Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Outstanding and Outdated: Beef Tea

1900 Bovril advertisement, per the Victoria and Albert Museum

This post represents what I hope will be an ongoing series called Outstanding and Outdated, an idiosyncratic history of drinks. Please feel free to suggest drinks you'd like to hear about!

Upon eating some delicious beef stew tonight, I was recalled to some experiments I had once made in preparing beef tea. The ubiquitous Victorian food of invalids had long piqued my curiosity. So I bravely took lots of beef and double-boiled it and found it fairly bland and uninspiring.

In terms of cook books, beef tea seems to first appear in 1861's Book of Household Management. There Mrs. Beeton explains that the tea is “to be administered to those invalid to whom flavoring and seasonings are not allowed” (unlucky people!).

In 1870, Napoleon III ordered beef to feed his troops, and a Scotsman created Johnston's Fluid Beef, later called Bovril. This was and is the most popular commercial beef tea in production and it remains an iconic part of British culinary heritage today.

The New York Times in 1880 apparently had so many inquiries that related to beef tea that they decided to devote a special column to the matter. There we read that beef tea is entirely composed of gelatine and that humans cannot derive sustenance from gelatine. The author instead recommended taking some commercial beef tea and then adding to it meat and water to make...homemade beef tea.

Beef tea, which is nowadays pretty much exclusively Bovril, has strong associations with British football culture, as a beverage for fans to enjoy on a cold morning in the stands. It has mainly lost its early associations with invalidism and is nowadays made at home only by anachronistic food enthusiasts like myself.

You can find Mrs Beeton's recipe here.

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