Virginia Woolf may have been a gourmet but she was no cook. The famous passage in To the Lighthouse describing the daube of beef is, quite simply, full of howlers. “Everything depended upon things being served up to the precise moment they were ready. The beef, the bay leaf, and the wine – all must be done to a turn. To keep it waiting was out of the question,” she asserted. How a bay leaf can be “done to a turn” is a conundrum at best: it is there to give its aroma and to be eventually discarded. The beef, and wine for that matter, are cooked for a very long time; the notion that any precision is required is erroneous. One of the many good things about a daube of beef is that it can wait around without coming to any harm whatsoever.
Of course, Mrs Woolf did not pretend to be a cook, any more than Mrs Ramsay did in the novel. In those days, the cook did the cooking and the hostess took the credit. “It is a French recipe of my grandmother’s,” she declares, as though possession of the recipe were grounds enough for the garnering of praise.
The actual cook was Marthe, Mrs Ramsay’s maid, and it is probable that the mysteries of the daube were as much her family heirloom as that of her mistress.
When investigating the daube, I resolved to make it exactly as most old recipes prescribe but as cooks never now do. Although To the Lighthouse is vague on the subject, the suggestion that Marthe spent three days making the dish implies a modern style of daube. Briefly put, this means that the meat was marinated with vegetables and red wine, subsequently removed from its marinade, dried off and then browned before being reunited and slowly braised and then, in all probability, separated again from this entourage and embellished with fresh ingredients – lardons, onions, mushrooms, olives and the like – before being served up.
C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la daube. This elaborate production is much more akin to a boeuf bourguignon than a daube. The real thing is terribly simple and yet far superior; even Mrs Ramsay might have been up to the work had she been able to locate her pinafore. Whether Mrs Woolf could have managed is perhaps more open to question.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
Daube de boeuf
I used beef cheek to great advantage. Shin would also work well or any stewing cut rich in collagen. Best cooked overnight. Serves 6-8.
150g unsmoked streaky bacon or pancetta, in a piece
50ml olive oil
1 large onion
1 large carrot
1 piece of orange peel
A few sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves
1.5kg of beef cheek
4 cloves garlic, split in two
750ml robust red wine, Côtes du Rhône or similar
A handful of black olives
• Remove the rind from the bacon and cut it into small squares. Cut the bacon itself into lardons 2cm long. Line the bottom of the casserole with the olive oil and then scatter the lardons on top. Peel the carrot and onion and then cut them into thin slices. Lay these on top of the lardons, together with the orange peel and herbs.
• Trim the meat, removing any external membranes and sinew, and then cut into large chunks of 80g-100g. Lay these pieces, close fitting, on top of the vegetables and intersperse the garlic in any gaps between the meat. Season the meat well with salt and pepper and then distribute the pieces of pork rind over the top.
• Bring the red wine to the boil in a separate saucepan and then pour this over the meat in the casserole. Add three tablespoons of water to the flour and work very well to form a strong dough. Roll this, sausage fashion, out to form a long coil that can be positioned around the rim of the pot before pushing the lid down very firmly to form a really strong seal. Place the daube in an 90C oven and leave to cook for 12 hours.
• Break the seal by chipping away with a knife. Inside the daube should be dark, deeply aromatic, the meat very yielding and the sauce clear and rich in flavour. Sprinkle the olives on top and replace the lid. Take to the table with rice, large pasta such as penne or with boiled or mashed potatoes.
Rowley’s drinking choice
A robust southern red is ideal: Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas or similar southern Rhônes if available.
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