Good, bad or just plain mad? On: revisits some retro food classics
With all the warnings about childhood obesity and diabetes due to dodgy modern diets you’d be forgiven for thinking that a few decades ago we were munching on fresh crisp vegetables and cooking every meal from scratch. But there was a convenience revolution going on and we were embracing packets, tins and frozen goods with abandon.
Chances are that your after-work or school meal would be plucked from the deep freeze. This was the era of the chest freezer; often packed with enough food to last a nuclear winter and most of it unrecognisable in unmarked freezer bags. The big brands still ruled, however, and Bird’s Eye was no exception. Boil in the bag fish-in-sauce, anyone? A perfectly uniform rectangular little block of cod in a plastic bag along with a parsley or butter sauce, then frozen. To eat you just dropped in a pan of boiling water for 15 minutes, snipped open the bag and voilà!
Other freezer gems included Findus Crispy Pancakes (no one quite knows how they came by their name as the pancake link was always dubious). A ‘pancake’ with fillings like chicken curry, minced beef or ham and cheese was encased in bright orange breadcrumbs and frozen, to be fried or baked at your convenience. Or you could have a Pop Tart. A pastry with a fruit filling that could be put in the toaster from frozen. The main characteristic of both these products was an ability to produce a filling so ferociously, moltenly hot that they should have come with burn warnings.
Weirdly, dried food made a slight return in the shape of Vesta curries and noodles. Who would’ve thought that adding water to freeze-dried meat and sauce could produce something edible. It had worked in the past for astronauts and powdered eggs were the only type you could get during the war, but this stuff was actually flying off the shelves in a time where fresh fruit and veg were available and plentiful. The deep fried crispy noodles that went with the Vesta chow-mein were a particular kids favourite. And a good excuse to get the chip pan out.
The rest of the evening meal could be cunningly crafted from a variety of tins and packets. Suspiciously identical-sized tinned new potatoes and button mushrooms, baby carrots and marrowfat peas were all on the menu.
And for pudding, what about a nice slice of Arctic Roll, Vienetta or Neapolitan ice cream. Perhaps a few spoonfuls of banana or butterscotch Angel Delight? Or how about tinned peaches with a good dollop of Dream Topping and some hundreds and thousands?
With an emphasis on meat, rich sauces and indulgent puds, eating out was a bit of blow-out affair. After all, no-one wanted to pay good money to eat a salad, did they? As if to offset the calorie-fest that often followed, fruit was often on offer as a starter. Half a grapefruit, usually sprinkled with brown sugar, grilled and served garnished with a maraschino cherry, a slice of chilled melon or a sometimes just glass of fresh juice would begin your meal.
Other starter classics included egg mayonnaise (with or without curry in the mayo), mushrooms a la Greque (baked in white wine, garlic and parsley) or, the king of retro starters, prawn cocktail, which for good reason never really went out of fashion.
You’d be at a push to find a vegetarian option for your main. Duck a l’orange was one of the most popular dishes. Done well this could be a great dish – roast duck with a caramelised orange sauce. But quite often the sauce had been thickened with cornflour into a claggy orange mess. Chicken a la King (chicken in a bechamel sauce with mushroom and peppers, usually served on rice) was typical of the cream rich French influence. Steak Diane was another famous dish (in a creamy shallot and cognac sauce). If you were lucky it was made tableside with a great flourish as the waiter flambéed the brandy to finish the sauce.
There was no let up in the calories for pudding; Black Forest Gateau, Crepe Suzette, Crème Carmel and Profiteroles all made certain there wasn’t even room for a wafer thin mint at end of the evening.
Most peoples’ memory of retro food probably stems from the party spread. It’s quite comforting to know that many of these dishes still endure on groaning buffet tables around the country today. Think Abigail’s Party and you’re halfway there.
No table would be complete without a centrepiece of a cheese-and-pineapple hedgehog. Half a grapefruit would be covered in foil then studded with cheese ‘n’ fruit on a cocktail stick (the savoury version was a cheese and pickled onion). See also mini hotdogs on cocktail sticks – always a winner!
For posher palettes there was the vol-au-vent. A small puff pastry basket usually held a mix of either mushroom or chicken in a creamy sauce. These were generally too big to eat in one bite so would invariably end up down the front of the buffet grazer’s shirt.
A popular not-so-posh canapé was a Ritz cracker base with a swirl of Primula cheese straight from the tube. Cheese could also be seen squeezed into small sections of celery. Crisps were resolutely basic; cheese and onion, salt and vinegar or plain, but there was always the occasional cheese straw or Twiglet to liven things up a bit. Quiche Lorraine was ever present.
To drink, remember Party 7? A giant can of lager which holds seven pints. It needs piercing by a screwdriver and usually results in a wet ceiling. For the ladies there was Babycham and Cherry B (sdilute versions of champagne and cherry brandy in miniature bottles) or Martini and Cinzano with lemonade. If you were posh enough to drink wine it was probably Blue Nun or Mateus Rose.
So good, bad or mad? I think we can safely say there was a decent mix of all three as well as a determination to have a good time, whatever was on the menu. And who can argue with that?
Retro food: Three retro recipes worth revisiting
You’ll probably have most of the ingredients for this one already. Shred iceberg or little gem lettuces and put in the bottom of small dishes (or martini glasses for the ultimate retro look). Top with a few big, juicy, cooked and peeled prawns. Mix together 5 tbsp mayonnaise, 3 tbsp tomato ketchup, a dash each of Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce with a squeeze of lemon juice. Season well then spoon over the prawns and serve with a wedge of lemon.
It’s all about the cheese in this – cheddar will not do. You’ll need to choose 2 or 3 cheeses from gruyere, comte, beaufort, emmenthal or raclette. Grate your cheese so you have 175g. Heat 100ml dry white wine in a heavy saucepan until simmering. Take off the heat and stir in the cheeses along with 2 tsp cornflour which is mixed with 2 tbsp water. Put back on a very low heat and stir continuously until smooth. Serve with chunks of bread or salami for dipping.
Not safe for children! Line a large glass dish with slices of raspberry Swiss roll. Sprinkle over generous amounts of sweet sherry. Then crush a punnet of raspberries with icing sugar and spoon over the sponge. Pour on cooled custard (make your own or get a nice tub of fresh vanilla stuff from the supermarket). Chill for a couple of hours then top with whipped cream and toasted almonds.