Sunday, 4 April 2010

Gastronomic pleasures of the '60s

Britain was not a foodie's paradise in the 1960s. Food was essentially dull stodge. School meals were unspeakably awful (gristly meat in gravy, powdered lumpy mashed potatoes, over-boiled greens). Ready meals didn't really exist - only Bird's Eye Chicken Pie springs to mind, bits of chicken and garden peas in that ubiquitous gravy, all in a pastry shell. I liked Bird's Eye Chicken Pie, associating it with those very rare occasions on which my mother was ill and my father would cook.

Supermarkets were still rare. I remember the old Sainsbury's on the Uxbridge Road in West Ealing before it was turned into a supermarket. There would be a grocery counter (queue here for sage and onion stuffing, gravy powder, jam, tinned pilchards and tapioca), a dairy counter (queue here for butter and cheese), a meat counter (queue here for lamb chops, mince and cold cuts). My favourites from Sainsbury's were mature Canadian Cheddar, gum-tinglingly good, with the word 'CANADA' stamped on the rind, and Hungarian salami (10/6d a pound, I recall); the right balance of meatiness, spiciness and under-stated garlic. Self-service came to our Sainsbury's some time in the mid-'60s.

My mother would do most of her shopping (very) locally, buying meat at Mr Laurence's, which typically she'd mince, add an egg and bread, and shape meatballs (kotlety mielone) for the frying pan. Fruit and veg at the greengrocer's further along the parade on Oaklands Road. Bread would come from Parker's on the Uxbridge Road (mostly ghastly white sliced); groceries (as in items in tins, packets, jars) from Sainsbury's. Ah, and fish - from MacFisheries on the Uxbridge Road.

Milk came delivered daily to our doorstep courtesy of Express Dairy's electric milk float. I remember yoghurt appearing in the late '60s; we'd first sampled this dairy delight on holiday in France; soon after our milkman began selling it. I also recall my brother (aged five) running down the middle of the Croft Gardens chasing the milk float and shouting at the milkman to stop as he wanted a yoghurt.

Tea was an essential requisite in every English household, and ours, despite its exotic provenance, was no exception. This was an age before the teabag. Tea was bought loose (we'd favour Brooke Bond) in quarter-pound packets, which often came with collector's cards (Butterflies of the World, for instance). The leaves would go into a glazed ceramic teapot (I recall one with blue-and-white stripes; I guess they'd be broken frequently or have chipped spouts so they'd not pour straight). Boiled water would come from the kettle that was boiled on the gas stove. I can see the kettle now; lime scale in the spout, aluminium, black bakelite (?) handle and lid knob, blackened around the base by the town gas flames. The tea would be served with milk, and for us young ones, with sugar. And Rich Tea biscuits. To my current taste buds - repulsive. At the time, reassuring, calming, nourishing and as English as Queen Victoria*.

Being Polish, the more adventurous food in our house came from Pan Rozwadowski's Polish shop on the corner of Northfields Avenue and Elers Road. Here, my parents would buy powidly (plum jam), smoked meats, krówki (Polish cream fudge) and other foreign-currency earning products denied its subjects by Poland's communist regime

Food in Britain suddenly became exciting in the 1970s with the advent of foreign food. Until then, Britons of almost all classes were condemned to an awful diet.
* Who, as Captain Edmund Blackadder pointed out had 'a German father, was married to a German and was surnamed Saxe-Coburg-Gotha'.

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