On the Gravy Train …
A short while back British Onions sent me a “Gravy in a Box” kit containing, well, everything you’d need for excellent gravy – onions and some other interesting ingredients such as mushroom ketchup, Marmite, mustard and Worcestershire sauce. They’re trying to work out exactly what makes the perfect onion gravy; you can find my recipe at the end of this post.
Despite gravy’s strong ties with British cuisine gravy is actually thought to have originated in Egypt around 3000 B.C. Hieroglyphs in the tomb of Djer, an early first dynasty pharaoh, at Umm el-Qa’ab are said to resemble Classical Greek clay vessels, from which the modern French sauce boat (or gravy boat) was ultimately developed. Paintings on the walls of the tomb depicting feasting show the diners (presumably members of the royal court) drinking a liquid, however the context does not lend itself to wine or beer.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the English word “gravy” is obscure in origin. It is most likely derived from the Old French word “grane.” The earliest printed evidence of this word in our language from the Forme of Curry, an English cookbook circa 1390.
The original medieval meaning of “grane” was precise: the gravé consisted of the natural cooking juices that flowed from roasting meat. By implication, this meat was spit-roasted, and therefore two important implements were required to make and collect the gravy: a flesh fork for piercing the meat in order to increase the flow of drippings, and a dripping pan beneath the roast, designed to collect the gravy for use at table. Normally the gravy was skimmed of fat, salted, and then sent up as a sauce – the term in this sense has been replaced today by jus, and would not meet most modern criteria for a ‘gravy’.
The medieval roasted meat with gravé was generally served rare and not likely to have a counterpart in contemporary Byzantine cookery, since the Eastern Church forbade the consumption of blood or bloody food. Among Byzantine Christians, the gravy of pork, mutton, goat, and the mouflon of Cyprus (a species of wild goat) was often reduced over high heat and mixed with garum (a type fish sauce) or wine, as reported by several medieval travelers. The preparation was then served as a relatively thick dipping sauce.
“Gravy. In the British Isles and areas culturally influenced by them, is…well, gravy, a term fully comprehensible to those who use it, but something of a mystery in the rest of the world. Ideally, gravy as made in the British kitchen is composed of residues left in the tin after roasting meat, deglazed with good stock, and seasoned carefully. (Many cooks incorporate a spoonful of flour before adding the liquid but this practice is frowned on by purists.) Gravy varies in colour from pale gold-brown to burnt umber, and in thickness from something with little more body than water to a substantial sauce of coating consistency. In French meat cookery, jus is roughly equivalent to honestly made thin gravy in the British tradition…Kitchen tricks involving burnt onions, caramelized sugar, gravy browning’, and stock cubes are modern descendants of this practice. Indeed, numerous gravy mixes’ or granules’ are to be had, for use with the meat residue, or in its stead. Yet in many homes in Britain a true gravy is still made; and this remains the most delicious accompaniment for the meat form which it comes and an essential feature of the meat dish.”
—Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 351)
In Britain, gravy is more than just a condiment; it’s liquid comfort. Think of the warm, meaty embrace of every-mother Lynda Bellingham in the Oxo adverts of yesteryear, or that self-satisfied “ahh, Bisto” slogan which perfectly encapsulated a nation’s feelings about a piping jug of gravy – even if we now know that making your own is much more delicious and just as quick & easy.
It brings together a Sunday roast lending a soothing, savoury homeliness on everything it touches – hardly any wonder that commercials for roast dinner staples such as Yorkshire Puddings end with the host pouring gravy over is it?
Like mot other traditional favourites, every cook (or even family) has their own method. As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall wisely points out in his River Cottage Meat Book, “there is no recipe for gravy, nor should there be”. There are, however, various ways to make sure you do your patriotic duty by varying the method and optional extras, such as adding wine or port, herbs or mustard – ah sure, you get my drift.
There are two main schools of gravy making – those who add flour to the roasting tin to make a roux – a thickening agent made of flour and fat – with the dripping and juices produced by the joint, and those who deglaze the tin with alcohol or a little stock before adding more liquid. I flit in a rather unorthodox way between the two, for chicken and turkey I simply deglaze, for beef I tend to make a roux.
Of course, sausage & mash or toad in the hole demands onion gravy, and, this gravy must be slightly thicker than gravy for roast dinners. My favourite recipe for onion gravy is simple enough but I have an aversion to lumps in my gravy so I blitz it to a smooth consistency; yeah, I know onions aren’t ‘lumps’ exactly but I still can’t abide them in my gravy – I hold the horrors that were school meals entirely responsible.
Gravy. One of the most, if not the most, divisive of sauces. Some like it thick, some thin. Some like it highly flavoured, some simply meat juice and water. Me? Well, it depends on my mood, but I’m happy enough to stick to meat juices and top notch stock, but the consistency is key – just thick enough to coat the back of a spoon is perfect.
How do you like yours?
- 2 onions, finely sliced
- 1 tablespoon plain flour
- 250ml of stock (I prefer vegetable)
- 50ml port or red wine.
- salt and pepper
- Fry the onions over medium heat in a frying pan, in a little butter, cooking them slowly until they are caramelised and a good even brown colour. This takes a surprising amount of time, about 30 minutes, but it can’t be rushed as it’s essential to give the gravy both its deep brown colour, and sweet flavour.
- When you are satisfied with the colour of the onions, sprinkle over the flour and stir round to absorb any cooking fat and juices.
- Add the port (or wine) and mix well together while the alcohol evaporates.
- Add the stock, about 250ml but it will depend how thick you like your gravy.
- Stir well, and simmer the gravy for 10-15 minutes.
- Transfer to a blender and blitz until smooth (optional).
- Return to the pan and heat through.
- Season to taste with freshly ground black pepper and salt