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Roast Fillet of Beef

Beef fillet stuffed with spinage and herbs

Here are three excellent seventeenth recipes for roasting a whole fillet of beef. They all feature the juice or minced peel of the Seville or bitter orange.We have chosen to prepare the third recipe, where the fillet is stuffed with parsley, thyme, spinage and other herbs.

Jagged Orange

A slice of 'jagged orange', a popular garnish at this period. Unlike our modern varieties of the sweet orange, Seville oranges have a lot of pips.

Another important ingredient is the acidic juice of the Seville orange, a very popular flavouring in the Stuart Age. Barberries, rose-vinegar and elder-vinegar are also very typical of the cookery of this period. The bright red berries of the barberry (Berberis vulgaris L.) were not only a striking garnish, but they too had a pleasant tart flavour, adding relish to both meat and fish dishes. Like verjuice (the lightly fermented juice of unripe grapes or crab apples, rose and elderflower vinegars seem to have been stock ingredients in seventeenth century kitchens. It is possible that all these acidic ingredients were used as meat tenderisers.

Brawn

Seville oranges were carved with attractive patterns and used for garnishing festival dishes like this shield of brawn.

In the nineteenth century, a beef fillet was carved by cutting out the central portion, as in the illustration above. This piece of meat was cut into small slices, which were returned to the space in the fillet, making it appear at table as if it were whole. Dubois tells us, 'by this proceeding the fillet absolutely loses nothing of its physiognomy, and has the appearance of being whole: this is the manner called carving en entaille'.

One technique for roasting a beef fillet was to wrap the joint entirely in paper. The meat cooks rapidly inside this paper 'pressure cooker'. Before it is completely done, the paper is removed and the joint finished, by browning it close to the flames for a few minutes. The photograph opposite shows a fillet of beef roasting in this way in the fireplace at La Varenne in Burgundy. It was probably the first roast to be cooked with a tournebroche at the Chateau du Fey for a few hundred years. TPhoto: courtesy of La Varenne

More robust beef joints like a sirlon often had a sheet of paper tied around any covering of fat to prevent it burning, as in the photograph opposite. The paper was usually removed fifteen to twenty minutes before the roast was completely cooked. The spit was then moved a little closer to the fire to complete the roasting process by browning, or frothing the surface of the meat. Depending on the strength of the fire and the fuel used, this distance varied. However, it was often a considerable distance from the fire. A large joint may be have been started as far away as 30 inches and browned at about 18 inches.

Various papers were used for this purpose - brown paper for instance, but it was more likely to have been a heavy laid paper - rather like modern water colour paper, which acts as a perfect heat shield and does n't catch fire..

Beef fillet with spinach forcemeat

"Broach it on a broach not too big"

To Roast a fillet of beef

Take a fillet which is the tenderest part of the beef, and lieth in the inner part of the surloyn, cut it as big as you can, broach it on a broach not too big, and be careful not to broach it through the best of the meat, roast it leisurely, & baste it with sweet butter, set a dish to save the gravy while it roasts, then prepare sauce for it of good store of parsley, with a few sweet herbs chopp'd smal, the yolks of three or four eggs, sometimes gross pepper minced amongst them with the peel of an orange, and a little onion; boil these together, and put in a little butter, vinegar, gravy, a spoonful of strong broth, and put it to the beef.

Otherways.

Sprinkle it with rose-vinegar, claret-wine, elder-vinegar, beaten cloves, nutmeg, pepper, cinamon, ginger, coriander-feed, fennil-seed, and salt; beat these things fine, and season the fillet with it then roast it, and baste it with butter, save the gravy, and blow off the fat, serve it with juyce of orange or lemon, and a little elder-vinegar.

Or thus.

Powder it one night, then stuff it with parsley, tyme, sweet marjoram, beets, spinage, and winter-savory, all picked and minced small, with the yolks of hard eggs mixt amongst some pepper, stuff it and roast it, save the gravy and stew it with the herbs, gravy, as also a little onion, claret wine, and the juyce of an orange or two; serve it hot on this sauce, with flices of orange on it, lemons, or barberries.

From Robert May The Accomplisht Cook (London:1660)

Historical Notes

Roasting Jack

A small joint like a fillet was an ideal cut for roasting in front of the fire with a spitjack. This example dates from the time of Robert May. It only has two sets of wheels in its train, which means that it would have needed a complex pulley system to work efficiently, making it suitable only for light domestic roasting. In order to turn large joints, the kitchen of a large house or busy inn would have needed a more substantial jack with three sets of spindles.

The shafts of horizontal spits were frequently very wide, in some cases up to two inches across. A wide blade of metal on this scale would wreck a delicate fillet, so instead of being pierced by the spit, a small joint of this kind was sometimes jammed between the spit and a small sprung steel brochette, which was tied on with kitchen twine. The illustration is from Urbain Dubois Artistic Cookery (London: 1870). This fillet is studded with slices of truffle. The illustration opposite is from another of Dubois's English texts, the rare Domestic Cookery, published in London in 1871. These two works give a wonderful insight into the kitchen practices of the nineteenth century. Artistic Cookery was aimed at professional cooks working for aristocratic employers and documents an elaborate cuisine classique that could only have been experienced by the very priviliged. It was published first in English in 1870 before the French edition appeared in Paris two years later. On the other hand Dubois aimed Domestic Cookery at an English middle class readership. As a result, it explains many kitchen procedures in more detail and with its excellent illustrations of equipment, it is one of the really great cookery books of the Victorian Age.

A fillet of beef gently roasts in its jacket of paper.

A joint of beef starting at the fire with a heat shield of paper to protect the fat.

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