A beef worth its salt

Just about every nation on the planet appears to have staked a claim in owning salt beef. Internet research reveals that it ‘belongs’ to America, the Caribbean, Ireland, England, Eastern Europe, the Jewish diaspora and even South America (from whence Fray Bentos).

In truth, given that people the world over have been preserving meat for centuries, it likely originated in all these places if not simultaneously.

I’ve chosen to share the Ashkenazi angle with you, for reasons set out below and also because my good friend Mandi, is reading all my posts about pig from her apartment in the humid suburbs of northern Tel Aviv, and this is for her, so she doesn’t feel left out.

In the world of Charcuterie it is undoubtedly the Pig that reigns supreme. However, there is a long history of Jewish Charcuterie from Eastern Europe that for obvious reasons (see Levitcus 11) is completely divorced from Pork.

Due to strange rules about sciatic nerves and blood, Kosher dietary laws allows only tougher cuts (forequarters) of beef to be consumed and require that it be koshered within 72 hours of slaughter, not allowing any time for hanging the meat to tenderize it.

As you might imagine, eating a piece of meat once rigor mortis has set in would be an unpleasant chore rather than a culinary delight. So the problem of how to tenderise the tough cuts needed resolving. Also, for reasons of economy meat had to be preserved for use throughout the year.

From within the bounds of these restrictions the tradition of Jewish Charcuterie arose bringing us salt beef, pickled tongue, smoked beef pickelfleisch, confit duck and goose, foie gras, pickled herring, various beef sausages and salami and also pickled veg such as gherkins and sauerkraut. Quite a list!

When this month’s Charcutepalooza brining challenge was announced, the first thing it called to mind was picture of a foot high Salt Beef and Rye sandwich, slathered with mustard and horseradish, garnished with crunchy pickles.

The second thing I thought of was Claudia Roden’s ‘Book of Jewish Food’ which is quite possibly my favourite cook book, although I tend rather toward the exotic allure of the spicy Sephardic section, than the Ashkenazi part, which I perceive to be the rather frugal, heavy and erring on the side of  frigid.

Oh, just in case you don’t know: Sephardic mainly alludes to Jews with Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Asian roots while Ashkenazi are Jews from the diaspora of Europe and Russia (although this is a highly simplified explanation).

I discovered from Claudia’s chapter on Meat in the aforementioned book that Hot Salt Beef (or Pastrami, which is the same thing, but the meat is smoked too) served in a Rye bread sandwich, and famed as a New York staple is actually just as at home here in London as it is across the pond. I wonder why the tradition has remained in the Big Apple, but floundered somewhat in the Big Smoke?

Claudia writes that ‘Salt beef became the mainstay of the deli trade on both sides of the Atlantic just before the middle of the twentieth century. In England, hot salt beef sandwiches were first sold at stand-up counters in the East End [refuge of Jewish immigrants] and spread rapidly to the West End snack bars around the rag trade area. [I take this to be Soho]’

And so, in an attempt to revive the tradition from one small corner of London SW8, I bring you Ruth’s Salt Beef and Rye – Jewish in name, but English (via a few generations in Africa) in nature.

First make your own corned beef from brisket, there are plenty of recipes for it in print and online. If unlike me you don’t have the time or the inclination you can buy one already brined and just simmer it for a few hours until tender.

It smells SO good when you add the pickling spices

After a few days in the brining in the fridge it will look grey and really quite minging.

Once it has been simmered on a low heat for a few hours you can slice it up and see that it has gone a lovely bright pink (if it is still grey that’s fine too, but for some reason I was terrified of this happening).


Now bake some delicious Rye bread. Kneading is exhausting, but worth the effort

Leave the bread to rise overnight

Then punch down, knead again, rise again. It will look very small.

but it will get bigger. Once baked try and resist tearing chunks off and stuffing your face. It smells so good that this will be quite a difficult feat to achieve.

Once everything has cooled down slice some bread

and make yourself a kick-ass Corned beef sandwich with plenty of horeseradish, mustard and gherkins.

Do not eat this sandwich in front of someone you fancy  because it will be messy, and noisy and indecent (unless, you know, they like that sort of thing).

Other things to do with Corned Beef:

Feed to flatmates in order to show them why taking up all the space in the fridge for a week was worthwhile.

Eat as many Corned Beef sandwiches as you dare.

This one with grated carrot (I know it looks like cheese, but it is carrot). Cheese would be good too though.


2 responses to “A beef worth its salt

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