Having read Miss South’s glowing write-up before my latest visit to her, I was keen to read through Niamh Shields‘ “Comfort & Spice” cookbook. I sped read as much as possible in a short time, and one of the (many) wonderful recipes which caught my eye was Spiced Beef: an Irish dish which is traditionally served cold over the Christmas period. We’d normally have a decent-sized cold cut in the house over the holiday period, often the Coca Cola Ham which we wrote about last year.
However I can only remember having spiced beef once, when our mum brought back joint from the butcher. She’d fondly mentioned it from her childhood, but this shop-bought version was memorably unmemorable. So I’ve always wanted to make proper spiced beef from scratch, and Niamh’s recipe provided the perfect excuse to give it a go this year. I alternate between spending Christmas in the north of England, and returning to Belfast, and this year I was in Manchester with my girlfriend and her family. Having something which brought a taste of Ireland to the table was important to me… and having a cold joint to be able to pick and nibble at is always a bonus.
Spiced beef isn’t a complicated dish, but it does require some patience, preparation… and an ingredient which wasn’t available to the general public in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, which curtailed its consumption when we were growing up. Saltpetre aka potassium nitrate was a controlled substance, as it’s a key constituent of black powder (gunpowder). I’m not sure if it’s still verboten: I was lucky enough to be given some for this recipe by a friend. Saltpetre’s one of those relatively unknown but essential compounds on which the modern world has been built; used for fertiliser, food preservation, an oxiding agent for gunpowder and fireworks amongst other uses.*
I ordered the Christmas meat in advance from Stansfield’s in Todmorden Market – the centrepiece of our Christmas meal was leg of venison – but Paul always has good beef and I picked up a weighty brisket form him last weekend.
Irish Spiced Beef (from Comfort & Spice)
- 2kg beef brisket off the bone
The curing mix:
- 1tsp allspice
- 1tsp cloves
- 1tsp fresh nutmeg
- 1tsp mace
- 75g soft brown sugar
- 10g saltpetre
- 100g sea salt
Combine all the ingredients for the curing mix and rub all over the brisket. Sterilise with boiling water a non metallic pot or plastic container into which the beef will fit snugly. Add the beef, cover and store in the fridge for eight days, turning daily and basting with any juices.
Wipe off the excess marinade and cover the beef with water in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for two hours. Allow to cool and serve over the festive period as you would a ham.
First step: make the curing mix. I closely followed Niamh’s ingredients, with a couple of minor tweaks. I used Muscovado sugar, as I love its rich, sticky, almost smoky rawness. I also raided my extensive selection of salts to create a posh mix which would hopefully play up the strengths of the beef and spices, using Maldon Smoked Sea Salt, Guerande Grey Sea Salt, and Carmargue Fleur de Sel. Every recipe I’ve seen for dry-curing meat stresses that the quality of the salt is imperative, and they looked beautiful ranged on the plate too.
I ground the whole allspice, nutmegs and cloves together, together with a cheeky tablespoon of mixed peppercorns to add a little bit more warmth to the mix. Then I combined the salt, sugar and saltpetre in a bowl, make a good stiff mix. The aroma was stunning: if you’re ever looking for a sure-fire way to enfuse your home with the sweet, aromatic and suggestive hints of winter, this really is it. It’s even better with a cockle-warming glass of hot port to aid the cook’s concentration!
I sterilised a tupperware container, and placed the cured meat in it, sealing it tightly and placing it in the fridge. With six days between the initial preparation and Christmas Eve, the only requirements were to gently spoon and baste the spiced liquids over the joint daily. You’ll find a fair amount of juice will be drawn out of the meat by the cure. I tried my best to disturb as little of the spiced coating as possible, wanting to let the power of the spices permeate properly through the meat.
On Christmas Eve we simmered the beef for a couple of hours, before letting it cool (patience is a virtue) and cautiously cutting a few slices off for a Christmas Eve nibble. As you can see, the beef had held its vivid rose hue thanks to the saltpetre, and the flavour was quite wonderful: warming, comforting and so tender. Paired with wholegrain mustard mixed into some mayo, and ranged with gherkins, this was a perfect sandwich: almost the Irish equivalent of New York pastrami. We didn’t leave any out for Father Christmas though, as it proved way too popular with everyone who tasted it.
I’d also decided to have the Irish-themed starter on Christmas Day revolve around the spiced beef: after a night in the fridge the meat was even easier to thinly slice, and I plated it up with a small toasted piece of soda bread, a dab of redcurrant jelly, some cubes of Cashel Blue cheese, and a lightly dressed selection of watercress, rocket and baby spinach leaves. Everything worked well together: the sweetness of the jelly complementing the sharpness and warmth of the mustard vinaigrette, pepperiness of the rocket, the crisp of the bread… and of course that succulent, aromatic and oh-so tender beef. Needless to say, we’ve been cutting cheeky slices off the joint ever since, as it’s perfect for snacking and sating our cravings for seasonal cold meats.
Thanks to Niamh aka @Eatlikeagirl for allowing us to reproduce the above: it’s a brilliant encapsulation of a traditional Irish recipe, and doesn’t suggest any of the adulterations which crop up in many US-oriented traditional ‘Oirish’ recipes. We’ve recommended it before and we’ll do it again… buy Comfort & Spice and make your kitchen a happier, better place!
*Update. This still remains a firm festive favourite dish in our family. The last couple of years I’ve not used saltpetre as part of the cure, as there’s increasing awareness of the potential health risks associated with nitrites used in processed or preserved meats. Without the saltpetre acting as a colour fixative the spiced beef isn’t as rosy, but tastes just as good… and even a large 1.5kg joint rarely lasts more than a few days, so as long as you follow standard good practise for food hygiene, there’s no need for the preservative qualities of saltpetre. You may or may not chose to exclude saltpetre from the recipe when you make this dish.