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Beef Wellington: a dangerously thrilling dish

Beef Wellington: a dangerously thrilling dish

Only the brave should attempt to serve this rich concoction, named after Napoleon’s nemesis

Only the brave should attempt to serve this rich concoction, named after Napoleon’s nemesis

Josie Delap | January 22nd 2019

“Look, we’ve got oysters Rockefeller, beef Wellington, Napoleons…we leave this lunch alone, it’ll take over Europe,” exclaimed “Mad Men”’s Roger Sterling, the silveriest of foxes to Joan Holloway, the most explosive of bombshells, in a hotel room. In fact, his cry is a sign of just how successful the invasion from Europe was. In the middle of the 20th century beef Wellington, a thoroughly European dish, overran American dining tables and even breached the walls of the White House. Its precise origins, however, remain hazy.

Beef Wellington, a tender fillet wrapped in pastry, is named after Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, vanquisher of Napoleon, prime minister of Britain and populariser of the eponymous rubber boot. But his role in the creation of the rich concoction is a mystery. Did it fuel his battles against the French? Was it devised to commemorate his victory at Waterloo? Was it connected to him at all? By the time he was thrashing the French, at the end of the 19th century, Britain had a well-established tradition of wrapping meat in pastry. Beef Wellington is more elaborate and luxurious than a Cornish pasty but it is fundamentally still steak with a pastry case. And for all Britain’s patriotic pride in the dish, France has its own rich history of filet de boeuf en croûte.

Whether it was the hint of the British aristocracy or the whiff of French sophistication, American hostesses of the 1960s embraced beef Wellington with alacrity. Julia Child included it in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. The Kennedys and Richard Nixon were such fans that it was included in the White House’s cookbook. Add in the cost of the ingredients and the dangerous thrill of a dish where the cook cannot be sure they have prevailed until the moment it is served, and aspirational hosts have their menu.

The fillet of beef, browned and smeared with mustard, is the star despite being notably short on flavour. The cut does, however, provide the necessary tenderness to avoid any disagreeably chewy contrast with the pastry. The savouriness of the dish comes from everything else. Slabs of foie gras, seared and plonked on top of the beef. Mushrooms duxelles, finely minced champignons and shallots, seasoned with thyme, fried down in a mixture of butter and oil (the former for flavour, the latter because its smoke point is higher). Many include a layer of pork – pancetta or better still, prosciutto (the thin sheets are more in keeping with the textures of the beef fillet and the pastry) – to bring a little fat to the lean fillet.

The pitfalls for anyone attempting a beef Wellington are overcooked beef and soggy pastry. Once sealed, chilling the meat before the final bake helps to avoid the former. To ensure that the pastry – usually puff – remains crisp, the key is to remove as much liquid as possible from the other ingredients. Cooking down the mushrooms until they are dry is crucial. Those who suggest adding a layer of spinach, notoriously watery, play a risky game. A pancake (or crêpe, depending which back story you prefer) wrapped around the filling is said by many to soak up the meat juices but can make the whole thing unnecessarily stodgy. A layer of filo pastry, much thinner, is a plausible alternative. Wrap the beef in a sheet of puff pastry, paint it with an egg wash, put it in the oven at a high temperature and cross your fingers. And as you serve, take courage from the words of the Iron Duke: “The only thing I am afraid of is fear.”