As we get ready for the weekend: is the Sunday Roast Dead?

The headline was going to read: “Supermarkets slay the English Sunday Roast (or we get the grocers we deserve).
And then an Afrikaner comes to the rescue.”
But that isn’t quite fair (more on this later).  This article came about after my irritation that my closest two retailers, Woolworths and Pick n Pay (both in Gardens Centre), do a poor job in providing beef roasting joints.  This as I endeavoured to learn how to cook the delicious roasts that came out of my gran’s kitchens.

The unadorned roast, of beef, lamb or even a whole chicken, is the most quintessential of British Sunday lunches.  Of the three, an on the bone beef joint may be the most English (some would disagree).  Yet in this land, where there may be close to two million people of British roasting descent, a joint of beef on the bone is as scarce as hen’s teeth.

According to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall* the best joints for open, or dry, roasting, are the traditional sirloin joint and the forerib.  The sirloin joint is a very thick t-bone with the tasty sirloin steak (entrecote, contre-filet) on one side and the tender fillet on the other for granny).  The beef forerib is the same cut as a rack of lamb ribs.  According to Fearnley-Whittingstall the forerib is the prince of roasts.  (And apparently the sirloin didn’t get its name after an English king knighted a chunk of meat, it’s just a nice old tale.) 

The topside can also be roasted though its toughness makes it less suitable.  For this reason the silverside should never be roasted but can be delicious pot roasted, or braised, in stock and wine with the lid on.  Open roasting these two joints was the reason my previous efforts were always leathery. 

Even deboned it is hard to find a piece of meat for open roasting (many available in supermarkets are only suitable for pot roasting).  Yes everyone sells fillet for open roasting.  But that doesn’t count.  Expensive, bland and tender fillet is the perfect food for rich people with bad taste and even worse teeth.  (I accept that pink and sliced thin it makes for an excellent starter to be passed around the braai and lifted by a strong sauce it can by among the best.)

Why should it be on the bone?  The marrow in the bone is the essence of an open roast as this – along with the fat – is where the flavour lies, particularly for making gravy (or without flour simply deglazing the bits stuck to the pan to leave a jus).  At my common-garden Woolies store in the Gardens Centre they don’t specify which cut their joint is, unusual for Woolworths, who do care about origin and labeling more than most, simply labeling it as a “roast”. 

I enquired what it was and was told by spokesperson Pamela Stamper it could be one of the three tougher but tasty cuts: aitchbone, bolo or knuckle.  All three are suitable for a lovely pot roast or stew but aitchbone, the bone between rump and topside is unsuitable for roasting according to Karan Beef (not all agree).  I believe it is safe to say bolo (above the front shin) and knuckle (above the hind knee) should never be roasted.  Nina Timm has a recipe for aitchbone in a bag, a technique to retain the tenderising moisture. 

I am not convinced that the “roast” in stock at Woolies was any of the above three.  It may well have been silverside or topside. A British customer in the store corroborated the suitability of the roast only for braising (which he had successfully done the week before). 

So I asked the manager where I could buy a sirloin joint on the bone. He phoned head office and got back to me saying they have in-store butchers at Cavendish and V&A branches, who sell joints for roasting.  The butchers there can cut you any joint you fancy, I was told.  I went to Cavendish and this was not the case.  This Woolies ‘butcher’ also receives all his joints deboned.

At least he did have the tougher and tastier half of the deboned sirloin which we really enjoyed.  But without the flavour-packed bone I had to buy bones separately and add them back to the dish for making the gravy afterwards.  What the supermarkets rip apart we have to put back together again.  A truly bizarre indictment of modern processed food.  Just to prove the point a couple of weeks later I roasted a similar deboned sirloin without adding the bones back in to make the gravy.  The gravy was flavourless – my dogs enjoyed it though. 

At Pick n Pay in Gardens they aren’t doing a good job stocking roasting joints either.  To be fair of late they have started (fairly regularly) stocking rather small lean looking rolled topsides.  They look a little too bright red, as opposed to deep red, suggesting it unlikely they have been matured.  Acceptable enough but no thoughts of abundant lunch there.  Other days only silverside and aitchbone for liquid roasting are available.

One day on the way back from Kalk Bay I stopped in at the Pick n Pay in Constantia, one of their flagship stores, to further my search.  The butcher’s assistant had no clue as to what I was on about but did at least call the friendly butcher who said he could cut me any piece I wanted.  Indeed in the back cold room I caught a glimpse of whole hanging carcasses, a rare sight these days.  To cut costs most butchery now takes place in centralised warehouses before it is distributed. 

Pick n Pay are the only supermarket group left that don’t have a centralised grocery distribution system and as they implement it one wonders what will become of their butchery in Constantia.  But then I guess there are more WASPY Sunday roasters ‘in the valley’ than in the more multicultural City Bowl. 

Then just as I was getting frustrated about the lack of suitable cuts closer to home I remembered the Checkers in Kloof Street.  It is hardly a swanky store, though this brand is now focusing on red meat, wine and cheese (and now lettuce too) as it targets a wealthier customer.  And low and behold there in Whitey Basson and Christo Wiese’s outlet was a butcher who cut me an on the bone sirloin joint to my specifications.  It took the Afrikaner-dominated Shoprite Group to provide an ‘Engelsman’ his Sunday lunch.  Also astounding is that this is a rather small store.  While beef is an important part of Afrikaans food culture, roasting it isn’t.  Unless it’s lamb of course. 

On returning to the Shoprite Group’s Checkers a couple of weeks later I spotted dark red matured Angus breed packaged roasts, importantly retaining a thick layer of fat**.  Unfortunately they are also only labeled as roasts.  The butcher wasn’t there (he can’t be on duty 24/7).  The staff knew they were either topside or silverside, blissfully unaware how crucial the difference is for customers’ lunches. 

A trip to the newish Spar at the Cape Quarter produced a forerib, which I recall they call prime rib, but unfortunately it was already heavily spiced and herbed in the colours of the rainbow.  All a good joint of beef needs is oil, salt and pepper.  They don’t sell the sirloin joint. 

The butcher at the Saturday Neighbourgoods Market, who sells fine beef and venison, will cut you a sirloin if you ask him a week in advance.  His stall is in the far left hand corner of the first hall. 

The German butcher from Gardens Continental Butchery in Kloof Street will also order you one if you ask a week in advance.  The reason he doesn’t stock it is that he says there is very little calling for meat on the bone due to changing eating habits. 

Before modern farming methods the high British rainfall and fertile soil enabled good quality red meat to be produced on relatively small pieces of land.  The English didn’t need the French technique of herbs and slow cooked in juices (including water and wine) to produce a delicious and tender roast – the raw material was that good. 

Fashions change but with the return to traditional ingredients, such as sweetbreads and cheek, I hope the Sunday roast comes back to take its rightful place at your table as you gather with family and friends.  And may the butchers return too (and not only work in factories).  Roast your joint sizzling hot for the first 20 minutes to caramelise the outside and then turn it down.  And don’t forget to let it rest before you carve it.  When you are sated you should take an afternoon rest too.

In general the investigation showed the supermarkets to be poor, with Checkers the best in the City Bowl.  Then maybe we get the supermarkets we deserve. 

As I am not a butcher but merely an interested party, it is possible that there are some burnt bits in my facts.  Any butchers out there are welcome to use their sharp knives to provide slicing commentary to set the record straight.  (Sometimes there are also more tender eyes between tougher cuts suitable for roasting, which I have ignored.) 

Please note that there are different English names for many of the same cuts of meat, particularly between South Africa, the UK and the US. 

Karan Beef have a useful diagram and suitable cooking methods for each cut here

The “Neighbour Good Butcher” can be emailed at salvin@iafrica.com

* From Fearnley-Whittingstall’s lovingly written and information-larded The River Cottage Meat Book, which also has superb advice on good old fashioned meat (with an ethical bent). 

** While the fat is important for cooking, you don’t need to eat it.

Tom Robbins
Posted October 27, 2010

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10 Responses to “As we get ready for the weekend: is the Sunday Roast Dead?”

  1. Koek! says:

    Nice piece Tom… Clever headline. I must say I have been growing more partial to Checkers of late. Gone a bit sour on Woolies, though can’t really put my finger on why. The Cavendish Woolies ‘butcher’ is a joke.
    I CANNOT WAIT for my gas oven to arrive (only in April next year alas) – the built-in one we have at the moment has a schizophrenic oven that is absolutely useless. All I can do with it is grill.
    Let me know if you ever discover a REAL butcher in the City Bowl please!
    Robyn

  2. Great post and very informative! I can not believe how hard it can be to buy decent meat for a good old roast!

  3. Hilde says:

    in retail it is, as you have been told, demand that counts. It is also the smaller shops that can attend more to their clients needs.

  4. Alfie says:

    Thanks Tom a great piece! Will have to do that roast ASAP!

  5. Grog says:

    Nice piece! In my view, re-instate the pleasure of conversation, the slow enjoyment of good wine or beer(artisinal or homebrewed) and the mysterious connections that flow from friends and strangers finding out around a lunch table just how small a world it really is, and voila, the Sunday roast is reborn. Of course, you have to have the right cut of meat but that I will deferentially leave to you. Til the next Sunday roast! Cheers. Hic.

  6. TGirlZa says:

    Totally agree! Just returned from a few years in the UK where a rib roast was an easily accessible treat. I finally managed to find a butcher who could provide the cut at Pick n Pay at the Waterfront – but un-aged. I then located an aged roast from Hermanus (!) – but I think it was from a dairy cow, and not nicely marbled. Hope springs eternal, and I’m keeping my eyes peeled.

  7. EC says:

    Gardens Centre is also my ‘local’ and I agree that the availability of meat in general there is poor. To reiterate your point, I work in Tygervalley and there is the most amazing butchery called Skaapland just behind my office (Pasita Street I think). It’s a bit of a mission from town side, but totally worth it as it’s a ‘proper’ butchery and they generally have the harder-to-find cuts of lamb, beef and pork.

  8. Tom Robbins says:

    Thanks EC have been planning to write about Skaapland butchery in Tygervalley for a while, particularly as they are one of the few butcheries that sell mutton (at least in my mostly white English speaking world). Nothing like mutton for a genuine Durban curry or for a potent-flavoured roast (as long as it is well-aged). You have spurred me on. Biesmiellah in the Bo-Kaap also sell mutton.

  9. Tom Robbins says:

    Glad to report that the Pick n Pay at the Gardens Centre now sells topside joints suitable open roasting. They also sell aitchbone and silverside which should only be pot roasted. This information is also provided on the packaging. Congratulations.

  10. Tom Robbins says:

    Super Meat butchery on the Kenilworth main road sell both forerib and sirloin on the bone (like a really thick T bone) for open roasting. They sometimes run out of stock so to be safe order one day in advance, according to a butcher there.

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