A Christmas lunch plate stacked high with roast meats or a nut roast and all the trimmings seems entirely naked without a generous splash of gravy. Melissa Stewart investigates the history of the British staple and shares a make‑ahead recipe to take some of the stress out of Christmas morning
A meaty history
The origins of gravy are a little hazy, but one of its earliest mentions is in the 14th-century British recipe book The Forme of Cury. It is thought the word ‘gravy’ is derived from the Old French word ‘gravé’, meaning a seasoned broth or sauce.
Aah! Bisto …
Gravy has cropped up in British cookbooks across the centuries, notably in John Nott’s The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary (1723), the Accomplish’d Housewife’s Companion by Eliza Smith (1927) and in Elizabeth Acton’s bestselling Victorian cookbook Modern Cookery for Private Families.
However, it wasn’t until the 20th century that gravy became available to the masses, thanks to Oxo and Bisto. The brands made it simple for anyone to whip up a jug of gravy using a stock cube, hot water and a little flour or, even easier, granules and boiling water.
Gravy from scratch
Despite the quick fixes available, keen home cooks know there’s no substitute for the real deal made from homemade stock and the scrapings of a pan in which meat has been roasted. But do the pros have any other secrets they could impart to help us craft the perfect jus?
‘The secret to a good gravy is in the stock and the alcohol used,’ says Tom Chivers, head chef of The Farm Table at Darts Farm in Devon. ‘We make our own stock, but for an easier option at home I’d suggest a good quality stock like the ones made by The Pure Stock Company in Exeter.
‘The other important thing is to use alcohol of a quality you’d drink. It doesn’t need to be the finest wine, but don’t use wine that’s been open for a long time or doesn’t taste good or it’ll come through in the gravy. If you’re avoiding alcohol, add 50g of sugar for each bottle of wine you remove from the recipe and replace the liquid content with beef stock.’