September 2012

Taste the Difference

Pub food was far more interesting and surprising thirty years ago

ON A FEW occasions, I’ve made comments along the lines that, thirty years ago, food in pubs was often more varied and innovative than it is now. This has often been met with incredulity and people saying “from what I remember it was absolute rubbish”. So it’s worth trying to explain what I mean. I will start with an important caveat – I freely admit to being a somewhat picky and idiosyncratic eater, so I don’t remotely claim that what I say about food is in any way authoritative or applicable to the general population. In particular I can’t stand the bad side of “traditional English” – the gristly meat, lumpy gravy, tasteless spuds and soggy veg.

Back in those days, pub food was more in its infancy, and to a large extent licensees were left to their own devices. Even in managed pubs, food was usually the licensee’s perk. While there were Berni Inns and the like, the chain dining pub was virtually unknown. There was a huge disparity amongst what was on offer – some was dreadful, some was superb, and so going in new pubs could be a voyage of discovery. Pubs were still experimenting and finding out what worked and what didn’t. It could well be described as a wide variety of simple, informal food, more food for existing drinkers than food for a destination meal out.

You were much more likely to see substantial snacks alongside main meals, for example Cumberland sausage with crusty bread or smoked mackerel with bread and butter. The White Hart at Chobham in Surrey, near to where I was living then, did a main course “Mushrooms Bistingo” – breaded mushrooms with garlic mayonnaise and bread – which I still remember now. Quite a few pubs offered extensive cold buffets, something you never see nowadays. The one at the Bull’s Head in King’s Norton, Birmingham, particularly sticks in my mind. And you were much more likely to get a proper Ploughman’s than the pathetic cheese salad with a roll that often passes for it nowadays.

Back in those days, many pubs served pizzas, which at the time were in the vanguard of the reaction against old-fashioned stodge. I remember having excellent pizzas, for example, at the now-closed Highwayman at Rainow. While often derided nowadays, pizzas still form the core of the menu at fashionable restaurant chains like Pizza Express and Ask. But when did you last see a pizza on the menu in a pub? (Praise must go to the refreshingly different pizza-centred menu recently introduced at the Plough in Heaton Moor)

Some pubs made a speciality of particular national cuisines from around the world. I remember one featuring Austrian and Balkan dishes, and several with a Mexican-themed menu, again something you don’t see now. The modern focus on locally-sourced ingredients, while laudable in some ways, tends to restrict the range of dishes that is offered. All too often, there seems to be a consciously retro emphasis on nursery food and public school dinners, when to my mind there should be more Mediterranean and less Marlborough College.

Far too many pubs nowadays offer, with a few variations, a predictable, standardised menu of “pub grub” majoring on traditional “meat, spuds and veg” dishes and a handful of assimilated favourites such as lasagne and chill con carne. There is remarkably little inspiration and innovation, and equally little embrace of the revolution in eating habits that has occurred in Britain over the past thirty or so years. A good indicator of how genuinely progressive a pub’s menu is must be the proportion of main dishes that come with something other than some form of potatoes as the default accompaniment.

Thirty years ago, there was certainly less pub food around. Fewer pubs did food overall, and it was harder to find food in the evenings and Sundays. Some pub food was dire, although that’s still the case today. But there was more variety in terms of approach and styles of presentation, and more of a sense of pubs trying new and different things to see if they worked rather than just settling into a comfort zone. Pub food was, quite simply, more interesting.

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