Retro Food 1: Fray Bentos Corned Beef and Pies

Agent Triple P's mother was not what you might call a great cook.  In fact, you wouldn't call her a cook at all.  One of the abiding aural memories of our childhood was the sound of our mother scraping the burnt bits off the toast every morning.

Unlike today, when busy mothers (and we have a great deal of sympathy for women who have to provide multiple meals every day for their families - it's not surprising many don't enjoy cooking) can resort to microwave meals, back in the sixties the choice of convenience food was much less.  We remember having quite a lot of Fray Bentos tinned pies when we were small and, indeed, a lot of their corned beef too.  This is tinned corned beef, of course, (called bully beef by Triple P's father and everyone else who ate it in the British Army) not the sort of meat you get in a Reuben sandwich which is called salt beef in Britain.  When our mother did get a bit more experimental, in the early eighties, she would produce her notorious corned beef curry.  This was made by frying up the corned beef, chopped into small cubes, with onion, diced apple, sultanas, tinned tomatoes and curry powder.  You couldn't buy miniature palettes of Indian spices to mix yourself in those days.  Actually, Triple P used to really enjoy this rather unprepossessing sounding dish and perhaps we should have a go at it ourselves!

World War 1 period corned beef

Anyway, these reflections were all sparked by meeting a diplomat today who informed us that Fray Bentos was not just a  company name, as we had imagined, but was named after a town in Uruguay.  We had no idea, but it was the meat packing centre of South America and made a huge contribution to keeping British soldiers fed during both World Wars.  Indeed, two British tanks during World War 1 were named Fray Bentos by their crews, who saw the irony of meat in a can.

The tank Fray Bentos II,having been captured by the Germans at Cambrai, is paraded in Berlin during WW1

It was the Anglo-German firm, The Liebig Extract of Meat Company that built the first major factory in the town in 1863.  Cattle were being killed for their skins in the area and the meat was just wasted.  The Liebig company realised that they could use the surplus meat  to produce low-cost meat products.  They began with a meat extract paste and then introduced a cheaper version of the product in 1899 called Oxo.  Interestingly, in this Olympic year, Oxo sponsored the 1908 London games, becoming the Olympics' first corporate sponsor. By the nineteen forties the Fray Bentos factory employed 5,000 people.  It closed in 1979; never really recovering from a batch of infected corned beef that caused a typhoid outbreak in Aberdeen in the early sixties and suffering under EEC rules regarding meat imports when Britain joined the Common Market.  The factory is now a museum but recently a Brazilian firm started producing corned beef in the town again.  

The Fray Bentos company was recently acquired by Scottish family-owned soup supremos Baxters who have big plans for a brand that is struggling to interest the nation in its old fashioned pies.  Personally, we buy Red Lion Foods corned beef as all the profits of the company go to Help for Heroes and other armed forces charities.

An appropriately bovine monument at the Liebig factory in Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Triple P likes a corned beef sandwich with tomato, cucumber and piccalilli (an eighteenth century invention: originally Paco-Lilla, or Indian pickle, a British re-imagining of Indian relish).  Lady R, the wife of Triple P's friend HMS, makes fabulous piccalilli!

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