BEEF WELLINGTON ORIGIN AND HISTORY
Food For Thought - August 19, 2009 Mark R. Vogel - Epicure1@optonline.net - Mark’s Archive
The Duke of Wellington
It was Sunday June 18th 1815, about a mile south of the small village of Waterloo in what is now modern day Belgium. Approximately 190,000 men fought one of the most epic battles of the modern era. Napoleon Bonaparte had been defeated the year prior. Abdicating his throne he was exiled to the island of Elba. In March of 1815 he returned to Paris and reclaimed his crown for a period known as the “hundred days.” His previous enemies were determined to nip Napoleon redux in the bud. The seventh coalition, an amalgamation of numerous European countries and states amassed their armies. Gebhard von Blucher commanded the Prussian forces while Field Marshall Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, presided over a British army and its Anglo allies. It was not Napoleon’s finest hour. In fact, historians agree that he failed to display the tactical brilliance which highlighted his previous reign. When all was said and done nearly 50,000 men were dead or wounded, the French army was in tatters, and Napoleon was once again forced into exile, this time for the rest of his life.
Wellesley was awarded the title Duke of Wellington in 1814 after Napoleon’s first dethroning. After Waterloo came more accolades and advancement including the Prime Ministership. Even the culinary world sought to immortalize him with the classic dish that would bare his name: Beef Wellington.
Beef Wellington is a beef tenderloin encased in a pastry crust and cooked. Like so many classic recipes, where and when the dish was first created is a quagmire. France, England, Ireland, and even Africa have been sited as possible birthplaces. My vote goes to France. Wrapping meat in pastry was certainly not a novel idea in 1815. The French already had such a dish in their culinary repertoire known as “filet de boeuf en croûte.” Someone, somewhere merely rechristened it “beef Wellington” in honor of Wellesley.
Even the exact ingredients are up for debate. It appears that this recipe started off as nothing more than the beef wrapped in a simple dough, inevitably just flour and water. At some point puff pastry was substituted for the basic dough. Puff pastry is very labor-intensive. It involves distributing cold butter between layers of dough, then folding the dough over and rolling it out. This process is repeated numerous times until a multi-stratified dough of flour and butter is produced. When baked, the melting butter releases steam and “puffs” the pastry by separating the numerous flaky layers. Most home cooks eschew the drudgery of making puffed pastry from scratch and opt for the frozen, pre-made counterpart.
Continuing with the ingredients, eventually beef Wellington was augmented by topping the meat with foie gras and duxelles before wrapping it with the pastry. Foie gras is the decadently unctuous liver of fattened ducks and geese. It is sublimely rich, delicious and expensive. Duxelles is a mixture of chopped mushrooms, shallots, and herbs, cooked in butter. Unless you’re dining in a truly preeminent establishment, you’re unlikely to find beef Wellington containing foie gras. Usually it is just omitted or in some cases replaced with some other type of liver pate such as chicken liver which is basically a sacrilege. Chicken livers aren’t even a shadow of foie gras. Below is my recipe for pork Wellington. I employ the moniker “Wellington” somewhat loosely here since 1) I’m utilizing pork instead of beef, 2) I omitted the liver, and 3) I’m adding spinach to the mix. In any event, if you want the “real” thing, substitute beef tenderloin and swap the spinach for foie gras.
PORK WELLINGTON RECIPE
• 8 oz. mushrooms, chopped
• 2-3 shallots, chopped
• Olive oil, as needed
• Thyme, either freshly chopped or dried, to taste
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 6 oz. baby spinach
• 1 pork tenderloin, cleaned and trimmed of excess fat and silver skin
• 1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
• All purpose flour, as needed
• 1 egg, beaten
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
Sauté the mushrooms and shallots in olive oil with some thyme, salt, and pepper until the mushrooms are browned. Begin adding the spinach in batches until wilted. Add a little water and deglaze the pan, scraping the caramelized bits off the bottom. Simmer on low for a few minutes to evaporate the water. Use only enough water to deglaze and simmer most, if not all of it off. The mixture should not be oozing liquid. Remove the mixture from the heat, reserve and allow to cool.
Butterfly the pork tenderloin and place on a cutting board. Place plastic wrap over the meat and with a mallet, pound the tenderloin flat to a width of about nine inches. Season the meat with thyme, salt and pepper.
On a separate cutting board, sprinkle some flour and begin rolling out the puff pastry, flipping, adding more flour and rolling as necessary. It should be a couple of inches longer and wider than the meat.
Place the meat in the center of the puff pastry. Spread the mushroom and spinach mixture over the meat leaving about a one inch border of meat all around the outside perimeter. Begin rolling the dough around the pork and filling. Halfway through tuck in the ends and finish rolling. If the ends become undone simply pinch them closed.
Brush the pastry with some beaten egg.
Place on a baking sheet in the oven for 25 minutes or until the center reaches at least 140 degrees on a meat thermometer.
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