Friday, September 23, 2011

Taste the difference

On a couple of blogs, I’ve made the comment that, thirty years ago, food in pubs was often more varied and innovative than it is now. This has 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 ought to start with an important caveat – I freely admit to being a somewhat picky eater, with a number of irrational dislikes, 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.

In the early 80s I was living in a bedsit in Surrey where the facilities for cooking for myself were somewhat restricted, so I had a strong incentive to get out round the pubs to find something decent to eat. However, I would say my experiences then were not dramatically different from what I found in other parts of the country when on holiday or visiting friends and relatives. While Surrey has a prosperous Home Counties image at least back then there was no shortage of surprisingly down-to-earth pubs.

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. 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. It could well be described as a wide variety of simple, informal food, more food for 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 did “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 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 Horse & Groom in Merrow near Guildford. 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?

And 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.

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. And, across the spectrum of pubs, I undoubtedly found it easier then than now to find food that appealed to me on a personal level.