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Valentine Warner: Things Can Only Get Better?

Penelope Walsh is taken back in time to see whether food in the ’60s was really that bad

Written by . Published on October 7th 2011.

Valentine Warner: Things Can Only Get Better?

MAKING his way from the “wilds of Dorset” (via The Villandry’s kitchen), Valentine Warner has created quite a name for himself on the British food scene as a foraging enthusiast and an advocate of seasonality. Due to be aired this month, Valentine Warner Eats the Sixties is his latest TV project, a two part series exploring the food of this decade.

Think not just of food in the 1960s, but across the entire culture of the period; the bright colours and surrealist fancy of 1960s art, fashion and music all bare testament to this desire to let off steam.

The new series came as a natural extension of Valentine’s previous project, which looked at rationing during the Second World War. Since rationing continued well into the 1950s, the 1960s was the next period, Valentine says, to have significantly altered the way we eat.   

So just how bad, I ask Valentine, was British food in the past? “We have taken a lot of jip for our food,” he answers, “but it wasn’t actually that bad.” The French have often been our harshest culinary critics, and Valentine confirms, “When the French turned up and started cooking as chefs in big houses, they told everyone they were the best chefs in the world. I think as a result we took a hit by believing them.” 

Shepherds PieShepherds Pie

British food, Valentine argues, may not have been “complicated like some very grand French cooking.” Nevertheless, looking, for example, at the evidence of coaching inn menus, Valentine believes there was food being eaten across the country, that was simple but pleasurable and “good stuff.” Whelks with vinegar and black pepper, rabbit stew, roast fennel with bread sauce and raspberry tart are a few examples Valentine gives of tradition dishes he wouldn’t pass on himself. We were, he adds “pretty handy at roasting meats” although “maybe we’ve over cooked our vegetables a bit.”

Pre- and post-war poverty, and the restrictions imposed by rationing all had an impact on our culinary landscape. According to Valentine, however, the greatest damage occurred as a result of the “mechanising of food.” For Valentine, food knowledge, such as what foods were in season or using a chicken carcass to make soup, gradually became lost as a result of this. He sees this process beginning during the war, and by the 1950s, he explains, “there is lots more being done for us, and we started forgetting out food history.” This mechanisation, he argues, became significantly worse in the '60s, and we have been left with the legacy of many of these changes.

Quiche LorraineQuiche Lorraine

The way we shop changed; we began to choose our own food in supermarkets, rather than being “served from behind a counter by polite men in coats” at the butchers and the bakers. Frozen food entered our shops, and in doing so made some food accessible to more people than ever before. Valentine cites the example of chickens, which had previously been considered a luxury. With the introduction of frozen chickens, he tells me, the numbers sold during the 1960s went up by millions each year.

Science, and the changes it made in the field of convenience, had a huge impact on food in the '60s. “Scientists,” Valentine explains, “were the wiz kids at that point. They were coming up with amazing labour saving, wacky space food.” Some of these powdered, just add water products (Angel Delight, Vesta Curry and Smash) have now become infamous to the point of mockery. These technological advancements, have, however, changed the way we eat and the way we cook. We have become ever more enamoured of ready meals and convenience food. “What are we all obsessed with now?” Valentine asks, “People say I don’t have the time to cook.” He sees this obsession with time saving in food as having taken hold in the 1960s, and comments that this mentality “has very much become ingrained in quite a lot of the products we see on our shelves today.”

Prawn %26#38%3B Avocado CocktailPrawn Avocado Cocktail

Even so, we ought not to look back too unkindly on this obsession with easy and instant in the kitchen. Valentine points out how awful many people’s experiences had been during the war, with rationing then continuing long after the war was over. “People had been through hell,” and the 1960s, he argues, became “the decade where everyone blew off a bit of steam.” As a consequence of this, food became as much about fun as flavour.

People began to entertain and eat in each other’s houses much more. With the advent of the dinner party as we know it, came an Abigail’s Party- esque desire to impress and the visual aspect of food took on a new importance. Gadgets and colour flooded kitchens, and colour flooded the plate. Many dishes were decorated up “to the nines” in a bid to create something fun, pleasurable and impressive. Valentine comments that “a kind of opulence” became present in many dishes of the period, and that many “seem more about decorating than what it tastes like.” 

Valentine Eats The SixtiesValentine Eats The Sixties

Valentine sums this development up: “It’s been grey, it’s been hard, its been camouflage and combat fatigues. It’s been charred and black and burnt out, and now people want to cheer themselves up.” Looking at the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory, the confectionary is technicolour and fanciful. Technologically it is mind blowingly advanced, and it is primarily about spectacle. What could embody this new attitude to food better? 

Think not just of food in the 1960s, but across the entire culture of the period; the bright colours and surrealist fancy of 1960s art, fashion and music all bare testament to this desire to “let off steam.” 

It was not just the consumption of more notorious substances in the '60s that played a part in opening minds and expanding horizons. Travel, and the popularity of package holidays exposed people to new cuisines. Throughout the 1960s, foreign food became increasingly less foreign to the British palate. Holidaymakers returned home with new ideas, new ingredients and a taste for fondue and paella. Contemporary celebrity chefs like Elizabeth David and Fanny Craddock facilitated this by exploring European (particularly French) cooking in their TV shows and books. In the restaurant scene, pizza (the first Pizza Express opened in 1968), burgers and Chinese food all made their first appearance. To some extent, these first waves of holidaymaking and immigration made the British palate more adventurous, and we have subsequently explored ever further a field with our knife and fork. Now, as Valentine points out, “you can eat any kind of food” in today’s multi-national restaurant scene. 

For better and for worse, the developments in the 1960s changed how we buy, cook and eat our food. Arguably though, in today’s food scene, it is a backlash against many of these changes that now encourages us to rediscover those simple pleasures from our culinary past.

Valentine Warner Eats the Sixties will be shown on the 12 and 19 of October on Yesterday (Sky 537, Virgin 203 and Freeview channel 12)

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