In a shimmering novel of recollection, emotion, and longing, the Boeuf en Daube that Mrs. Ramsay serves at her famous dinner party might be most concrete thing in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse:
“An exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish, took the cover off. The cook had spent three days over that dish. And she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes. And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats, and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought, This will celebrate the occasion . . .” (100).
It is a recipe, Mrs. Ramsay explains, from her French grandmother. Daube is a Provençal stew that gets its name from the daubière (the terra cotta pot) it is cooked in, which doesn’t allow for evaporation of the cooking liquid, since the stew is traditionally made with less tender cuts of meat.
To the Lighthouse was published in 1927, the same year as the publication of the final volume of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, which I also wrote about in an installment of “Eating My Words.” Both are modernist works that are noted for their use of stream of consciousness, though where Proust’s madeleines trigger a waterfall of sensation and memory, Woolf is more likely to scatter tiny bombs of culinary deliciousness throughout her works.
The extended scene of guests enjoying Boeuf en Daube in To the Lighthouse, then, is unusual in Woolf’s work, despite her clear fondness for description in general. Still, though she is often remembered as rather severe and ascetic, she is also the woman who penned the line immortalized in many a sampler and pseudo-literary serving platter, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well” (A Room of One’s Own, 18).
To the Lighthouse is a book about vision: visions of the past, perception of the present, artistic visions. And, clearly, culinary vision, because this stew is freaking delicious. Some recipes (Julia Child’s, for example) scent Boeuf en Daube with cinnamon, orange, and cloves, but I prefer a more Provençal flavor signature, with olives and capers, and I add bacon and brandy to give it a mellow smokiness.
Mildred, Mrs. Ramsay’s cook, spent three days preparing her Boeuf en Daube. Don’t worry; mine doesn’t take nearly as long. Mrs. Ramsay (clearly not a fan of leftovers) says, “Everything depended upon things being served up the precise moment they were ready” (80). To the contrary, this stew is equally delicious the next day, cold or reheated. It’s often served alone or over noodles. I love to dip huge chunks of bread slathered with butter into it. Mmm, y’all, “I have had my vision” for sure (209).
Boeuf en Daube, à la To the Lighthouse
Prep time: 30 minutes
Total time: 5 hours (Dutch oven) or 8 hours (slow cooker)
Makes about 8 servings
4-quart slow cooker or Dutch oven
- 1 1/2 to 2 pounds beef chuck, cut into 2-inch cubes
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 10 cloves garlic, minced (and divided into 2 equal quantities)
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 4 pieces bacon
- 1/2 cup red wine + additional wine as needed
- 1/4 cup beef broth or beef bouillon
- 1/4 cup brandy
- 3 oz. (about 1 cup) shiitake mushrooms, roughly chopped
- 1 small red onion, peeled and diced
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and thinly sliced into rounds
- 1/2 cup roughly chopped olives of your choice (I used Manzanilla here, but I like Kalamata olives, too), pitted
- 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
- 1 (14.5-oz) can diced or crushed tomatoes
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 10 sprigs parsley
- 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns
- cornstarch (optional)
- cooked egg noodles and/or crusty bread and butter for serving (optional)
Place the beef, olive oil, a pinch of salt, and half the minced garlic in a sealable gallon-size plastic bag. Marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour (or overnight in the refrigerator). While the beef is marinating, you can prep your veg.
Preheat the oven to 300˚F if you’ll be cooking in a Dutch oven.
In a deep pan (use the Dutch oven if you’ll be cooking that way), cook the bacon over medium heat until crispy. Set the bacon aside but leave the fat in the pan.
Add the marinated beef and garlic to the pan and cook for about five minutes, turning the meat so all sides are browned but not burning your garlic. Depending on the size of your pan, you can do this all at once, or you can cook two pieces of bacon, cook half your beef, and repeat. Transfer the cooked beef and garlic to a slow cooker if you’ll be using that to finish your stew.
Add the wine, broth, and brandy to the pan and bring to a boil, scraping up all the yummy browned bits. Carefully pour the liquid into the slow cooker, if using. Add the mushrooms, onion, carrots, olives, tomatoes, remaining garlic, and crumbled bacon to the Dutch oven or slow cooker.
Add the thyme, bay, parsley, and peppercorns to the Dutch oven or slow cooker. If you don’t like them floating around in there, you can make a bouquet garni by wrapping them in cheesecloth (or a coffee filter or empty tea bag), tying it closed with butcher’s twine.
Slow cook on low heat for 5 to 6 hours or in the oven for 3 hours, until the beef is so tender you can pull it apart into shreds with a fork.
If you find your stew doesn’t have enough liquid once it’s done, add a bit more wine; if you have too much liquid, thicken it with a teaspoon of cornstarch that’s been whisked with a little water to make a slurry.
The boeuf en daube can be made up to 2 days in advance and refrigerated until ready to eat; reheat over medium heat in a large lidded pot on the stove before serving. It also freezes wonderfully.
Rebecca is a writer living in Philadelphia. When not writing fiction and poetry, she blogs about young adult books at Crunchings & Munchings and copy edits at Hermes Editing. She likes bonfires, winter beaches, minor chord harmonies, and cheese. But mostly cheese.