Melton Hunt Beef

Melton Hunt Beef

Here's a picture of some of the rump that I cooked this week - rather appropriate given that it's St Patrick's Day. The story behind it though is less simple...

Late last year I came across a book on Google that I just had to have a look at; I ask you, who could not have a nosey at a book published in London 1864 with the catchy title of: "The Art and Mystery of Curing, Preserving and Potting all kinds of Meat, Game and Fish; and also the Art of Pickling and the Preservation of Fruits and Vegetables. Adapted as well for the wholesale dealer as all housekeepers."?

The Art and Mystery of Curing Book Cover

What caught my eye was a recipe for 'Melton Hunt Beef', a dish that in 50 (or so) years of living in Leicestershire, had eluded me. It warranted further investigation. After a quick online search for answers a phone call to Mr Melton Pork Pie, Steven Hallam, got me in touch with Dr Matthew O'Callaghan who kindly shared his own hunt beef recipe that appeared in a 1920's copy of the Farmers' Weekly magazine and was said to be from even earlier in 1845. He says that it is the traditional dish in Melton Mowbray and district for Plough Monday which he tells me is the Monday on or after 17th January.

The two recipes differ quite a lot; the older recipe doesn't have any saltpetre, nor is it smoked. The spicing is similar to many other spiced/salt beef recipes. The 1864 recipe uses a massive 30lb piece of beef, is cured with saltpetre and has masses of garlic added.

Is Melton Hunt Beef just spiced beef called by another name in the Melton Area? Well, Elizabeth David mentions it in a book, but her source is the same as mine. Likewise it appears that it's the same with Laura Mason & Catherine Brown in their book "The Taste of Britain" - they certainly mention my source in the bibliography. It's mentioned in passing by Jane Grigson but not in the title of her recipe, only when referring back to it later, and then for some bizarre reason, only in the US version of one of her books.

Almost as telling is who doesn't mention it. Charles Elme Francatelli, a leading chef in Victorian London and 'Chief Cook In Ordinary to Queen Victoria' in 1841 had previously been cook to Sir W Massey Stanley Bart. and Rowland Errington Esq. at Melton Mowbray. Later, in an 1868 book, he publishes a spice beef recipe called Hunting Beef with no mention of Melton Mowbray, although he does mention the town in another recipe for Lark Pie.

You have to use your own judgement as to whether you think that Melton Hunt Beef is a recipe in its own right, or just a name by which a more widespread recipe was known in the locality. I just like to think of the 1864 recipe below as a UK form of Pastrami! The recipe from the 1864 book is:

Melton Hunt Beef

Choose a round of prime ox beef, about thirty pounds weight, the butcher removing the bone; examine the flap and take out the kernels skins, and hang it up in a dry air, where let it remain as long as the weather will permit. Then take

Juniper berries, bruised 2 oz
Ten shalots[sic], minced
Allspice, ground 2 oz
Black pepper ground 3 oz
Dried bay leaves 3 oz
Coarse sugar 2 lb
Bay salt 2 lb

Mix them well, and rub all parts well, particularly the flap and the void left by the bone, every day for a week, and turning it every other day. Then add

Rock salt or common salt 1 lb
Saltpetre 1½ oz.
Garlic, minced 2 heads

and never omit rubbing well with the pickle every day for ten days. After this turn it daily for ten days more, then take it up, look well to the centre and fat, and setting it up in proper shape, and skewer and bind it firmly. Wipe it dry, and if not immediately wanted, coat it well over with dry bran or pollard, and smoke it a week with

Beech chips 3 parts
Oak lops 1 part
Fern or grass tufts 2 parts

Otherwise, bake it, and when it has cooled forty-eight hours, not less, it will cut firm and obtain for you high commendation.

This recipe's cure levels would scare us nowadays, the saltpetre equates to over 3000 parts per million (PPM) at a time when commercially the EU allow 150 parts per million! The salt level, a potential 10%. Whether the recipe takes for granted that it would be soaked before cooking (most cured meat at the time would) we don't know. I'd also be worried as to whether a 30lb lump of meat would be cured to the middle if cooked immediately after the initial cure. I would expect it to be left to mature and equalise throughout for a couple of months. And as to the 3oz of dried bay leaves, that's 14 packets if you use a well know brand sold by the supermarkets!

All that said, I just love the idea of it all. It must have been a magnificent centrepiece on a grand scale. My adaption of the recipe using a smaller piece of meat will be nowhere near as impressive, but there again, it won't scare the government scientists half to death either! In fact the observant among you will have already seen my initial adaption of this cure using a piece of topside; the taste was fine but the cure needed more time to equalise (spread) throughout the meat. This time I've used a piece of rump - only because it was cheaper than the topside. Due to a cutting error the meat's ended up smaller than planned: about 2½lb.

I'd prepared details of my recipe and a calculator, but I'm not really convinced that my EU modern curing level compliant recipe will work well with thicker pieces of meat; rather than disappoint, I'll do a couple of further trials. I always have more problem with cure penetration in beef than pork.


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