The Fascinating History of the Traditional Sunday Roast

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Aussies love a good roast. The Sunday roast tradition is all about sitting down to a big meal of veggies, gravy and roast meat with your family to reconnect after a long week.

But how did this tradition begin?

The history of the Sunday roast stretches all the way back to 15th Century Britain.

Here’s how it all started.

The British origins of the Sunday roast

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It’s widely believed that the British people’s love of beef began during the reign of King Henry the VII in 1485. His Yeomen Warders – the royal guard – would eat fresh roasted beef every Sunday after church, and it’s suggested that this became such a ritual that the guards were affectionately referred to as “beefeaters”. Considering that by the 19th century, the recommended weekly intake of beef for an English person – royal guard or simple villager – was said to be about 3 kg, the term “beefeater” was rather apt.

Throughout the Industrial Age, almost every household would pop a roast on before heading to church on a Sunday. It had become an act with a kind of religious and social importance to it. The nobility would hang an entire animal on a spit in front of a huge fireplace and slowly roast it, while those who could not afford the larger cuts of meat, let alone a fireplace, would drop off a more modest cut to their local baker en route to church. The baker would use their empty bread ovens to cook the meat and hand it back to the villagers in time for lunch.

No doubt in those times this was the best meal anybody had all week (which may explain why they ate it over and again as leftovers in stews, pies and as cold cuts), and why the Sunday roast became such an important part of the week. Today, people in the UK are said to still eat approximately 1.5 kg of meat each week – only 200g of which is beef.

The Australian sunday roast

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Much like driving on the left-hand side of the road, we can thank our British ancestors for our love of the Sunday roast. We adopted their ritual, yet our meat of choice is often a juicy cut of lamb, along with some gravy and mint sauce. We even broadcast ads confessing our undying love for lamb, such as the iconic 1990 TV commercial featuring Naomi Watts who dissed a date with Tom Cruise to make it to her family’s Sunday roast.

Watch that video here:

There’s even more star-studded and up-to-date versions of our lamb ads, like this 2016 ad about bringing Aussies home for some lamb on Australia Day:

Our Sunday roast remains a dish that’s treated as something special – a meal that takes time and care to prepare and one that should be consumed at a dinner table rather than wolfed down in front of the TV. And because of this added pressure, cooking the perfect roast is all the more important.

Tips on cooking a traditional roast

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Although a Sunday roast is essentially “meat and three veg”, cooking the meat ‘just right’ can be quite daunting. However, there are a few simple solutions for doing it well.

1. Find the right cut

Firstly, and most importantly, you need the right cut of meat and this can be found at your local butcher or wholesaler. If you’re cooking beef, choose a tender cut with a fair amount of fat either marbled throughout the meat, or as a thick layer on one side. Go for cuts from the rib (prime, rib-eye), the loin (strip loin, tenderloin) and the rump area. If lamb is on the menu, choose anything other than the shank or neck. A good roast chicken is also an option, as is a roast pork leg with crackling on top (though this is hard to perfect!).

2. Cook the meat to perfection

The hardest thing about cooking a roast is judging the time it takes, and the best way to do this is to use a meat thermometer. With both beef and lamb, let the meat reach room temperature before putting it in the oven so that it cooks evenly. If using beef, place it on a rack in a shallow roasting pan to create air flow. Turn it so that the layer of fat is on the top, and the meat will baste itself. Start with the oven around 200°C and constantly check your progress with a meat thermometer, making sure you’re not testing the meat near the bone. A rare roast will be 60°C, medium will be 65-70°C and well-done is 75-80°C.

With lamb, you want a crisp, brown skin and juicy, pink interior so crank the heat up to 230°C for ten minutes, then reduce to 180°C. Again, the only way to truly check if your meat is ready is to use a thermometer. If it’s medium-rare you’re after, a good guide is 25 minutes cooking time per kilo of meat. Finally, allow the lamb to rest, wrapped loosely in foil for another 10-30 minutes after taking out of the oven.

For a roast pork, preheat the oven to 220°C. Rub the skin with oil and sea salt and roast for 30 minutes, then reduce the head to 200°C and roast for a further 30 minutes. Pork should be cooked to about 70°C.

3. Choose your sides

Great accompaniments for your meat include gravy, roast potatoes, carrots, parsnips and other root vegetables, and steamed greens such as green beans or peas. Broccoli and cauliflower with white sauce and cheese is another favourite, or you could go for a traditional British roast and make a few Yorkshire puddings.

Where to find Australia’s best roasts

If you’d prefer to ditch the kitchen and dine out for a Sunday roast, you’re in luck. We’ve put together a list of the most hearty, mouthwatering roasts from some of our partner restaurants around Australia.

Sydney, Pilu at Freshwater

Moore Road, Freshwater, NSW, 2096

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Probably best known for their traditional, Sardinian cuisine, Pilu at Freshwater also boast one of Sydney’s best roasts. Pilu take great care in using the highest quality local, seasonal ingredients, and this dish is no different. Pilu’s Porcetto arrosto is a generous, 12 kg serving of a free range roasted suckling pig, sourced from Melanda Park in the Hawkesbury region. The pork is roasted at several different temperatures in order to achieve the most mouth-watering, crispy crackling, making it one of the best roasts you can find in Sydney.

Melbourne, Neighbourhood Wine

1 Reid St, Fitzroy North VIC 3068

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With it’s rich palate of red surfaces, brocade wall decor and timber antique furnishings, Neighbourhood Wine provides the perfect setting to enjoy a traditional sunday roast amongst friends. For a mere $35 you can enjoy a hearty, three-course roast served with the best seasonal produce available (the ingredients will change slightly week-to-week), every Sunday from lunchtime until 5pm.

Middleton, Blue’s Restaurant

Main Goolwa Road, Middleton, SA 5213

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Located on the beautiful Fleurieu Peninsular, Blues Restaurant is renowned for its exquisite cuisine, fine wines and warm and inviting atmosphere. When you visit Blue’s, you can expect nothing short of excellence – Co Owner/ Head Chef Kevin Tonglee brings his 25 years experience to the kitchen, so you’ll surely be impressed by the high quality of food on offer. Specialising in Modern Australian cuisine, they always source the freshest local produce and consistently serve indulgent and delicious dishes. If it’s a roast you’re after, you can enjoy a beef fillet upon a macadamia nut and parsnip puree, accompanied by button mushrooms, honey roasted carrots, a herb salsa and a Shiraz jus.

Brisbane, Eves on the River

53 Vernon Terrace, Newstead QLD 4006

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One of Brisbane’s most popular restaurants, Eves has been part of the Teneriffe community for more than 10 years. Featuring seasonal menus that rely on quality, local produce, Eves is in the perfect spot overlooking the Brisbane river, where you can enjoy a succulent roast lamb. Here you can enjoy delicious Victorian lamb shoulder, service with garlic crushed potatoes, seasonal greens, mint sauce and a red wine jus.

Keeping traditions alive

The tradition of the Sunday roast as a large, sit down meal with the family is certainly not as regular as it used to be. With so many Australians living away from their families or being too time-poor to spend a day cooking and eating, the ritual of the at-home Sunday roast has been somewhat lost. But with so many restaurants around Australia serving up delicious roasts any day of the week, it’s easy to keep this tradition alive. It might just be time to reinvigorate an old tradition, turn off the mobiles, and reconnect over a juicy roast – whether it’s on a Sunday or not.

Know someone who loves a good roast? Next time you’re after a gift, try a Good Food Gift Card so your friend or loved one can enjoy one of Australia’s best Sunday roasts at one of our partner restaurants mentioned above. Giving the gift of a bit of tradition couldn't be easier.

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Mireille Kilgour

Mireille Kilgour

Mireille Kilgour has been an entrepreneur for 35 years in the hospitality sector. French born, she has been an accomplished business owner and operator for a number of Sydney venues. Leading the industry with high profile institutions such as Lamrock Café Bondi, she has endless passion for the industry, and now has the pleasure of supporting restaurants to fill their tables with the new Good Food Gift Card program.