This is one of my all-time favorite recipes; I look forward to summers when I can indulge in it, for it is a cold dish. I discovered this treat during my early catering days in Esther B. Aresty’s The Delectable Past, in which she shares the lost joys of the table gathered from her extensive collection of rare old cook books. 1
Aresty updates this delightful, historical receipt for her 1970’s kitchen, to which I have added my inspired touches. She found this profound dish in Sarah Phillips’ The Ladies Handmaid, 1758, noting that it had limited circulation, and is unknown today to most bibliographers,
Phillips, this early English author, displays her magnetic personality in her recipe book. In it she encourages her readers that it needs very few arguments to persuade people to prefer a good dinner to a bad one. Her energetic approach to cooking is best revealed in her remarks on fish preparation: “Rip open the belly. Gut it. Strip it and hack it with a knife.” 2
This inspired, eighteenth century beef recipe is unparalleled, for it graces the best of our tables still today, pleasing without exception during the hot months!
We can learn much about the history of cook books from this receipt, by placing the book of its origin in proper historical perspective, demonstrating how the era it was from brought fine foods to the common man.
Prior to its time, cook books were prevailingly penned only by men in Europe. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)-known as Dr. Johnson-was an English lexicographer, critic, author, and conversationalist; he declared mid-century that women could spin very well, but they could not write a good book of cookery. He, however, did not stop the tidal wave of female authors that were to overtake the writing of books on cooking in England. This phenomenon actually began as early as 1714, with the advent of Mary Kettlby’s instructions for housewives-as well as cook maids at country inns-in A Collection of Above Three Hundred Receipts in Cookery, Physick and Surgery. The momentum for feminine authorship merely grew over the years. 3
Cook books and Bibles share the distinction of being the earliest books printed. Platina, a noted humanist and Vatican librarian, published the first cook book, De Honesta Voluptate, in 1475, just twenty years after the onset of printing with the Gutenberg Bible. Germany, France, Spain, and England published cookery books shortly thereafter (prior to this, recipe collections were only handwritten). These printed works could best be labeled “for a prince’s household”, though none were comparable to Platina’s De Honesta Volupate in magnitude, exemplifying the revival of the art of cooking during the Renaissance. 4
A long silence followed the first printing of an English cook book, The Boke of Cookery, 1500. Change came when this silence was broken at the end of that century: detailed directions for elaborate food preparations were now addressed to the wives supervising better-class homes, rather than to chefs for noblemen, as was the previous precedent; all these books, however, were written by males during this Elizabethan period. 5
But a still greater change came later in the eighteenth century, when English women totally invaded what had previously been a man’s realm: British cook books were now being written by women, as well as being intended for feminine readership. Prior to this, particularities concerning culinary preparation predominantly belonged to men in Europe: recipes were recorded by male chefs, who prepared these delicacies for nobility.
Writing for the chefs of noblemen in his book Le Cuisinier Francois, 1651, the Frenchman Francois Pierre de La Varenne was the first to publish what was to become a worldwide movement away from heavy medieval cuisine, with its influx of dense spices and almond pastes. Here he emphasized the subtle accents of mushrooms and truffles, simple sauces made with pan drippings, and the use of butter instead of oil in pastries. 6
Shortly thereafter, there was a further shift found in the culinary sphere in seventeenth century France, with the beginning hints in cook books of fine foods not being just for kings, queens, and noblemen. Then in the eighteenth century, Manin first and then Menon (the relatively unknown Manet and Monet of French cuisine) promoted what was to become a culinary outreach to the bourgeoisie in their writings. 7
Nevertheless, it was the British female authors who played the predominant part in introducing the greater populace to fine cuisine. Our delightful beef recipe was created at the height of this male-to-female transformation that took place in culinary England in the 1700s.
Enjoy its many dimensions of flavor, which are produced simply.
- Esther B. Aresty, The Delectable Past (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964).
- Ibid., pp. 118, 119.
- Ibid., pp. 109, 110.
- Ibid., pp. 27, 28, 32
- Ibid., pp. 32, 43, 44.
- Ibid., pp. 60, 61.
- Ibid., pp. 94-98.
Beef Vinaigrette Yields: 10 servings. Total prep time: 7 hr, which includes 3 1/2 hr for chilling/ active prep time: 30 min/ cooking time: 3 hr. Note: may make a day or two ahead.
4 lb beef brisket
1/2 c dry white wine
1 bay leaf
1 small yellow onion, diced
1/4 tsp whole allspice
1/2 tsp dried tarragon (or 1 tbsp fresh)
3 sprigs of parsley
capers for garnish
1 3/4 c hot broth from meat
1/4 c cold water
1 individual envelope of unflavored gelatin
Trim excess fat off brisket; place in a heavy stewing pot, with a tight lid. Add enough water to come up 1/2” in the pot; then, stir in all other ingredients, except capers and those for aspic (see photo).
- Bring to a boil over med/high heat. Reduce heat to med/low, cover, and simmer for 1 1/2 hours.
- At the end of this time, turn meat over, and cook for another 1 1/2 hours; check liquid periodically, adding more water only if needed. (See photo below of finished product.)
Remove brisket and place on a plate in refrigerator. Strain remaining broth. Measure 1 3/4 c, adding water to make full amount as needed, or if liquid is more than 1 3/4 c, boil it to reduce to given quantity. Bring the 1 3/4 c broth to a light boil in a small pot; then, remove from heat.
- Meanwhile, place 1/4 c cold water in a small bowl, sprinkle gelatin on top, and stir with a spoon. Dissolve this in hot broth, pour into an 8” x 8” pan, and refrigerate.
- After chilling meat for at least 3 hours, cut in slices, keeping them in order to retain the shape of the brisket; set aside.
Take pan of solidified aspic out of refrigerator, and scrape fat off top with a table knife (see photo). Cut in 1″ cubes.
- Place aspic cubes on a platter covered with greens; arrange sliced beef brisket on top of aspic; garnish with capers (see initial photo).