Most cultures that raise cattle for meat and dairy eat some kind of beef stew, however suet dumplings (and puddings) are particularly British. Suet is a protective hard fat that forms around the kidneys of most large animals. When rendered (purified), suet has a high melting point with a mild smell and taste, which makes it perfect for making a light fluffy pastry or dumplings. Dishes such as steak and kidney pudding, spotted dick, jam roly poly, plum pudding (which has become known as Christmas pudding), etc. were traditionally wrapped and steamed in a cloth, in the days before people had ovens. Steaming took place above the cooking pot, where the daily soup, stew or gruel was being made. All the above dishes were particularly popular in the Victorian era and can be found in the recipe books of Mrs. Beeton and Eliza Acton.
Suet can be obtained from some butchers, Smithfield Market and from online farm shops. My butcher has it frozen – he chopped a bit off and stuck it in an industrial mincer. In it’s natural and rendered form it is not as common as it used to be, but there is a cheap commercial suet product called Atora (since 1893) which can be found in most UK supermarkets. Atora is remarkably natural, being made up of 85% pre-shredded beef suet and 15% wheat flour. While being a British product, the name Atora is derived from toro, the Spanish word for bull. There’s also a vegetarian “suet” available, but it’s made of palm oil, which will not melt at high temperatures like the animal fat and it’s bad for the planet.
Suet from cattle and sheep is also used to make tallow, which stays solid at room temperature and can keep without refrigeration. Tallow is used in manufacturing: candles, soap, bird, dog and pig food, biodiesel, printing, lubricants, medicines, etc. There’s a restaurant in London called Story, whose first course is the beef tallow candle burning at the centre of the table!
Beef Stew recipe (serves 4):
600g beef shin (chopped into bit sized pieces)
3 pieces of streaky bacon (chopped)
1 large onion (chopped)
6 pieces of garlic (finely chopped)
2 sticks celery (chopped)
2 carrots (chopped)
1 leek (chopped)
4 medium tomatoes (grated)
4 medium potatoes (cubed)
3 portobello mushrooms (chopped)
2 teaspoons parsley
2 bay leaves
a dessertspoonful of plain flour
a pinch of English mustard powder
a pint of beef stock
a splash of red wine vinegar
a glass of red wine
a squeeze of anchovy paste
a good slug of olive oil
Suet dumplings are delicious in any stew, but beef stew with dumplings is the one I remember from childhood.
Chop the beef shin into bite sized pieces and brown in olive oil – this is best done in two or three batches.
Reserve the meat and fry the onion in the same oil.
When the onion has softened, stir in the bacon.
When the bacon has taken some colour, mix in the carrot, celery, garlic, leek and mushrooms (mine were cooked previously, so I added them at the same time as the stock).
Give the vegetables 5 minutes or so and add the potatoes, along with the flour and a pinch of English mustard powder. Stir to create a roux – this will thicken the stew, while it cooks.
Grate on the tomatoes (cut in half, shred the wet side and throw away the skin).
Return the meat to the pan.
Pour on the stock, red wine, red wine vinegar, sprinkle on the parsley and add the bay leaves. I came across a large amount of portobello mushrooms for pennies last week, so I cooked them and froze a few batches. My defrosted mushrooms went into the stew at this point.
Cook gently on the hob or in a preheated oven at 160º C for 2 hours.
When the stew has been cooking for 2 hours, make the dumplings. Don’t mix them beforehand, the baking powder starts working immediately! Some recipes use self raising flour – this already contains baking powder as a raising agent.
125g plain flour – use a little more if necessary
1 teaspoon baking powder
a pinch salt
60g fresh suet
1/4 teaspoon thyme leaves
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a large basin and mix in the thyme. Pour on a little water at a time and work the dough with a table knife. When the dough comes together start to use your hands and knead.
Keep working the dough until it is smooth and not sticky – the bowl should be fairly clean. If you add a bit too much water, a little flour will save the day. It doesn’t need to be exact. Don’t overwork the dough – the little pieces of suet should melt during cooking, at 45º – 50º C which produces fluffy holes in the dumplings.
Flour your hands and roll small dumplings (8 or 9) between your palms.
Put the dumplings on top of the stew, close the lid and return to the oven for 20 – 30 minutes. If you want a more biscuity finish to the dumplings and a thicker stew, remove the lid after 10 minutes.
Cook for a further 15 – 30 minutes uncovered, until the dumplings turn slightly golden – check every 10 minutes or so. Garnish with a little parsley and serve with a glass of Tussock Jumper Monastrell from the Jumilla wine region in Spain.