John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich 1718-1792
To whom we owe everything.
Ahh back to London again. When I was there last fall, one of the refrains I heard most commonly in the salt beef bars was how deli remained very much an enterprise sold by Jews to Jews. Unlike in New York, where it crossed over to the Irish, Italians, and other immigrants, or Montreal, where le smoked meat is a Quebecois dietary staple, the UK’s salt beef often remains scorned by the upper crusts.
But now, the proud deli men of London can raise their heads even higher, safe in the knowledge that the blue blooded establishment may be coming around after all. Just read the following Daily Mail article from food writer Tom Parker Bowles, an esteemed gastronome and son of Mrs. Prince Charles herself, Camilla Parker Bowles:
A beef sandwich that’s definitely worth its salt
Two inches thick and doused in mustard – for an epic slice of New York look no further than a salt-beef sandwich.
Until last week, I was unmoved by salt beef. It wasn’t that I actively hated the stuff; rather, I was determinedly ambivalent. But as is usually the case in matters of the belly, I just hadn’t eaten it in the right place.
The Brass Rail at Selfridges, though, is a London institution, a place that has been serving salt-beef sandwiches to the cognoscenti for nearly half a century.
Two inches thick and doused in mustard – for an epic slice of New York look no further than a salt-beef sandwich
The location might have changed over time, but the quality is timeless. You queue up, accept the proffered tray and choose from salt beef, pastrami or tongue, in rye, bagel, pitta or, for the truly deluded, focaccia.
There are two mustards, and the option of an expertly sliced pickle on the side. And make sure you ask for extra fat. The walk to the table is interminable, as you gaze at the soft rye, smeared with English mustard and stuffed full with two inches of glistening meat.
This is what all sandwiches aspire to be when they grow up. The first bite brings a whisper of caraway from the bread (this is the soft, light version rather than the coal-black Scandinavian type), then the rich, luscious, cured beef, hot, sweet and fatty,enveloping the mouth in a decadently meaty embrace.
The mustard then kicks in, with a nose-clearing punch. As a finale, the cool pickle slices through the fat and offers welcome crunch. A symphony, as opposed to a cacophony, of flavours and textures. This is an epic sandwich.
Of course, salt beef is nothing new. We’ve been preserving meat for centuries – Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook, first published in 1660, has a recipe for pickled beef, and there are endless other variations designed to kill bacteria and keep beef edible through the winter months.
The classic recipe sees a brisket (or the rather leaner silverside) placed in a mixture of water, salt and various spices for up to two weeks. Then it’s washed and either baked or gently simmered with onions, carrots and bay.
Despite this long history in Britain, salt beef is more usually associated with Jewish food – specifically Ashkenazi (Jews originally from Eastern Europe).
Kosher dietary laws meant only the tough forequarters of the beast were eaten, and the meat had to be prepared within 72 hours of slaughter. Without sufficient time to hang and tenderise, long, slow cooking was the order of the day. By salting and simmering, you’d end up with meltingly tender meat, packed with flavour and near impossible to resist.
The East and West End of London used to be packed with salt-beef bars, but now only a smattering remain. In New York, though, salt beef is less a meat and more a religion.
Monolithic sandwiches can be found in delis such as Katz’s, Barney Greengrass and Second Avenue Deli (where the pastrami, salt beef with a coating of herbs and spices, is legendary). But to really confuse matters, there it’s known as corned beef (the large pieces of salt were originally known as corns), and rather different from that muck that slithers from a tin over here.
Read the rest of Tom Barker Bowles’ article HERE
Either way, with his stepfather being Prince Charles, and his stepbrothers as Princes William and Harry, perhaps we London deli fans have hope that a salt beef sandwich might find its way into Buckingham Palace someday. Maybe we’ll even see HRH Elizabeth II herself at Harry Morgan’s, removing her delicate white gloves to tear into a tongue sandwich. One can only pray…for the sake of the empire.