Note You may need to fold in the tail end of the beef fillet so the ends are even. We prefer to use Carême puff pastry, which comes in pre-rolled 375gm sheets. If unavailable, substitute another good-quality butter puff pastry.
Beef Wellington may have been the go-to dinner party dish of the 1960s, and it may (or may not) have been named after a 17th-century duke, but its origins date back even earlier, to Roman times.
There's little reliable evidence as to the origins of beef Wellington, a fillet of beef topped with pâté and mushrooms then baked in pastry, but the most popular theory is that it was named after the first Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, an Anglo-Irishman who fought Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo in 1815. Wellington is said to have enjoyed a dish prepared with beef, pâté, truffles, mushrooms and Madeira cooked in pastry. Of course the French dish filet de boeuf en croûte is similar, but without "Wellington" in the name.
Whatever the dish's origins, the technique of cooking meat in pastry dates back to Roman times, when a pastry made of flour, oil and water was used to cover meat and poultry during cooking, keeping it moist.
By the 15th century, according to Alan Davidson'sThe Oxford Companion to Food, a stiffer "huff paste" of flour, suet and water was used as a casing for meat. The pastry case kept it moist and flavoursome and protected it from contamination upon standing; however, the pastry was not eaten.
Today, buttery (and perfectly edible) puff pastry is most commonly used to wrap the beef, although some recipes employ brioche dough. Still other cooks wrap the mushroom-topped fillet in crêpes to prevent the pastry from becoming soggy.
A fillet of beef is perfect for beef Wellington because of its shape and tenderness. Searing the beef browns the outside, which lends extra flavour; the meat is then cooled before it's spread with pâté, which in some recipes is made from foie gras, or enriched with truffles, or both. A layer of duxelles, a cooked mixture of mushrooms, onions and shallots, is pressed over the fillet, which is then wrapped in pastry.
Beef Wellington is perfect for a party because it can be prepared ahead of time, brushed with eggwash and set aside in the refrigerator. Then simply bake it in a hot oven until the pastry is puffed and golden and you have a real show-stopper on your hands.