Bartlemas Beef

St Bartholomew came to be associated with food through his unsavoury and gruesome death… Adopted as patron saint of butchers, St Bartholomew, who was one of the twelve apostles, was reportedly flayed and beheaded by King Astayages whilst preaching in Armenia.

Subsequently, meat has traditionally taken centre stage in the festivities of St Bartholomew’s Day (24 August). In his famous 1614 play, Ben Jonson described ‘Bartholomew-pig’, roasting  ‘i’ th heart’ of Bartholomew’s Fair. From 1113 to 1855 London hosted the famous fair in Smithfield (which is incidentally also the site of slaughterhouses and public executions). Jonson’s play was in part a satire of Puritanism, which was an increasing force in Jacobean England. The mockingly named ‘Zeal-of-the-land Busy’, declared that to eat the Bartholomew-pig was idolatry, because of ‘the very calling of it’, presumably because the term implied that the food was dedicated in a Catholic manner to a saint. Yet, so as to refute an association with Judaism (in which pork is forbidden), Busy then ended up consuming two whole pigs, declaring ‘I will eat exceedingly’![1]

Meat – this time beef – is also prescribed for St Batholomew’s Day by Hannah Woolley, in her famous 1664 cookbook. ‘Bartlemas beef’, a name derived from ‘Bartholomew Mass’, is lavishly spiced and wonderfully flavoursome. The preparation is relatively simple.


450g brisket beef

Enough wine and vinegar to cover the beef

1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, mace, and salt

Flour to paste


“To make rare Bartlemas beef

Take a fat Brisket piece of beef and bone it, put it into so much water as will cover it, shifting it three times a day for three dayes together, then put it into as much white wine and vineger as will cover it; and when it hath lyen twenty four hours take it out and drye it in a cloth, then take nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and mace, of each a like quantity, beaten small and mingled with a good handfull of salt, strew both sides of the Beef with this, and roul it up as you do Brawn, tye it as close as you can; then put it into an earthen pot, and cover it with some paste; set it into the Oven with houshold bread, and when it is cold, eat it with mustard and sugar.” [2]

Feast days are also traditional times to eat sugary treats. Gingerbread was another speciality offered at Bartholomew’s Fair. Jonson’s Busy once again rejected this food as idolatrous –  this time because it was shaped into figures, declaring it to be a ‘basket of popery’ and a ‘nest of images’.[3] Today, Bartholomew’s day is still celebrated in Sandwich, Kent, where St Bartholomew’s Hospital was founded in 1190 and established under the saint’s name in 1271 along with a chapel in praise for a successful nearby sea battle on 24 August. Each year the chapel hosts a ‘Bun Race’, in which the children run around the building and receive a currant bun (bought from Morrisons!) as their prize. The adults are given a ‘St Bart’s Biscuit’, an unleavened cake bearing the print of the hospital seal and the date of it’s foundation.[4]

[1] Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fair (London, 1636), Act 1 Scene VI.

[2] Hannah Woolley, The Cook’s Guide (London, 1664).

[3] Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fair (London, 1636), Act 2 Scene II.

[4] For more information on Sandwich, Kent, follow this link:

Published 20/08/18