“The only thing I am afraid of is fear.”
You’ve got to take your hat off to the 1st Duke of Wellington. Not only did the feisty Irishman vanquish Napoleon, he twice became prime minister and lend his name to the infamous Wellington boot as well as giving us the delicious Beef Wellington to remember him by.
Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley was born in Dublin, May 1, 1769 into an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family. At age 12, he was sent to school at Eton in England. His father’s death that same year threw the family into financial turmoil. Arthur’s mother withdrew him from Eton to be schooled in Belgium and France. She saw such little promise in her son that she felt the military was the best career choice for him. In 1787 at age 18, he was commissioned as an ensign in the British Army.
An outstanding British soldier and statesman, he was one of the most important military and political leaders of 19th-century Britain. Rising to prominence as a general during the Peninsular campaign of the Napoleonic Wars, he was promoted to the rank of field marshal after leading the allied forces to victory against the French Empire at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813.
Following Napoleon’s exile in 1814, he served as the ambassador to France and was granted a dukedom. During the 1815 Hundred Days War, he commanded the allied army, which together with a Prussian Army under Blücher, defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. His battle record is exemplary; he ultimately participated in some 60 battles during the course of his military career.
Wellesley died from a stroke on 14 September 1852. On his death, he was once again hailed as the hero of Waterloo. Queen Victoria even described him as ‘the greatest man this country ever produced’. He was given a state funeral in London and was laid to rest in St Paul’s Cathedral, next to Britain’s other military heroes.
So, how does all this history relate to Beef Wellington? Well, it seems the Duke of Wellington was quite indifferent to food. However, he did love a dish of beef, mushrooms, truffles, Madeira wine, and pâté cooked in pastry. The Duke loved this dish so much, it had to be served at every dinner. Therefore, his chefs named the dish in his honor. Some also speculate the dish was named after him because the fillet of beef, wrapped in puff pastry finished product looks like a highly polished Wellington riding boot.
Beef Wellington, like many other dishes, has a debatable story of origin. Many different experts cite England, France, Ireland, and even Africa as the possible birthplace for the dish. Although, several contend that France is the most likely origin for the dish since wrapping meat in pastry is a technique that has been practiced in France for a long time, even before the dish became popular.
This tenderloin of beef in puffed pastry was first made famous in the USA by the TV chef, Julia Child. Her cook book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking was immensely popular in the USA. She presented a version of the well-known French fillet of beef in crust, which she entitled, Filet of Beef Wellington on TV in her New Year’s Day 1965 show.
Thanks to the success of Childs’ Beef Wellington show, the dish became hugely popular in North American social circles and was repeated in a large number of magazines and cookbooks, including the very influential, White House Cookbook.
To Americans, unaccustomed to the English idea of meat in pastry, Beef Wellington must have seemed like quite an exotic dish. It can be an intimidating and complicated dish to put together. But, thanks to cooking shows and YouTube, anyone with a desire to cook this fancy feast can put together a beautiful and tasty Beef Wellington.