Wednesday 16 September 2020

How the 70's was the decade where the British discovered food

The 1960's was the decade of the sexual revolution. Legal changes such as the decriminalising of homosexuality, legalisation of abortion and the advent of the pill lead to a complete change in the stuffy attitudes of young people in Great Britain to sex. But while all of this fun and frolicking was going on, a visitor from 2020 would be amazed at the bland cuisine that we all ate in the 1960's. The 1970's dawned with huge excitement. Sadly the decade was not a fun decade like the 60's, but it was the decade where the British discovered that food was to be enjoyed and experimented with. At the start of the decade, Pubs generally didn't serve food, garlic was frowned upon and onions were largely only served with liver. Anything vegetable that wasn't boiled to disintegration was deemed uncooked and any sauce on any meat or fish was deemed foreign muck. Puddings were apple pie and custard or spotted dick. The high streets proliferated with cafes serving bacon sarnies, industrial strength tea and if you asked for a coffee you got a spoonful of Nescafe. For many coffee was seen as the poor relation of tea, the only advantage being that it could be made instantly, without the need for a strainer for the leaves, a pot and without waiting for it to brew, just a teaspoon of powder and voila!

Of course we had places such as Bar Italia doing great things, but these were seen as strange places catering for people from other places. Takeaway food was pretty much Fish and Chips, if you were adventurous, you would have a pie. In Mill Hill, there was an exotic Chinese restaurant called the Kwan Yin (where the Good Earth now sits). It was incredibly exotic and expensive. There was also a Greek restaurant called La Katerina, although 99% of the dishes sold would be Steak and Chips, which was pretty much as exotic as it got. 

Both of these restaurants were strictly for special occasions. The most popular eating venue was Chowens, on the site of where the Abbey National now stands. It served cream cakes, tea, coffee and hot chocolate with cream. It was popular with kids and old ladies. There was Sid's Cafe, where the Mill Hill Tandoori now sits, which was primarily for builders and labourers to have breakfast and lunch. I used to love it. On a December morning, it would be packed, steaming, full of cigarette smoke and would provide not only hearty food, but warmth from the incessant rain and cold outside. As I recall, there was no such thing as a "Full English breakfast". It was just  bacon, sausage, egg and beans with toast. I've no idea when the "Full English" was added. Lunch was often dishes such as liver, onions and gravy or Pork chops, mash and peas. There would be a big plastic tomato in the middle of the table, full of ketchup and salt and pepper on the table in chipped glass dispensers. The tables were made of chipped veneer and the floors were lino. There would be a large tea urn and a massive tea pot. Often men would be reading papers, many such cafe's had calendars on the wall with girls in various stages of undress. On the rare occasion a woman would nip in, she would discretely find a table out of the eyeline of such things. 

Being taken to the cafe as a child in the 1960's by my Dad was perhaps the greatest thing I could imagine. It seemed to me that when you could go to the cafe on your own, you were a man. There were no airs and graces and the quality of the cafe was judged by the size of the portions. What intrigued me most was the shenanigans that were clearly occurring. Whenever my Dad would take me in, he'd always be approached by men speaking in riddles. Pound notes and packages would exchange hands, with an invocation not to mention this to my mother. I had no idea what was going on. It wasn't drugs, sometimes it would be cheap bottles of scotch, cut price steaks, or cheap cigarettes. I suspect that the only reason my Dad ever went to the cafe was to transact such business. It certainly wasn't to eat food of quality.  I suspect that rationing and the war had robbed the British of their interest in food as anything other than as sustenance. 

The sixties ended and the new decade started with increasing prosperity. Cheap charter holiday took us to places such as Spain, where the food was definitely not tasteless slop (although canny locals and expats soon cottoned on that this was a great way to make money) meant people started to take a bit more interest in food. When Idi Amin expelled the nations Asian population, many of these highly successful businessmen spotted an opportunity on the UK's high streets. Pubs shut at 11pm, but you could serve alcohol with food. They soon cottoned on that the British would buy a curry and a few beers at the end of a night out. The British found that lager and curry was the perfect mix. People who ten years earlier would have labelled such food 'foreign muck', suddenly found that a lamb madras, rice and naan was delicious, especially after a night in the pub. The supermarkets soon woke up to the fact that there was a market for this. 

Companies such as Vesta sold packets of curry sauce, just add water and you can turn your pork chop into a delicious curry! The Chinese community also started to move out of the West End. Anglicised Chinese dishes such as Chow Mein, served in silver aluminium containers started to become popular. The mix of Garlic, spices and sweet sauces proved irresistible. We fell in love with Spring Rolls, Spare Ribs and Sweet and Sour Pork. For many of us, no night out was complete without a night in the 'Curry house' or a takeaway from the Chinese.

Pub owners, seeing that there was a money to be made in food also started to respond. Locally, the Railway in Edgware was perhaps the trail blazer. They set up a carvery, which had queue's around the block on Sunday. 

Pubs realised that they could make big profits from 'pub menus'.  Established working class pubs were transformed into food branded chains, often quite unsuccessfully, one such local establishment was The Royal Scot at Apex Corner. 

In the 70's this food would tend to be  Chicken in a basket with chips and 'ploughmans lunch'. When I did a course to become a certified licensee, I found that the Ploughmans lunch was invented purely to provide a food option that could be served with minimum effort. Scotch Eggs and pork pies were also popular early 1970's snacks. For a period, every pub had a big jar of pickled eggs. For many of us, it would be a pickled egg and a bag of ready salted crisps for lunch. As pubs got their act together, dishes such as ham, egg and chips took over. The holy grail was to have food that people who couldn't cook could prepare. Whilst the food generally was no better than cafe food in the early 70's, it established the concept that we would eat in food.

The 70's also saw the start of the rise of the cookery program. They had existed in the 60's, but hosts such as Fanny Craddock were unadventurous, and largely spent shows explaining how to boil eggs and make omlettes. The genre was redefined by The Galloping Gourmet, Grahame Kerr. He was the man who introduced the UK to sauces and flavours.

The genie was out of the bottle. My Mum subscribed to a magazine that was widely advertised on TV called Supercook. She'd try these recipes out on us, often scrimping and not adding all of the spices as "we wouldn't like them", but we had such treats as Duck A La Orange and Gazpacho. I vividly recall my Dad going nuts when he proudly go served Gazpacho and flounced of saying "I'm not eating cold soup". My mum was really upset as she'd put a lot of effort into it. After a weeks sulking from my mother, he realised that his role was to praise the dishes, no matter how much he disliked them. In truth, most were ok and some were excellent. I remember the first time she served Chicken Kiev, which now sounds quite naff, but then tasted like the food of the Gods.

Desserts also evolved beyond recognition. In 1969, you'd be offered Apple Pie, but during the 70's we saw all manner of innovation. The two big dishes that I recall are cheesecake and Black Forest Gateaux. My mother got a packet mix of Cheesecake. My Dad complained that he didn't want cheese for pudding, he wanted something sweet! He was quite bemused as to why it was called cheese when it didn't contain any. He loved Black Forest Gateaux straight away. Strangely, I've always been immune to the charms of these dishes. For me, I still prefer the stodgy British traditional dishes.

Snacks are another thing that massively changes. At the turn of the decade, there were three main snacks. Crisps, peanuts and Twiglets. The 70's saw all manner of newfangled snacks appear. Quavers and Wotsits are the ones that spring to mind. It seemed that all such snacks had to be bright orange and taste of chemicals. I suspect that the early versions had semi addictive E numbers, as the local kids would go mad for such things and even have punch ups over them. 

By the end of the decade, the traditional British Cafe was in decline. In the mid 70's MacDonalds arrived, the first one being in Golders Green. There were queues around the block. You could walk in and walk out a minute later with a burger, fries and a drink. There were a plethora of copyists, such as Burger King, Wimpey, Jennys.

All of these stole a big chunk of the working mens lunch market. By the end of the 70's, there were no traditional cafe's in Mill Hill Broadway, The Wimpy was the place to get a quick bite. The eating options included the Mill Hill Tandoori, that had two busy periods, sober diners at 7.30pm and drunks from 11pm. The Good Earth had replaced the Kwan Yin as our Chinese sit down and we also had The Moon House takeway on Station Road. La Katarina, was busier than ever. As mentioned, The Wimpy was the fast food restaurant of choice. Chowans was still selling teas and cakes, the coffee generation had yet to arrive.

As for cooking at home. In 1972, Budgens arrived. This big supermarket had a deli counter. The range of food on the Broadway improved beyond recognition. Whilst Walton, Hassle and Port had long provided a great deli service at a price, it seemed like you could get anything at Budgens. I can remember a big thing when they started stocking Kiwi Fruit. I proudly bought some home, which my Dad had a massive allergic reaction to, claiming I'd tried to kill him. Budgens spelled the end of the Greengrocers and smaller supermarkets in the Broadway. They had a wider range and were generally cheaper. The Fishmongers and the Butchers did better. We are lucky to still have  Gerard in the Daws Lane, with his amazing sausages and organic meat, but there were four when Budgens opened. With Budgens, it became easier to make more interesting food. They stocked Lentils, the Deli was Kosher, so there was good quality smoked salmon and there was a great selection of herbs and spices.

As I was writing this, I got to thinking. If you wanted to know the difference between 1969 and 1979, you might want to consider our eating habits on a Friday evening. In 1969, it was religiously Fish and Chips eaten from the newspaper. By 1979, it was more likely to be a Chinese take out, a curry or even a trip out to a pub for a 'slap up meal'. Whilst by 2020 standards, I'd say our tastes were still pretty conservative, we were up for trying things and experimenting by the end of the 1970's. It really was the decade when we started to take food seriously. 

1 comment:

Fraser said...

Just thinking of a few foods "of the 70s"
Avocado pears
Prawn cocktail
Blackforest Gateau
Unbritish cuts of beef, like "cotes couvert" (sold in Rackhams in Birmingham
POt noodles, (I know a chap who lived off these and 40 fags a day - he died in his 50s)

Mateus Rose wine
Real Ale comes back (CAMRA)

It was a decade of total madness, the country became ungovernable, but we did finally start to overcome the rationing mentality of WW2.