In the days before refrigeration, unless you lived in a country cold enough to store food, there were only three ways of preserving meat – smoking, canning and curing with salt. Meat was either preserved in pure salt or in a brine solution. Either way, large granules of salt were used, and these were known as ‘corns’ of salt, which is why some people know salt beef as corned beef.
From 16th to 19th Centuries salt beef was very popular with the English navy, so much so that it led to production on an industrial scale near the ports on the west coast of Ireland. Scientists have recently discovered that sailors aboard Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose lived off a diet of salt beef and biscuits, and the menu aboard HMS Victory included 2lb of salt beef per man, twice a week.
At the same time, cured beef was becoming popular with the Jewish populations of Russia and Poland. Later, as they emigrated to America, particularly New York, and to the east end of London, they took with them their tradition of delicatessen together with their salt beef curing skills. This is why you’ll find more salt beef delis in New York and London than elsewhere.
The recent history of salt beef in the Capital takes a slightly different turn. As London became more cosmopolitan during the 1960s and 1970s new and exciting cuisines such as Italian and Indian began to overshadow the traditional London dishes of salt beef, pie and mash and jellied eels. But now, with a new generation of chefs re-discovering traditional English cookery, salt beef is appearing on menus in far more than just sandwiches and bagels. Old favourites are re-interpreted for today’s more adventurous dining public.