Not for the faint hearted, Beef Wellington is the kind of dish that instantly crowns you a Conquering King or Queen of all you survey…
A dish worthy of the grandest occasions, yet somehow down-to-earth enough that any day can be a good day for Beef Wellington, provided someone else is doing the cooking! There are, of course, variations, but at Topaz we make ours with the finest beef fillet, then add layers of foie gras and mushroom duxelles, and wrap it all up in the crisp deliciousness of puff pastry. Beef Wellington is a dish that comes together to create a very homely sort of luxury, with comfort, refinement and deep, luxuriously rich flavours all wrapped up and ready to be devoured, elegantly of course.
Beef Wellington’s origins remain clouded in mystery though. It is generally agreed that the dish is named after Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington, the man who oversaw the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815, thereby bringing an end to 12 years of the Napoleonic Wars. Certainly, decisive battlefield victory deserves something splendid to be named in your honour, however cookbooks from the time make no mention of the dish at all. Perhaps the dedication to Wellington was more of a social than formal designation. On the other hand, the practice of wrapping meats in pastry was common at the time, in England as in France, thanks to a fashion for un-browned meat. Perhaps it was so widespread that writing it down in a cookbook may have been considered akin to including an entry for boiling an egg. However, the addition of mushrooms and pâté or foie gras, and the use of puff pastry instead of a simple flour and water mix are certainly refinements that should have been worthy of mention. In fact, not a single recipe for the dish in its current form appears anywhere until the 1940s, in America.
Moreover, while much of the debate ranges around whether the dish is really French or English in origin, one theory holds that it is in fact Irish. Andrew Wellesley, who went on to become the Duke of Wellington was born in Dublin to an aristocratic family who formed part of the Protestant Ascendancy that dominated Irish political and cultural life at the time.
A reference to it appears in Irish Traditional Food, a collection of Irish recipes from the 16th to the 20th century put together by the legendary food-scholar Theodora Fitzgibbon.
There is a certain delicious irony in such an intricate and grand dish being named for Wellington, a man who famously doused almost everything he ate in vinegar, to the despair of his French chef. The chef, a man named Felix, finally resigned declaring that even if Wellington were 1000 times a hero, his habits and general disinterest in food would cause Felix’s genius to die, even if his body might live to tell the tale.
At the site of the Battle of Waterloo, there now sits an artificial hill topped by a stone lion, a symbol of Wellington’s Allied Army. So even if the real connection between Wellington and Beef Wellington might be lost in the mists of time, we know one thing: it’s unquestionably a dish fit for the lions of this world.