There are thin lines of creamy fat running through the maroon flesh like a road map; a thicker layer wrapped around the outside and here and there oval islands of it, the colour of creme fraiche, set among the meat. This fat is crisp to the touch and plentiful; it is what will baste the meat as it cooks, infusing Sunday lunch with savour and succulence. Fat is what makes meat sexy.
I don't often buy a piece of beef, but every now and again it just feels like a beef day, when nothing else will do. And it really must, must be rare; cook it for longer and all sensuous, wanton pleasure is lost. You might as well roast your slippers. I salt and pepper a beef roast, but never add thyme or garlic or rosemary as I do to lamb, or fennel seed, lemon shells or juniper berries as I might to pork. A large joint of beef is unaffected by herbs, waving their subtleties away with a flick of the wrist. Other than a generous salt and peppering, good beef can pretty much speak for itself. The garlic, thyme branches and onions I put in the roasting tin are meant to benefit to the gravy, adding a herbal sweetness as they roast under the meat.
On the plate - and it must be a warm one - the slices of meat fall in velvet layers, a little juice trickling from each as the meat waits for someone to pass the accompaniments. Those juices must not be squandered, but should run into something they will enrich with their savour - a pile of mashed swede the colour of winter candlelight, the frayed crust of a roast potato or a puree of parsnip.
On every plate is a patch where the juices from the beef and a gentle (and probably sloppy) accompaniment melt together to form a little island of bliss. It is a small but intense puddle of pleasure no one could bear to give away. My own Sunday roast involves the meat juices merging sexily with the sweet golden cream from a side order of pommes a la Dauphinoise, or maybe a more contemporary recipe using beetroot or parsnip instead of potato.
I tend to throw my meat in at the deep end, giving it a baptism of fire at 220C/gas 7, then softening the heat to let it carry on at a more leisurely pace. Others prefer to use a more sedate heat all the way through. My way brings about a joint that sports a crisp crust of fat and flesh of a buttery tenderness that I feel honours the meat. Of course, everything depends on the animal itself, and a bargain basement joint will give you a bargain basement result. One of the side-effects of eating beef only occasionally is that when I do I can spend a king's ransom and feel not one gram of guilt. (The payback is that we will have some penny-pinching little lentil dish at least twice next week.)
And if I am to eat beef, it will come with its bones. Nothing will add succulence to a piece of beef like a bone. No amount of marinating, basting, seasoning or massaging can make up for the fact you took the easy-carve route and left the magic ingredient at the butcher's. I have the carving ability of a hungry Rottweiler, but no one will really notice the shambolic presentation once they get the ruby flesh and crusty fat into their mouths.
Roast double rib of beef
Serves 4, with leftovers
a two-rib piece of beef, about 2.5kg
a little oil
2 medium to large onions
a few sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves
125mls red wine, Madeira or Marsala
Heat the oven to 220C/gas mark 7. Rub the beef all over with olive oil (I use dripping if I have it) then salt and pepper it. Peel and thickly slice the onions and put them into a heavy roasting tin, tuck in the thyme stems and the bay leaves. Put the meat on top of the onions and roast for 30 minutes.
Lower the heat to 160C/gas mark 3. Let the beef continue to roast for 10 minutes per 500g. That will give you rare to medium- rare meat. So, a piece weighing 5lb will take approximately 50 minutes at 160C/gas 3, plus the initial blast at 220C/gas mark 7.
Slide the shelf out a little and test the meat for doneness with a meat thermometer (it should read 50C for rare meat). Return to the oven if it needs a little longer. Remove the meat from the oven and leave to rest, lightly covered with foil, without cutting it.
Put the beef on a warm carving plate or board, still covered by its foil, then put the roasting tin, together with the juices and debris from under the beef, over a low to moderate heat. Pour in a good glass (125ml) of red wine, Madeira or Marsala and let it bubble furiously for a minute or two, stirring and scraping at the crusty bits in the pan as you go. Pour in the hot stock and let the whole lot bubble down by half. Check the seasoning - it will need pepper and salt - then pour through a sieve into a warm jug.
Carve the beef and serve with hot gravy and the beetroot overleaf.
Baked beetroot with cream and caraway
Put the beetroot in the oven about 20 minutes before the beef is due to be ready.
800g raw beetroot
3 medium-sized onions
a thick slice (15g) butter
a level tsp caraway seeds
300mls double cream
2 tbsp milk
You will need a shallow baking dish approximately 30cm x 24cm.
Put a deep pot of water on to boil for cooking the beetroot. Trim the leaves of the beetroot down to the crown. Scrub any soil away with a vegetable brush, taking care not to break the skin. Add them to the boiling water and leave at a good simmer till tender to the point of a skewer - about an hour for medium-sized beets.
Lightly butter the baking dish. Peel the onions and slice them thinly. Melt the butter in a shallow pan over a low to moderate heat and let the onions soften in it. They will take a good 20 minutes. I take them till they are sticky and soft enough that you can squish them between thumb and finger. Stir in the caraway seeds and continue cooking for a minute or two. Season with salt and pepper, then transfer to the buttered dish.
Set the oven at 160C/gas mark 3. Drain the beets and let them cool briefly (or don a pair of rubber gloves) then remove the skins (they should just slide off). Slice the beets to the width of a £2 coin, then mix them in with the onions. Pour over the cream and milk.
Bake the beetroot for 40-50 minutes until pale gold and lightly bubbling. The sauce will be thinner than for pommes a la Dauphinoise, but delicious. Allow to settle a wee bit before serving with the beef.