QUICK ONE: (A Comically Small Portion of) Food for Thought

Auguste Escoffier in pop art colours.

In 1973 the food critic Henri Gault published ‘The Ten Commandments of Nouvelle Cuisine’, crystallising the new movement then sweeping French gastronomy:

  1. Thou shall not overcook
  2. Thou shall use fresh, quality products
  3. Thou shall lighten thy menu
  4. Thou shall not be systematically modernistic
  5. Thou shall seek out what the new techniques can bring you
  6. Thou shall eliminate brown and white sauces
  7. Thou shall not ignore dietetics
  8. Thou shall not cheat on thy presentation
  9. Thou shall be inventive
  10. Thou shall not be prejudiced

(This is the translation given by Paul Freedman in Ten Restaurants That Changed America, 2016. There are many subtly different versions around.)

From this side of the 1980s, Nouvelle Cuisine is a bit of a joke — huge plates, tiny amounts of silly food, very expensive. What yuppies ate. But that list made us think about changes in beer that were taking place in the same period with the rise of micro-brewing and ‘alterno beer’.

Of course some of those commandment don’t directly map (overcooking, sauces) but how about if we rewrite them a bit?

  1. Thou shall not stew good hops.
  2. Thou shall use fresh, quality products.
  3. Thou shall lighten thy beer.
  4. Thou shall not be industrial.
  5. But thou shall seek out what the new techniques can bring you.
  6. Thou shall eliminate brown beer (UK) and yellow beer (US).
  7. Thou shall be transparent about the strength and ingredients of your beer.
  8. Thou shall not prize marketing over quality.
  9. Thou shall be inventive.
  10. Thou shall not be prejudiced.

Of course there are a million exceptions to each of those ‘rules’, as there were in Nouvelle Cuisine as actually practised, but that doesn’t feel to us like a bad summary of where — in the very most general sense — people’s heads were between about 1963 and, say, 2015. (We say 2015 because, in very recent years, something seems to be changing. But that’s just a gut feeling which we’re still probing.)

This feels like a connection Michael Jackson, Charlie Papazian, Garrett Oliver or even Sean Franklin must have made at some point but a quick Google (time is short this morning) doesn’t turn anything up. Pointers welcome in comments below.

To finish, here’s another quote from Freedman:

Nouvelle Cuisine of the 1970s… had two missions that have since gone separate ways: to exalt primary ingredients simply prepared, and to advocate variety resulting from breaking with tradition — new combinations such as Asian fusion.

That sounds a bit like the break between ‘real ale’ and ‘craft beer’, doesn’t it?

Ham Rolls in Clingfilm

There’s a lot wrapped up — pun intended — in the ham rolls you see on the back bar of a certain type of pub.

Roll. noun. A round individually portioned bread product usually split before eating. Synonyms: bap, cob, batch.

They are not in any sense ‘artisanal’. The bread is usually of the soft, gummy white and processed variety — eight for a pound. The ham is from a packet, pre-sliced, rubbery and pink. If there is butter, it isn’t butter, though you may not believe it. Instead of waxed paper they’re bundled up in clingfilm (US: Saran Wrap) — convenient, certainly, but prone to sweating and squashing the rolls into faintly obscene shapes. And, most importantly, they don’t cost £5 but more like £1, or perhaps £1.50 if they’re especially substantial.

Some variants: the roll might be crusty; there is sometimes mustard, or raw sliced onion; and there might be cheese rolls too — mild cheddar, probably pre-sliced.

This is how we remember pub food when we were kids — piles of rolls like this, kept under plastic covers, and slung across the counter with packets of peanuts, the intention being to soak up beer in the belly, and keep bums on banquettes, pounding pints.

And that’s the point: they are functional accessories to beer, satisfying in their own way but without being a culinary experience.

No-one plans to eat these rolls. They’re a side effect of being in the pub and not wanting to leave for whatever reason, and of the munchies that strike after a round or two. You see them and you just fancy one, just as in the terminal phase of the same evening you might fancy a kebab you wouldn’t touch with a broom-handle while sober.

Fictional book cover: The Ham Roll Pub Guide.
Not a real book from 1975.

In the 21st Century they’re a way for a pub to signal that it is unpretentious but not uncivilised; old-fashioned rather than rough. If you’re going to drink ten pints here, mate, which you’re very welcome to do, then make sure you don’t do it on an empty stomach.

But they’re becoming rare these days as pubs become ever more polarised between haves and have-nots and as environmental health regulations make it harder for a publican to knock up something even this simple without a dedicated food preparation area.

Which is a shame because we’re beginning to think that Ham Roll Pubs™ might be the best pubs.

Quick, Clint — to the Pub Grub Mobile!

Though there had been pub food before the 1960s (see the forthcoming Big Project for more on that) it was in this decade that it really took off, and Guinness got stuck in.

The story is told in the Spring 1963 edition of the in-house magazine, Guinness Time, and also in a short essay by Edward Guinness in The Guinness book of Guinness, 1988, neither of which can be considered entirely objective. Anyway, here’s how it went.

In partnership with the National Trade Development Association, in November 1961, the brewery published a book called The Guide to Profitable Snacks (many copies are available on Amazon/Ebay — we’ve got one on the way). It contained recipes and costings for bar snacks in an attempt to address a specific problem whereby, as Edward Guinness put it

many ladies started [providing food] with enthusiasm but were disappointed by the lack of return either due to inexperience in providing what the customers wanted or more often as she had no idea how to cost the operation and fix the appropriate retail price.

In 1962 Guinness followed that book up with a film, Food for Thought, which is sadly not available anywhere online, starring Pearl Hackney and Carry On star Eric Barker. (You’ll know him when you see him.)

These were successful enough but Edward Guinness felt that face-to-face demonstrations would be even better so, in October 1962, the newly-formed Snack Demonstration Team hit the road in this fabulous Mystery-Machine-alike:

Guinness Snack Demonstration Unit van.

Four days a week for the latter part of that year, lecturer Jo Shellard (an actor turned caterer) and his assistant Clint Antell toured the North West of England (where pub food was particularly wanting, we assume) speaking to groups of publicans ‘and their wives’:

The van contains the full equipment for showing the film-strip, tables, cutlery, cookers and other items necessary for the demonstration. it also contains sets of the basic snack equipment required by licensees, priced from £5 per set upwards. In addition, the van carries supplies of the book… and notebooks for each member of the audience, containing a précis of the lecture, recipes, and space for the licensees’ own notes.

The talks got busier and busier and Edward Guinness reckoned that, by the time the GSDU was demobilised in 1966, more than 20,000 people had attended its lectures. One licensee in Blackburn, he said, told him that he’d doubled his lunchtime takings by offering soup and a ploughman’s and thus luring local workers from the factory canteen. By this time, most big breweries had a catering training division, so Guinness’s work was done.

The motive for all this was never quite selfless — ‘Guinness prospered if the trade prospered’ — but ads like this from a few years later make you wonder if they didn’t also take the chance to push Guinness more directly, as the classy choice to accompany meals:

Guinness Ad for steaks from 1966.
From 1966. SOURCE: Illustrated London News.

We wonder if there’s anyone out there who remembers attending one of Jo Shellard’s demos — they’d have to be at least in their 70s if so. When the book arrives, we’ll let you know what recipes it contains, and how closely it resembles the pub grub cliches we know and love.

Repeat After Us: Pub. Grub.

We’ve been researching 1990s gastropubs this week which prompted a side question: when did the phrase ‘pub grub’ come into common use?

There are a few examples of similar turns of phrase, such as this from 1924…

Burnley News, 05/05/1924, via The British Newspaper Archive.
Burnley News, 05/05/1924, via The British Newspaper Archive.

…and the Peacock Hotel, Bedford, called itself ‘The Pub for Grub’ in advertising in the 1930s (e.g. Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 05/11/1937.) It’s kind of an obvious rhyme, really, and, as ‘pub’ was itself generally considered an uncouth contraction until as late as the 1950s, it’s possible that people were riffing on it verbally even if it wasn’t recorded in print.

But, those caveats aside, we reckon that the popularity of the specific catchy unit ‘pub grub’ can be traced pretty precisely to a Brewers’ Society advertising campaign that began in 1967, an example of which, taken from The Times, you can see above.

It was hammered home with follow-up ads in 1968, a prominent mention in the slyly-sponsored 1969 anthology Pub edited by Angus McGill, and by individual members of the Society in their own PR. Watney’s, for example, ran an exhibition called Pub Grub ’71 in, er, 1971.

It’s almost disappointing to discover that, like Beer is Best, this is another example of marketing people training punters to use their language. It’s also rather impressive.

Book Review: Cooked by Michael Pollan

1899 illustration of brewing yeast.

Michael Pollan Cooked.Michael Pollan’s book is a mix of history, philosophy, personal memoir and cookbook, which amounts to an extended pep talk: cook more! Eat more dirt!

The book is built around the conceit that the four primary methods of preparing food each correspond to an element: grilling (meat) is fire; stewing is water; leavening bread is air; and fermentation with fungus and bacteria is earth.

Pollan’s approach to understanding the act of cooking is hands-on, which leads him to question repeatedly why anyone bothers to make their own bread, beer or sauerkraut. One of his conclusions is that preparing at home, at great expense and with highly variable results, versions of products that can be bought at the shops for next to nothing is enjoyable and meditative: it is ‘adult play’.

This is certainly a fair description of our own attempts at home brewing, and perhaps (no offence intended) even of some small commercial brewing operations.

In his exploration of ‘the Balkans of barbecue’, we found echoes of the debate over categories of beer in the UK. What ‘barbecue’ means in the US, Pollan explains, varies from region to region, state to state, city to city — some ‘tribes’ use sauce, others don’t; sauces can be based on mustard, vinegar or tomato; they might use the whole pig, the shoulder, the belly, or specific cuts thereof. Each region thinks the others is doing it wrong. Those differences, he suggests, are a form of social glue — a way for members of one group to bond, while also excluding outsiders.

When he quotes a friend saying ‘So barbecue is basically kashrut [kosher food law] for goys?’, and barbecue aficionados dismissing the slow-cooked pork from the next town with, ‘Okay, but that’s not barbecue,’ we hear the voice of a Campaign for Real Ale member or Brewdog shareholder: ‘Okay, but that’s not real ale/craft beer.’

Back-to-basics artisan, or rock-star?

Pigs

Throughout the book, Pollan grapples with a few problems which also affect the world of beer, such as the arrival of the ‘rock-star’ artisan. When he meets world-famous barbecue pit-master Ed Mitchell, he observes with some disappointment that not only is Mitchell a touch hypocritical (he uses both charcoal and propane for convenience, despite having railed against them), but is also a walking ‘brand’ whose job is to sell a particular vision of ‘authenticity’ (Mitchell is black) on behalf of the wealthy investors who actually own ‘his’ restaurant.

Some of this exists in beer already, and more of it is on the way.

‘Craft beer’ drinkers will also recognise the tale of how the $2.75 barbecue sandwich became the $8 ‘premium product’: it takes more time and uses more expensive ingredients, and, as a result, only people in suits can afford to eat them, in sanitised, theme park surroundings. With pork products, however, the argument is somewhat more compelling — the $2.75 sandwich uses factory-farmed ‘commodity pork’, while the more expensive version uses fattier and reportedly tastier meat from rare breed pigs. There is no such thing as battery-farmed malt or hops, as far as we are aware.

Craft: instinct and fingers?

There are also various compelling illustrations of ‘craft’ as a verb. For example, Pollan describes a miller knows when the grains are overheating because he literally puts his nose to the grindstone. Of a rockstar sourdough producer, he says this:

[Chad] Robertson seemed to be suggesting that success as a baker demanded a certain amount of negative capability — willingness to exist amid uncertainty. His was a world of craft rather than engineering, one where ‘digital’ referred exclusively to fingers.

‘Negative capability’, just to be clear, means ‘lack of ability’: it helps not to be technically competent. (See comment below.) We can imagine some brewers bridling at that, especially those who seem (to borrow another of Pollan’s pithy turns of phrase) ‘less like… cooks than twenty-something computer geeks trying to master a new software platform’.

Elsewhere, Pollan tells a familiar story of the march of progress and the resulting blandification of processed, industrialised food. He suggests that attempts by hippies to revive ‘whole grain’ bread in the nineteen-seventies did more damage than good, producing black, indigestible bricks that created an image bread-makers are still trying to shake-off forty years on. (We thought, once again, of ‘real ale’.)

‘The cheese and the sex’

When we finally got to it, the section on fermenting was, perhaps inevitably, a let down, though there were a few interesting nuggets which demand further research.

A long meditation on why people would voluntarily eat rotting shark meat or cheese that smells like toe-jam — ‘the erotics of disgust’ — applies just as well to sour and otherwise ‘funky’ acquired-taste beers. After consulting Freud, talking to a cheese-making nun, and reading the insane website of an apparent cheese fetishist, Pollan concludes that humans fundamentally love body smells (feet, shit, sweat) but (except in France…) are then socially-conditioned to pretend they don’t.

While making mead with wild yeast, he is told that they typically ‘crap out’ at around 5% ABV, which leads Pollan to suggest that is arguably the ‘natural’ strength for primitively-produced alcoholic beverages. European beer culture would certainly seem to have decided as much.

We were also amused and intrigued by his argument for why drinking is inseparable from socialising. When animals are given access to booze under laboratory conditions, he explains, not only do they love the stuff, but they gather together to drink in group ‘sessions’, apparently because being drunk makes them more vulnerable to predators, and there is safety in numbers. Suddenly, the pub makes much more sense.

* * *

Though it occasionally tips over into self-righteous disgust at the eating habits of the masses, and isn’t always successful in avoiding a certain middle-class smugness, Cooked is an entertaining, amusing book which anyone who has ever felt the urge to make pickles, bacon or beer ought to enjoy.

And we dare anyone to read it and not come away wanting bake a wholemeal sourdough loaf, or roast a whole hog.

We were given our copy as a gift by a friend but the recommended retail price for the hardback edition is £20.