There's nothing quite as quintessentially British as roast beef. As early as 1748, William Hogarth was using it to taunt the French in his paintings, with 'O the Roast Beef of Old England' portraying Britain's wealth and power via a huge chunk of beef; a scrawny Frenchman nearby tucks into a meal of onion soup.
During the Industrial Revolution beef became a symbol of wealth and national identity among the emerging middle classes, to the extent that the French coined the apparently insulting sobriquet 'les rosbifs'. But perhaps it's time the nickname changed to 'les ros-chicks'?
According to a recent poll, chicken has replaced beef as the nation's favourite roast meat. The research, by ice cream manufacturers Kelly's of Cornwall found that 28 per cent of 2,000 respondents prefer roast chicken, with 25 per cent flying the flag for beef. A third of us still eat a roast once a week, with three-quarters seeing it as a vital weekly tradition.
For 93 per cent, a Yorkshire pudding can be eaten with any meat, not just beef. This shift evidently hasn't been acted upon by certain establishments, as a recent pub I attended served yorkies as standard with beef, while charging extra when paired with chicken.
Young people are driving the change, with 36 per cent of 16-29 year-olds preferring chicken – only 18 per cent of over 45s say the same. Men are more keen on beef than women, according to the research.
What's driving the shift from beef to chicken? Price is certainly a factor, with many citing the relative affordability of chicken as an incentive. Others see it as easier to cook, more versatile and a better provider of leftovers (further meals can be created from the bones, for example). Concern for the environment may be a factor too, as cattle farming has a greater negative impact than poultry, while chicken is also seen as a healthier option.
For food writer Tim Hayward, chicken is more versatile than beef. "Chicken is much more interesting, with different textures, flavours, fat, juices, crisp skin etc," he explains. As one Twitter user said: "There's so much more nuance and variety to a whole roast chicken compared to a slab of beef. It's tastier, and one can stuff it with all sorts of herbs and veg."
Radio producer Caroline Ferguson thinks chicken is "much juicier, and it goes better with all the trimmings. Crispy chicken skin is delicious, while beef skin is rank." Many I spoke to insisted chicken gravy is better than beef gravy, while most also claimed chicken is more tender than beef, which is seen by some as "far too dry".
Chicken is seen as easier to cook, while providing more potential for leftovers. For Hayward, beef is easy enough to prepare, though chicken is perhaps more forgiving. Nevertheless, he stresses that it's important to get the best quality you can afford: "If you can afford it more than once a fortnight, you're probably buying crap chicken."
And what about the chefs, those turning out fancy roasts when we're too lazy to make our own? Chantelle Nicholson, chef patron at Tredwells and executive chef & operations director for the Marcus Wareing group, says beef still tends to be a more popular order – perhaps because we see it as harder to make at home, so opt for it when in the hands of a trusted chef.
Chef Dan Coles of Iberico World Tapas in Nottingham worked at the Larwood and Voce Pub & Kitchen when it won the Best British Roast Dinner award in 2015. "At the pub, beef was always more popular by a country mile," he explains. "We used to serve a dry-aged sirloin and the flavour was incredible. I think people have become accustomed to cheap, poor-quality, flavourless chicken so tend to go for beef when eating out."
"People are scared of cooking beef at home," says Andrew Sheridan, head chef of Stargazy Inn in Port Isaac, Cornwall. "People think cooking chicken is easy and beef is hard, but I disagree. It's hard to get chicken just right: undercook it and it's raw, overcook it and it's dry. With beef it matters less."
Nicholson, however, does think chicken is easier for the home cook, while both she and Sheridan point to the lower cost as a key reason why it's growing in popularity. "Chicken is also a more approachable meat for younger children," says Nicholson, "and you get the carcass, so you can make delicious soups or stocks. You get two meals for one."
Sheridan's favourite is chicken. "At home I always take the legs off before roasting as it's easier to get it evenly cooked and stop it drying out. I sear the crown in a pan and stuff the cavity with loads of garlic and thyme then roast the legs separately."
And what of lamb? Only 18 per cent would choose roast lamb over all others. Though its strong taste puts some people off, to me it's by far the most flavourful and tender, is incredibly easy to cook and has excellent sauce potential.
What's your ideal Sunday roast? Share your views in the comments section below.