of nutrients, is a superfood. With its natural mustard oils, released when chewed, this makes for an excellent combination with the salt beef… and has a London link!
With the influx of Jewish immigrants in the late 19th Century, some of their dishes became part of the East End diet. Salt beef became an East End staple and it was a speciality in Blooms kosher restaurant in Aldgate, which attracted Cockney customers as well as aristocracy. The East End and West End of London used to be packed with Salt Beef Bars, but now only a few remain.
In the days before refrigeration, meats were preserved by smoking, canning and curing with salt. Curing with salt involved either preserving in pure salt or in a brine solution, using ‘corns’ of salt and giving it the name salt beef or corned beef. From 16th to 19th Centuries salt beef was popular with the English Navy and sailors aboard Henry VIII’s flagship, The Mary Rose, lived off salt beef and biscuits.
As London became more cosmopolitan during the 1960s and 1970s the traditional London dishes, including salt beef, became overshadowed. But with a new interest in English cookery, salt beef is beginning to appear on menus again and there is a campaign to bring back salt beef. A good value meat cut, easy to cure and cook can provide a substantial meal for a family, whether in sandwiches or as part of a main course, or both.
Salt beef is making a comeback, as outlined in The Grocer 5th July 2012 http://www.thegrocer.co.uk/fmcg/fresh/meat/bid-to-put-salt-beef-back-on-british-menu/230499.article A new website has been launched which hopes to grow the sales of salt beef and put this once popular British dish back on the menu www.saltbeef.com
Watercress does, of course also have a London history. In Victorian times it was sold in Covent Garden market and street sellers bought and bunched it to sell as ‘on the go food’. It was eaten raw in bunches and nicknamed the ‘poor man’s bread’.
For the brine
140g soft light-brown sugar
175g coarse sea salt
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
Large pinch of dried mixed herbs
For the beef
1.25kg piece of beef brisket
1 carrot, roughly chopped
1 small onion, roughly chopped , 4 sprigs of fresh Parsley
1 large clove of garlic
Put all the brine ingredients into a very large saucepan, pour in 1.25 litres of water and gradually bring to the boil, stirring to help the sugar and salt dissolve. Once it comes to the boil, let it bubble away for two minutes. Take off the heat and leave to cool completely.
Pierce the meat all over with a skewer. Put it in a large plastic or glass bowl (something non-reactive) and cover the meat with the brine; it must be totally immersed. I weighed the meat down with two small saucers on top of the meat to keep the meat below the level of the brine. Leave in a fridge for at least five days (I left mine for five days).
Take the beef out of the brine and soak in cold water for a couple of hours. Put the meat in a pan with the vegetables, herbs and garlic, adding enough cold water to cover. Bring the water to simmering point, then leave to poach very gently for two and a half to three hours. Cook until the meat is completely tender (check with a skewer).
Serve in thick slices on white farmhouse crusty bread, buttered thinly, on a bed of watercress. Drizzle with English mustard vinegar dressing.
For the dressing:
2 tbsp Cider vinegar
2 tsp English mustard
6 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 tsp lemon juice
Salt and pepper
Put all ingredients in a bowl and whisk until emulsified.