Saturday, 6 August 2016

1. From Cremated Beef To Frozen Ants.

A Gourmand by Henri Brispot 1928

  It's a sad fact that as you get older you love food more but at the same time you are less able to eat it. Somehow, though your stomach looks bigger from the outside it feels smaller on the inside; you have, in effect a reverse Tardis stomach.

  So, I suppose, it makes sense to be more discerning about what you eat. The good news is that you probably have more money than you used to so you can afford to be more discerning. Things happen - you discover that burgers are revolting, even when jazzed up somewhat and sold for 7 times the price that Macdonalds charges (I have no idea how much Macdonalds charges for a burger since I haven't visited one of their establishments since the early 1990s and then it was just to have one of their milk shakes that takes 20 minutes to drink because it all gets lodged in the straw they give you).
  Food you rejected instantly before you were 50 years old suddenly becomes enormously delicious - Brussels sprouts for instance, now one of my great winter pleasures (no doubt some will say that I ought to get out more - and I do in actual fact). I still haven't really conquered offal, however, and don't suppose that I ever will now. Pigeon, too, has not come to me in my maturity after an unpleasant experience with a dish made up of the bird and not a lot else in Hong Kong in 1987. Still, my food horizons have broadened enormously as my skin has grown increasingly wrinkled.

  I was born and bred in Birmingham. I grew up to know and partially like the English cuisine of the 1950s and 60s remembered mainly as cremated meat and soggy vegetables (as an undiscerning child I obviously recognised just how unpleasant was the dried-out roast beef we had on Sundays as I was always in trouble for putting it in mouth and then choking it back or refusing to eat it completely - give me a piece of Yorkshire pudding, a couple of perfectly cooked roast potatoes and a few tinned peas with perhaps a sliver of carrot and the slightest drip of Oxo gravy and I was a happy child).

  Chicken was too expensive to eat regularly and was so costly that we had a special cockerel rather than turkey for Christmas dinner which I later learned to call Christmas lunch. Our Christmas puddings and cakes were homemade and a lady in Grantham always sent us memorable pork pies in the Christmas post made in the bakery at which she worked. Food may often have been over cooked but I knew nothing different and it therefore suited me.

  But things were moving on. I remember my first Ploughman's lunch, then newly invented as part of a cheese marketing campaign, which I had when my dad took me to the Old Hare And Hounds at the Lickey Hills one Saturday evening, washed down by my favourite soft drink - Vimto - while my dad, not much of a drinker apart from a dark rum at Christmas (he had been in the navy during The War), supped half a pint of mild. The Ploughman's was amazing to us, incredibly simple (too much so for modern tastes) - just cheese, rings of raw onion and very crusty bread with butter. We adopted it and when we stayed home on a Saturday night, my mother off visiting her parents, my dad and I would chomp away at crispy bread and Cheddar and hot, raw onion while watching our then favourite television programme, in black and white, "The High Chaparral". There's no better form of father-son bonding than watching a western while devouring a simple Ploughman's.

  Then there were curries. Sort of. My Gran discovered Vesta Curries and we set off down a new road of previously undreamed of flavours. There was originally Beef Curry - admittedly the pieces of rehydrated meat in them were rather strange but I grew to tolerate them. There was Chow Mein which I never liked - the ribbon noodles always seemed horribly slimy - but there was also Chop Suey which was fantastic because of the presence of the crispy noodles. Mmmm.

  We didn't eat out much then. In our little suburb on the very edge of Birmingham there were only fish and chip shops and nothing else in those days. I remember my parents visited the Jewellery Quarter where they both worked to dine with some friends or colleagues but I don't think children were really taken out to eat dinner then. If my mother and aunts were torturing me by taking me shopping in town with them they usually treated me to lunch at Lewis' - I remember the restaurant or cafeteria or whatever they called it was at the top of the building - on the fifth floor, I think, which just happened serendipitously to be the same floor as the paradise known as the Toy Department and 1 floor below the roof area where they kept the pets which I loved to see. I ALWAYS chose sausage (3 of them), beans and chips which cost half a crown (2/6d) and to me then, at least, were as delicious and enjoyable as you might find a meal at Purnell's to be in this current time.

  Otherwise, being taken to eat in Birmingham usually centred around a visit to a Lyon's Corner Cafe and having a cheese or ham and salad sandwich. Later I had my first burger, very exciting, at what I think was called a Wimpey Bar but I can't remember where it was situated.
  It wasn't till I was in my mid-teens that I remember going out for a real dinner with the rest of the family at a place called The Barn in Hockley Heath. It was not a formal restaurant but a spot where you not only ate but were entertained by a cabaret. 

The Gourmand by Louis Leopold Boilly1761 - 1845
  But curries were becoming something rather more interesting than rehydrated lumps from a cardboard packet. By now large numbers of Indian and Pakistani immigrants had moved into Birmingham and south Asian restaurants were becoming accessible to the native English population. Thus, in the 70's, I discovered the wonder of places like The Maharajah in Hurst Street and The Raj Doot and life would never be the same. And no-one had even mentioned the word "Balti" then.

  About this time I moved to work in Sheffield and South Yorkshire and my dining out mainly took place in that part of the country but I was always coming back to Birmingham and eventually moved back for good. And what a transformation in British food had occurred in those intervening years. Birmingham had passed through various phases - at one time The Plough And Harrow had been the pinnacle - good friends did their courting over some excellent food there - and before you could say "Yuppie" we had Delia Smith making cooking simple, Nouvelle Cuisine, Beaujolais Nouveau, and various other nouveaus until the time when food programmes filled the television screens, Fine Dining and Sous vide cooking entered our vocabulary and Simpson's had left Kenilworth for Edgbaston and Jessica's with Glynn Purnell were with us. 

  And now food is actually quite different. And in lucky old Birmingham it's rather good. And here I shall waffle on about it in a piece of self-indulgence which occasionally someone else may come across and spend a few seconds seeing if any of it's worth reading. Lots of others do it, a lot of bright young things write bubbly food blogs and of course there's always the grumpy old professional critics and so one might ask what is the point of me sitting here typing this stuff. Probably none whatsoever. I may never write another instalment but I like to jot things down and right now, food and the way we eat is an important part of history in general and Birmingham's history in particular. And I've always liked history.

   In it's little way, Alex Claridge's "The ants got to the cheese tart first" is history - it can't have happened very much in Birmingham's past that people intentionally paid to eat ants and discovered that they really do taste like lemons.

Alex Claridge's The Ants Got To The Cheese Tart First

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