Watch: Why is Spiced Beef so… Cork, like?

Why is Spiced Beef so... Cork, like? That’s the question KATE RYAN ponders as she takes a step back in time to look at where our love for the meat came from
Watch: Why is Spiced Beef so… Cork, like?

Tom Durcan at Cork's English Market. Picture: Eddie O'Hare. Video by Dan Linehan

NOTHING shouts Christmas more to a Corkonian than the prospect of some festive Spiced Beef!

But, in a land where bacon rules, where did our love and fascination for salt and spice cured beef come from?

Not to get immediately political about it, but we can trace its origins back to a group of very wealthy, but very unhappy landowners in – that’s right – Britain!

Cows have been a feature of the Irish landscape since as far back as the earliest written accounts. There are ancient Irish folklore tales, such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge, magical cows imbued with power, cattle raids on enormous herds were a frequent occurrence for sport, rites of passage or a display of power and prowess by lords newly emboldened with status and lands.

But mostly, cattle were reared for trade with our nearest isle; bred then exported live to Britain to fatten on vast, lush grasslands. Ireland was very good at it – too good in fact; and in a rare show of 17th century political unity, wealthy British landlords backed a series of Bills and Acts of Parliament which resulted in the 1666 Cattle Act. This taxed Irish cattle breeders and wealthy Anglo-Irish landlords to such an extent that trade in live exportation of Irish cattle to England, Scotland and Wales was effectively banned.

This action sought to undermine Ireland’s growing prosperity and peace. Solicitor General, Heneage Finch, spoke against such measures in 1663, telling Parliament that approving the Cattle Bill would be to ‘publish to ye whole world that wee had rather hate Ireland than improve it.’

Two years of immense hardship followed. Soon came the realisation that, if Ireland was to raise from the ashes, it would have to beat Britain at its own game, remodelling its agricultural practices from just a cattle breeding colony to a powerhouse of breeding, fattening, and processing.

Success followed, particularly in Cork, and a booming industry sprang up in the city provisioning French and Dutch ships with salted meats, but also British ships destined for colonies in the West Indies. Ships sailed into Cork to collect these provisions, or provisions were exported from here to foreign harbours.

Cork was the largest and busiest port in Ireland, and its stock and trade was salted and barrelled beef – ideal for long trans-Atlantic journeys on wind-powered ships.

 Tom Durcan at Cork's English Market.
 Tom Durcan at Cork's English Market.

As Cork salt-cured beef found its way to the West Indies, so did sugar and spices arrive to Cork from the West Indies. Such exoticisms were out of the reach of poor and labouring classes – only the wealthy could enjoy sugar with their tea, and cakes sweetened with sugar and spice on a regular basis.

The exception came at Christmas time. Beef, rarely eaten by the ordinary people of Cork, was reserved for special feast days, namely St Patrick’s Day, Easter, and Christmas; but only for the festive celebrations were spices added to salt to cure and flavour the beef.

All year, Corkonians were familiar with the taste of salt: bacon flitches and salted fish on fast days. Only when a pig was slaughtered was there the chance of fresh meat such as pork steak, offal and of course blood (or black) puddings, such as Drisheen. But, for the most special time of the year, the heady aroma and taste of spices from a land far, far away was cause for much excitement and anticipation.

The traditional way to cook spiced beef, by boiling in a pot of water, was borne out of practicality long ago when, for many, cooking was simplistic but effective - a large pot kept over an open fire.

And that’s how Spiced Beef became known as a Cork tradition and is still synonymous with our city today, even though it’s known all over the country and enjoyed year-round too.

Butchers prepare spiced beef to their own secret blend of spices, but one man in particular, Tom Durcan, has become something of a figurehead for Cork Spiced Beef, winning many awards for it – including a clutch of Blas na hEireann food awards, and the 2021 Irish Food Writers’ Guild Award.

I asked Tom, when Christmas comes around in the Durcan household, what is his fool-proof tip for cooking up a festive treat of Spiced Beef.

“It’s been a part of Cork’s food tradition for so many years, and now we just love the smell and taste of spiced beef,” says Tom, who seems delighted at the thought of people all over Ireland enjoying the fine taste of spiced beef.

“First of all, start with good quality beef. Quality meat doesn’t need a lot of cooking – 40 minutes per kilo is enough. Some people cook it in stout, but I say, drink the stout and eat the beef!” Sound advice.

As Cork salt-cured beef found its way to the West Indies, so did sugar and spices arrive to Cork from the West Indies.

Video: Shot by Dan Linehan and interview by Mostafa Darwish.

For more Christmas recipes, see here 

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