Beef tea.
Beef tea. Photo: Alan Howard

Robbie Howard

This week I have had the flu. I have not felt as sick for 20 years, and I have not been interested in eating anything.

But yesterday, my 96-year-old mother, who lives in Goulburn, sent me some beef tea she had made. I looked at the jar of liquid and thought, ''no thanks''. But after opening the fridge to find nothing that looked appealing, I ended up heating the beef tea. To my amazement, it was totally delicious and just what I felt like drinking.

The doctor's advice was rest and a high-protein diet and I could not help but reflect on my mother's beef tea. These old people knew how to nurse, and perhaps we have forgotten the art of invalid cooking.

I have inherited an ancient edition of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management (published in 1893), which has a recipe for beef tea, just one of a number of Victorian ''invalid'' recipes.

The beef tea recipe calls for the beef to be simmered on the stovetop for 30 minutes to 45 minutes (I suggest cooking it in the oven for convenience instead), and advises, ''This preparation is simple beef tea, and is to be administered to those invalids to whom flavourings and seasonings are not allowed. When the patient is very low, use double the quantity of meat to the same proportion of water.''

For sick people able to handle a more savoury beef tea, she fries the beef with butter, onion, and a clove before adding the water.

Another of the invalid recipes is for ''lemon barley water'', which I have included here. My grandmother always had a jug of lemon barley water in her fridge - she drank it like a cordial.

Mrs Beeton also remarks, ''Miss Nightingale says, one of the most common errors among nurses, with respect to a sick diet, is the belief that beef tea is the most nutritive of all article.'' She says, ''Just try and boil down a lb. of beef into beef tea; evaporate your beef tea, and see what is left of your beef: you will find that there is barely, a teaspoonful of solid nourishment to ¼ pint of water in beef tea.'' Nevertheless, she says, it has ''a certain reparative quality'' and is safe for almost any inflammatory disease.

My mother adds a carrot and half an onion. She insists a squeeze of lemon juice is important, as well as salt to taste.

I also think it helps the patient if the beef tea is served on a silver tray, with the finest linen napkin and the prettiest china cup.

>> Robbie Howard is co-owner of Lynwood Preserves.