I was grilling a thick steak on the grill when it struck me how very "English" I was -- I was producing roast beef. The "roast beef of England" is more than a cliche, it's iconic to English identity: the French have long referred to the English as "les rostbifs," and the Tower of London to this day is guarded by Beefeaters, incorruptibly patriotic.
OK, I was actually grilling (a more American activity) but roasting and grilling are much the same, they rely on the same three elements: fire, air and beef.
My forebears were so much more sophisticated than I am. I grill with lump charcoal rather than briquettes, but they understood wood in a way that I will never be able to. For roasting they used ash or beech for the main heat; oak to provide a lasting, hot heart to the fire; and hazel or birch to give the heat a quick burst when needed. They often burned apple or fruit wood to add to the flavor, and avoided willow at all costs because its acrid smoke tainted the meat.
For roasting, spit dogs were a necessity. Spit dogs were andirons that supported the firewood at the back and had hooks on the fronts to hold a spit. To my ignorant eyes, the hooks look far too low, but my forebears understood well that the heat needed to flow gently past the meat -- if the meat was too high, worst of all if it were over the heat, the result would be a charred outside and raw inside.
To ensure nicely even cooking, the spit had to be turned -- either by hand, or by a clockwork spitjack, or sometimes by setting a fan above the fire and using a system of rods and gears to transfer its rotary motion to the spit. It turned slowly, one complete rotation every 20 minutes.
Underneath the spit, they set a "grisset" to catch the melted fat, which was then used to baste the meat as it turned, flavored on the spot with honey, wine, herbs or spices. Yum! Basting was alternated with dredging -- dry dusting with flour, oatmeal or breadcrumbs. "Les rostbifs" sure knew how to roast beef.
The firewood came from the backyard, where most English country houses had a "coppice." A coppice was a quarter to half an acre of woodland which, carefully managed, would keep the house in firewood for ever. Coppicing involved felling a mature tree and then allowing a crown of branches to grow up around the stump, perhaps ten or a dozen of them. These branches were comparatively straight and knot-free and grew to about 15 feet in ten or twelve years. Far faster than growing trees. For firewood, a coppice branch was cut into three-foot lengths. The lowest, thickest lengths were split into quarters, the next into halves, and the top lengths were just the perfect three-inch diameter.
When King Henry VIII's flagship, the Mary Rose, was raised in 1982 just outside Portsmouth where she had sunk in 1545, the hull contained a treasure trove of 19,000 artifacts, among which were 600 logs cut precisely to these specifications.
Much of the information here came from Ruth Goodwin's fascinating book, How to Be a Tudor.