In the first of a new series on cooking methods and foodstuffs that have fallen from favour over the years, food writer and historian Bee Wilson explores the lost art of carving
“It would not be fair to say that this dish bodes a great deal of happiness to an inexperienced carver.” So wrote Mrs Beeton in her recipe for roast goose. This suggests a world in which a person’s social standing—and even wellbeing—might depend on how well he or she handled a carving knife.
Those days are gone. I am a hopeless carver. Even when my knives are sharp (not a sure bet), I am hazy about where to make the cuts. Yet I can’t say it’s ever really held me back as a cook, except perhaps at Easter, when the leg of lamb emerges from the oven, burnished with rosemary and garlic, and I try to remember whether it’s better sliced horizontally with the grain of the meat, or vertically against the grain. But when the plate of ill-assorted lamb slices is passed round, no one complains.
One of the biggest transformations in our cooking since Victorian times is that we have lost the art of carving. William Kitchiner in his Cook’s Oracle (1827) devoted a whole chapter to being a “dexterous carver”. Very few cookbooks today even consider the subject. Maybe it’s because we are conflicted about eating meat (and using knives, come to that).
One of the reasons I don’t try harder at carving is that it would be an admission that I’m not the vegetarian I half-wish I were. Thanks to the pre-packed joints in supermarkets, it’s now possible to consume a lot of meat—we still eat, on average, 90kg a year in Britain—without having to think too much about how it was butchered, never mind killed.
Dealing with blood
Cooks of centuries past were far more intimately acquainted with the anatomy of different animals. “Get the largest and fattest leg of mutton you can,” starts a recipe from Mrs Raffald in 1769, “cut out like a haunch of venison; as soon as it is killed, whilst it is warm, it will eat the tenderer, take out the bloody vein…” She then goes on to stab it, marinade the meat in red wine and roast it, covered in paper, all in a matter of fact way, as if dealing with blood was an everyday thing (and it was, back then).
Eliza Acton believed it was “indispensable” for a cook to “know how to carve neatly”. In Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845), the reader is given mathematical diagrams showing how each joint of meat should be partitioned after cooking. It reminds me of those books of paper aeroplanes with dotted lines that tell you where to fold.
Acton notes that a shoulder of lamb should be carved first a to b and then c to d. A leg of lamb, on the other hand, should be “sliced, rather thick and thin as directed by the line between a and b”—in other words, vertically, against the grain. But Acton made an exception when “fanciful eaters” wanted “the underside of the joint laid uppermost, and carved quite across the middle, for the sake of the finely grained meat”.
How many eaters today would think to ask for the finely grained meat on Easter Sunday? And even if they did, how many cooks would know how to oblige them?
When I said I was making ‘boiled mutton’ for supper, my teenager suddenly announced there was a good film on and he might go out. I, too, had visions of congealed sheep fat and greasy water. But boiled mutton is such a feature of Victorian cookbooks that I was curious to see what it was actually like. Victorian roast mutton is impossible to do in a modern kitchen—even if you can get the mutton—because you need an open fire and a spit. What we call ‘roasting’ in an oven would have been a strange sort of baked meat to our ancestors.
While I was pondering boiled mutton, I happened to be browsing one of my favourite modern cookbooks—Mamushka by Olia Hercules—and I realised that cooking lamb or mutton in water with plenty of green herbs is still considered a delicious method in Ukraine, and elsewhere. This gave me hope.
After two hours of simmering with parsley, thyme and tarragon plus shallots stuck with cloves, the meat was surprisingly tender and sweet. More to the point, Acton’s carving method—up-down in thick slices—worked perfectly.
My starting point was Acton’s recipe for boiled leg of mutton with tongue and turnips (subtitled “an excellent receipt”) from the 1860 edition of her book, but I used lamb instead of mutton. Acton described the smoked tongue garnish as an “innovation” so I ditched it with a clear conscience. The other changes I made were to use tarragon in place of winter savoury and to reduce the cooking time of the vegetables (we don’t appreciate a 2 hour cooked carrot quite as the Victorians do).
Click here to find Bee's variation on Eliza Acton's recipe