The History of Beef Wellington

You have probably heard of Beef Wellington. There are many recipes which claim to be the "original recipe", Some including truffle paste, others using brioche or pastry dough instead of puff pastry. This famous dish had a resurgence in the 1960's because former President Nixon was quite fond of it. The White House served Beef Wellington based on a recipe from the early 19th Century at every state diner during his tenure.
At the end of the 18th century it was very popular to cook meat inside pastry shells, sometimes with a sauce much like pot pies, and often just wrapping the cut with vegetables in a basic pastry made with flour and water. This pastry would protect the meat from the extreme and hard to regulate heat from the period's kitchen appliances. All of which combined to produce a juicy and fragrant cut.
The origins of the basic recipe for Beef Wellington can be traced back to the kitchen of Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington. Wellesley is famous for having won the battle of Waterloo in 1815 against Napoleon. That first version of the dish was filled with truffle paste instead of duxelle mushrooms and the wrapping was normal pastry dough.
Several other sources mention that the dish might have gotten its name from the resemblance to a highly polished riding boot -- also called a wellington boot -- when taken out of the oven. Another theory is that Beef Wellington is of Irish origin. In "Irish Traditional Food," Theodora FitzGibbon uses Irish spelling for the recipe by calling the dish Steig Wellington. While this theory has never been confirmed, it still appears in various cookbooks as part of the history of Beef Wellington.
The first time we tasted Beef Wellington was right after we were married in the mid 1970s. Food fans who were in Chicago in the 1970s probably remember The Bakery, Louis Szathmary's restaurant, one of the very best restaurants in the city, whose specialty was Beef Wellington. The popularity of the Bakery was partly due to its moderate prices and casual attire. Chef Louis was friendly and accessible. He would check on every patron, warm and welcoming, part Santa Claus and part, well ... Chef Louis. The Bakery is where we learned to become comfortable with Fine Food. Julia Child and Chef Louis were both responsible for my learning to make puff pastry, mushroom duxelle, and Beef Wellington.


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