Friday 23 September 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.


  1. Curmudgeon:

    As posted on your other blog, Campaign for Real Pubs, my local, the Post Office Tavern, Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol specialises in pizzas. In addition to this, The Victoria, about 10 minutes' walk away, also does them.

  2. Can't argue with you, PC. Pub menus are as routine as they have ever been IME. You'll find gammon, steak pie, ham egg and chips, burger, chicken burger etc etc etc on every menu apart from lah-di-dah pubs which charge the earth. And even then, I've still seen such pubs describing their burgers differently, with a nice fonted menu ... it's just that it costs a tenner for the damn thing.

    The upside is that food is incredibly cheap now. Has to be I suppose, as few go for the beer anymore. ;)

  3. "Pub food was more in its infancy"

    Yur joking?

    Before your time; but, bars/taverns/beer-halls in small town America used to(40-50 years ago) provide all manner of free food for their customers.

    I can remember:
    hard boiled eggs
    real cheese and bread
    pickled eggs and pork hocks
    platters of beef and ham
    apples and tomatoes
    fried fish caught locally
    cakes and pastry for the ladies
    candy for the kids

    But; then,especially on the week-ends, these places were the social centers of the rural areas.

    Gary K.

  4. Of course,way back then, beer cost 5 cents(American) a glass and the ladies would sit together at tables and drink stuff like Elderberry wine.

    I can remember being given the money to get pack of cigarettes for my Dad and was never refused service.

    Gary K.

  5. Sorry PC if this should'nt be posted. Its from a local Devon paper.
    'MPs have called for the appointment of a “Pub Tsar” to halt the “alarming rate” of pub closures which have blighted many rural Westcountry communities.

    An estimated 14 pubs in the UK close each week, with many blaming the closures on the stranglehold large pub companies have on landlords.
    Although numbers have tumbled since the peak of the crisis, when 52 pubs were lost each week, time was called permanently at 49 South West pubs in the first six months of this year.

    A Parliamentary group set up to resolve “deep-seated problems” within the industry has finally lost patience with the “glacial pace” of reform.

    The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee has told the Government to appoint an adjudicator with powers of sanction “as a matter of urgency”.

    The Campaign For Real Ale (Camra) has welcomed the committee’s scathing report, which criticised the pub industry’s “half-hearted” efforts to regulate itself.

    Camra chief executive Mike Benner said twice as many “tied” pubs were shutting as “free” houses and warned that only a statutory code backed by a powerful adjudicator could halt the decline.

    He added: “Too many of the UK’s pubs are blighted by the actions of the large pub companies whose business model has been so reliant on exploiting a position of power to the cost of pub licensees, communities and the consumer.”

    Some pub landlords claim they are being put out of business by the so-called pubcos, from whom they lease the buildings.

    These companies dictate which drinks the pubs sell, set the price at which the pubs buy those drinks and can push through rent increases at short notice.

    Terry Burrows, CAMRA secretary to the North Devon branch, said some of the pubcos were “hatchet men” who needed “reining in” with new laws.

    Mr Burrows said landlords operating under large pub companies often faced Big-Brother-style scrutiny with centralised electronic tills.

    “A pub is very much part of the local community and if it closes down the village is very much the worse for it,” he added.

    “We have got to look at sustainable communities and a lot of people are now coming at it from that angle.”

    Adrian Bailey, MP for West Bromwich West and chairman of the committee, said: “We fully realise the implications of our recommendations and we have not come to this decision lightly, but we see no other alternative for an industry which has failed to put its own house in order. “

    The British Beer and Pubs Association (BBPA), which and was described as “impotent” in the report, said that it was “deeply disappointed” with the conclusion.

    Brigid Simmonds, the BBPA’s chief executive, called for “less tax and less regulation, not more”.

    The GMB union said “sky high” rents charged to “tied” pub tenants had driven the price of a pint of lager up by an extra 80p.

    Enterprise Inns, which runs a number of South West pubs, said its evidence showed that the industry code of practice was effective.


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