The English Sunday Roast

The next stage in my ‘blog journey’ about British food lands me at our office’s second favourite dish. Ah yes, the Sunday Roast Dinner… Sunday Roast… Roast Dinner… so many names!

So what is it? Like the Full English Breakfast, it is a collection of different food items we ‘Brits’ like to bundle up and roast (not fry) together. It is eaten either at lunch or dinner time on a Sunday depending on your family’s eating habits or daily schedule. The basic concept of a Roast Dinner is simple; you get some meat, a selection of vegetables and side dishes and cook them in an oven (often together), then drench the whole thing with gravy and voila – you have yourself one very tasty meal.

“So what ingredients can I use then?” I hear you saying out-loud to your computer screen. Well, there are certain culinary rules (traditions) governing the list of ingredients / food that can be roasted. However, these rules are so long, complicated and numerous that these days, it is pretty much up to each individual chef what they want to dish up, meaning that it is possible to enjoy hundreds of different variations of this meal. Generally speaking though, a standard Roast Dinner will encompass most (if not all) of the following:

Step one – select your meat (normally pick one – but multiple options are acceptable too):

  • Chicken
  • Lamb (sheep)
  • Beef (cow)
  • Pork (pig)
  • Turkey (eaten on extra special occasions such as Christmas)
  • Gammon (similar to ham)
  • Duck or goose can also be eaten but this is much less common as these meats are both expensive and a little tricky to prepare.

Step two – select your vegetables (pick as many as you like):

  • Roast potatoes
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Leaks
  • Cauliflower (sometimes cooked in a cheese sauce to make ‘Cauliflower Cheese’)
  • Parsnips
  • Carrots
  • Green beans (also known as ‘runner beans’)
  • Peas
  • Swede and turnips can also be used but are less common.

Step three – select your accompaniment:

Traditionally, each meat has a selection of accompaniments which can only go with the selected meat, however in recent years these rules have broken down so it is possible to ‘mix and match’ accompaniments according to the chef’s discretion:

  • Chicken – pigs in blankets (sausages wrapped in bacon), stuffing, cranberry sauce
  • Pork – cracking (pig fat / skin cooked until its crispy), stuffing and apple sauce.
  • Lamb – mint sauce or jelly
  • Beef – Yorkshire puddings (a type of bread-like doe which is cooked in an oven until crispy), horseradish sauce (kind of like a English version of wasabi)

So now we know what a Roast Dinner is, let’s find out where it came from. As with the Full English breakfast, no one really knows. There are a couple of very convincing theories however, which I shall explain in further detail to you now.

The first is that the meal given its preparation time is around three to four hours, was a ideal meal to ‘pop in the oven’ before heading off to church on a Sunday. Your typical British family would return home around lunchtime and their Roast Dinner (lunch) would be ready to eat as a reward for their pious commitment to God. To add to this theory, many Christians would traditionally refrain from eating meat between Friday evening and Sunday morning. Not only did this give rise to the convention of eating fish on a Friday evening leading to another certain popular British dish (watch this space!), it also meant that by Sunday lunchtime, hungry church goers were ready to ‘break their meat fast’ and what better way to do it than by eating a full roast dinner with all the trimmings?

The second theory while perhaps a little more interesting, is however a little more far-fetched. It suggests that medieval village serfs (peasants) after working a six day week (and you thought you had a tough life),  would be rewarded by their local lord with a feast in the form of a medieval roast dinner. After eating a hearty meal, they would then be required to proceed to a nearby field to practise their ‘battle techniques’ should they ever be required to fight for their local lord - imagine doing that on a full stomach!


In terms of consumption frequency, unlike the Full English Breakfast, which can be (and sometimes is) eaten every day. The Roast Dinner has remained a once weekly dish; the very notion of eating a Roast Dinner on any other day except a Sunday is often treated with confusion or in some cases, mild distain by other British people. This is partly down to tradition and convention, which we ‘Brits’ still love to adhere to, but also because the dish takes a really long time to prepare, thus eating everyday would waste a lot of time and simply isn’t practical with modern day lifestyle!

Also, unlike the Full English Breakfast, the Roast dinner has been harder to export abroad. Despite the demand being there from British overseas expats, getting the ingredients in some countries as well getting hold of an oven to actually cook the dish can be very tricky. For example, in many countries such as China, the vast majority of food is either fried, boiled or steamed; therefore most households will only have basic cooking equipment. Despite the physical absence outside the UK, culturally, the dish has been much easier to export as a stereotype or a joke at British expense. In France, a translated variation of the name Roast Dinner – ‘(le) rosbif’ has even become a slang word for Britain or British people!

Are you interested in trying a proper Roast Dinner? It just so happens that all of our centres at Thames Valley Summer Schools will be serving a Roast Dinner once a week on… you guessed it, Sunday! So why not give it a try?

 10th May 2017 /    Alice /   

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