Next Monday, as 12,000 guests at Buckingham Palace tuck into the Diamond Jubilee picnic devised by Heston Blumenthal, the whole country should be proud of our vibrant food scene. Sixty years ago Britain’s food was an international joke, but today it has an enviable reputation. Elizabeth Carter looks back over six decades of British food
1950s Finding things to do with leftovers and Spam
Food in 1950s austerity Britain was a “great plain of desolation the unending and never-varying sequence of sullen and ill-managed hotels and unfriendly restaurants, serving over-cooked meats and sodden vegetables, with no flavours but those that came out of a bottle”, according to Raymond Postgate, founder and editor of The Good Food Guide, first published in 1951.
Rationing, not repealed until 1954, had allowed bad habits to become engrained. As late as 1957, restaurants were still expecting customers to accept an austerity diet, as The Good Food Guide noted: “soup from a tin, soggy steak from Argentina, synthetic cream and tinned Empire fruit; tinned coffee”. But there were glimmers of hope. George Perry-Smith’s Hole in the Wall in Bath was one of the most influential restaurants of post-war Britain. His dish of salmon baked in pastry with currants and ginger is one of the most famous dishes of the 20th century. Revelling in post-rationing excess, it hit a national chord – recreated at dinner parties, the recipe is still doing the rounds.1960s Lashings of alcohol, garlic, butter and cream
Thanks to a boom in the post-war global economy, 1960s Britain saw a dramatic rise in the standard of living. And with more and more cheap charter flights fuelling exposure to different cuisines, there was a restaurant explosion. This was the era of the ‘Britalian’ restaurants serving spaghetti bolognaise with chips; of sirloin steak, chicken Kiev, prawn cocktail and the oh-so-exotic avocado pear; the decade when Chinese and Indian restaurants began to spread out into provincial towns.
The time was defined by optimism and exuberance, both necessary attributes in a new type of restaurant that hit the 1960s streets – the neighbourhood bistro run by enthusiastic amateurs heavily influenced by Elizabeth David’s cookery books. With their close-packed tables, Chianti bottles hanging from the ceiling, and lashings of garlic, they were to be a feature of the British food scene for the next two decades.
1970s Pizza, curry and chop suey
The 1970s unfolded against a backdrop of recession, strikes and the three-day week, but they also saw radical changes in patterns of eating out, with the relentless spread of Chinese and Indian restaurants, and the first Japanese and South-East Asian restaurants opening in London.
The 1960s wind of change had blown through the upper reaches of the restaurant world; Britain was now emerging as a country in which, if you were highly selective, you could eat well. Chefs who previously had been seen as mere back-room boys were becoming as famous as their restaurants. Franco Taruschio at the Walnut Tree in Llanddewi Skirrid, and Michel and Albert Roux at Le Gavroche in London had prepared the ground well for the new 1970s intake: Michel Roux moving to the Waterside Inn at Bray, Nico Ladenis at Chez Nico in Dulwich, with Raymond Blanc’s Aux Quat’Saisons in Oxford and Pierre Koffmann’s Tante Claire in London following towards the end of the decade.
But there were homegrown chefs too – like Joyce Molyneaux at the Carved Angel in Dartmouth, and Rick Stein, who was quietly establishing his Seafood Restaurant in Padstow. Both lacked classical French training but had an instinctive understanding of ingredients and what worked.
1980s Carpacio, raviolo and kiwi fruit
Recession may have marred the opening of the 1980s, but it was soon replaced by a new mood. Margaret Thatcher’s Britain was a boom time with its ‘loadsamoney’ culture. In restaurants, nouvelle cuisine was the buzzword. The French movement reappraised classic French cooking – moving away from the richness of haute cuisine, putting the emphasis on lightness, natural flavours and textures – and made many positive changes in the way we ate. It was not particularly popular with the public, but it proved a catalyst, a bridge into modern British cooking.
For the first time chefs such as Stephen Bull, Rowley Leigh, Simon Hopkinson and Alastair Little were recognised as creative artists, acknowledged for their all-important allegiance to provenance – they searched for the very best ingredients at home and abroad. It was suddenly rather chic to be in the restaurant game, especially when Marco Pierre White turned up with his F-you attitude and tagliatelle of oysters with caviar. His book White Heat inspired a whole generation of chefs.
1990s Southern Hemisphere Pacific Rim Modern Mediterranean Cosmopolitan British cooking
The crash of 1987 failed to dent the British revival. More chef-led places opened, among them Anthony Worrall-Thompson at Bistro 190, Gary Rhodes at the Greenhouse, Fergus Henderson at St John, Gordon Ramsay at Aubergine, and Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck, serving steak and chips with sauce moelle – it was to be some time before his wizard of Bray cooking grabbed the headlines. And when Shaun Hill opened the Merchant House in Ludlow, it triggered the Ludlow phenomenon, where the little Shropshire town found itself playing host to a constellation of top-rated restaurants.
Food was becoming a mass preoccupation. The global reach of London had seen a search for new tastes, and fusion entered the vocabulary – in other words Southern Hemisphere Pacific Rim Modern Mediterranean Cosmopolitan British cooking. In the right hands it was gutsy, appetising with vibrant flavours -Peter Gordon at the Sugar Club in London – in the wrong hands, it was a roulette wheel.
2000-now Scotch eggs, burgers, foragers and umami
As Britain entered the new millennium, London continued to be a destination city for food, a magnate for big money from Asia, the Middle East, Europe and beyond, with international superstar chefs queuing to set up camp. In 2005 the American magazine Gourmet devoted an entire issue to London.
Around the country, other city centres were coming alive (notably Leeds, Edinburgh). Some of the best chefs around the regions were setting up a café here, a bistro there, and installing trusted sous-chefs to look after them. In truth, there had never been a more exciting time to eat out; partly because of the generally high standard, partly because of the wonderful mix of cooking styles.
But for all that, this new millennium has proved to be the time of the pub. They first formed the backbone of eating out in the 1950s, and in some ways things have come full circle, but with a difference. First past the post, in 1991, was the Eagle [Farringdon??], its rough and ready decor and breathlessly new wave Mediterranean cooking establishing a blueprint for pubs for years to come. The very latest models offer the comforts and luxury of a small hotel while remaining small, intimate and very relaxing, while their kitchens take the farm-to-table theme and run with it, offering great Britishness in all its forms.
CELEBRITY CHEFS ON TV
Philip Harben, star of the BBC’s first cooking show, was a serious cook who worked on the premise that his audience didn’t know how to boil an egg, an idea reworked by Delia Smith in the 1990s, and more recently by Heston Blumenthal in his How to Cook like Heston.
The first celebrity TV cook, and the first to present food as a form of TV entertainment, was Fanny Cradock.
1970s and 1980s
Cradock set the tone for Graham Kerr’s The Galloping Gourmet (1969-71) and for Robert Carrier and Keith Floyd (1980s) adventures.
The celeb-chef fest that was Ready Steady Cook and Gordon Ramsay hit our screens.
For many chefs TV has been a lucrative career, extending their shelf life beyond the kitchen. From Gary Rhodes, Rick Stein, the food campaigns of Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, to the chefs lining up for Great British Menu – love or hate them, they are part of the dynamic food scene in the UK today.
ICONIC COOKERY BOOKS OF THE DECADE
Mediterranean Food; Italian Food; and Summer Cooking by Elizabeth David
Great Dishes of the World by Robert Carrier
Action Cook Book by Len Deighton
Good Things by Jane Grigson
Simply French Food by Richard Olney
Food for Free by Richard Mabey
English Seafood Cookery by Rick Stein
The Carved Angel Cookbook by Joyce Molyneux
Future Cook by Colin Tudge
Delia’s How to Cook by Delia Smith
White Heat by Marco Pierre White
Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson
English Regional Cooking by Mark Hix
Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking by Fergus Henderson
Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals by Jamie Oliver – best selling cookery book of all time