Making a feast of it

THE OFM (Observer Food Magazine) Awards are one of the country’s leading food and drink awards, along with the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme awards – based on reader/listener recommendations and votes, expert visits and interviews and contemporary concerns, the OFM awards recognise everything from best new cookbook to best value eats to best place to drink (this year’s winner is the Ginger Viking in Blandford!)

The value of these two award schemes (and I know what I am talking about, because for some years I ran respected and successful food awards in Dorset and Somerset) is that they are not linked to advertising, unlike many other food and drink competitions. So they should inspire confidence.

One of this year’s winners is Queen o’t’owd Thatch at South Milford near Selby in Yorkshire, for Best Sunday Lunch. Chef Kirsty Cheetham sources excellent meat, makes her own broths for the different gravies and is famed for the quality (and size) of her Yorkshire puddings.

When they took over the pub, nine years ago, Kirsty and her partner, pub manager Annie French, had the ambition to win the OFM Sunday Lunch award, which they did in 2018. In the intervening years Kirsty’s roasts have been runners up – now, with 2022’s second victory tucked in her apron pocket, she and Annie will be hoping to make it a triple.

The article about the pair and their success compares their attitude to other chefs, “who may dismiss [Sunday roasts] as a piffling domestic dish for ageing diners.” It’s a harsh comment, but not wholly wrong – newspaper food pages and restaurant reviews often refer to the traditional Sunday roast as something that is old-fashioned and waning in popularity.

The full car parks outside some pubs in our area might give the lie to that, but the quality of the food can be variable. It is obvious that what distinguishes the Queen’s team from many others is their skill, knowledge and love. They always have their own roast dinner – even after serving 100 or more covers on a busy Sunday!

The truth about Sunday roasts is not that people don’t want them any more, it’s that a lot of people don’t have the time, or perhaps lack the confidence or the skill and experience, or just can’t afford to make them. A “proper” roast lunch (or dinner) is not an easy thing to achieve – it needs, in no particular order, excellent meat, the right potatoes to get that desired crunchy outside and meltingly fluffy inside, a selection of vegetables that are all crisp and delicious, no matter how different their required cooking methods … and, of course, gravy. I could add Yorkshire pudding, because nowadays many pubs and restaurants serve “Yorkies” with all their roasts.

The other essential of a roast lunch is getting the timing right – and perhaps that is the hardest thing of all. If you grew up in a family where everyone sat down together, at least, for Sunday lunch if not everyday supper, you might have absorbed the timing in your DNA, helping your mother to prepare the vegetables, watching her check the meat and keep an eye on the clock for the various stages. It is complicated, no question. The results (fingers crossed, things can go wrong) are unfailingly welcomed by friends and family. But it does take organisation, experience – and a bit of luck (no unexpected callers, lengthy phone calls or power cuts!)

That leisurely lunch, beginning with drinks and chat, ending with coffee, if not something stronger, lasting well into the afternoon, and maybe followed by a brisk walk with the dogs (or snoozing with the television burbling in the background), was how we grew up and is a tradition we share with many friends, including vegetarians who enjoy all the “two (or more) veg and trimmings” even if they don’t touch the meat and gravy.

We are now only a few shopping days away from the biggest “Sunday” lunch of the year – Christmas (if you are American, you have had yours at Thanksgiving) – and the papers will be full of gloom and doom about boring, dry turkey, offering alternatives, drawing on influences as diverse as Korean, Mexican, Ukrainian or Nigerian. It’s all good – these days Christmas is essentially a magpie celebration, drawing together people from many different religious, cultural and culinary traditions. We can accommodate everything from marinading the turkey breast in gochujang to serving a vegetarian roast with joloff rice.

The centrepiece of the meal may be a turkey, a goose, a haunch of venison, a massive rib of beef, a whole salmon or individual roast and stuffed Crown Prince squashes – the principle remains the same: it is a feast, a banquet for the senses and a celebration of community, family, friendship and seasonal spirits.

Whether you have your Sunday roast in a pub or your festive feast round your own table, a firepit in the garden or on your knees because you don’t have a big table – it is about sharing and love. And perhaps that is the real secret of what Kirsty and Annie do … share the love.

We wish you a wonderful festive season, with good food and good company.

Fanny Charles