I was determined that my first English evening meal would be a traditional roast dinner.
We arrived early on a Sunday morning after an overnight flight from Toronto, just in time for Sunday Roast Dinner. As the BBC food website puts it, “roast beef with Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes, horseradish sauce and proper gravy – hard to find a dish more British than that!”
After dropping off bags at our accommodations, going for brunch, taking a walk through Hyde Park and a corner of Kensington Gardens, a nap for some and a trip for me to a nearby Marks and Spencer to stock our kitchen for breakfasts, it was time for the Great Roast Hunt.
The first pub we visited in nearby Soho – more on it in another post – didn’t have its kitchen open on a Sunday evening, which is something we discovered quickly was the norm, rather than the exception, in Soho and Mayfair, where we were staying.
After a half-dozen false starts, we landed at The Footman. Like so many others in the city, it proclaims itself “one of the oldest pubs in London. First named The Running Horse and open in 1749, it was “frequented by the footmen who were in service to the households of Mayfair. They would run ahead of their master’s coaches, paying any tolls in advance and clearing a safe passage ahead. As the fashion for footmen dwindled, one bought the pub and named it after himself.”
The upstairs dining room was closed but the main-floor pub was open, and serving a roast beef dinner, among many other things. Two of us got the roast dinner, and two got lighter fare, which we then shared around the table: The roast plate included a thick slab of tender pink beef, an unusually large, single Yorkshire Pudding more croissant-like airy-crispy than I expected, rich gravy, and roasted vegetables: just the ticket to lull us into a solid early sleep after time-zone changes.
How did this meal become such an icon of British life? The London newspaper the Daily Mail, in a 2015 article, explains that Britain’s love of beef began during the reign of King Henry VII in 1485: The King’s royal guards would dine on roasted beef every Sunday after church. “This then lead them to be known as “Beefeaters. This tradition then spread to the population, who would drop off their beef at the local bakers on their way to church to be roasted until they returned.”
While Yorkshire pudding is now served as part of the main dish, it was originally an appetizer garnished with gravy, the better to lessen the appetite for expensive beef in the main course.
We had another roast encounter in London, this one on our last night in the city, a fitting bookend to our culinary adventures.
A friend from Canada who for many years worked in London turned out to be there on vacation overlapping our time by a few days. We arranged to meet for a meal on our last night and he picked the spot: Great Queen Street, near Covent Garden.
At his urging, we ordered one of the “dinners for three”, roast lamb in a gravy served with a potato gratin, which turned out to be the richest, creamiest version of scalloped potatoes I have ever tasted. The amount of lamb was staggering: we all ate likely twice what we normally would have had as a meat portion, and there was still plenty left on the plate. We ordered cooked greens (buttered cabbage) and a green salad to combat all that buttery, fat-laden deliciousness.
If I cook a hunk of beef at home, it tends to be a cheaper cut that does well being slow cooked: a pot roast with tomato and garlic and red pepper, in the oven at a low heat for hours until tender. But after enjoying London roasts in all their glory, I’m inspired to learn the gravy and pudding game: either that, or book a dinner once in awhile at one of Toronto’s English pubs that offer traditional English Sunday roasts.
Main photo: lamb roast, potato gratin, buttered cabbage and green salad at Great Queen Street, London, by Kelley Teahen.