Could we be heading for a 1970s food revival? At a car boot sale recently, I spotted a tool with a frighteningly specific purpose. It was a sardine and cheese platter, lovingly preserved in its original 1970s box. “You probably have the same sense of humour as me,” said the seller, noticing it had caught my eye. “I bought that because I couldn’t think of anything more revolting than sardines and cheese.” But whether revolting or surprisingly tasty, it epitomised the experimental attitude to food that flourished in the 1970s and 80s.
In this month’s Prospect, Adam Gopnik writes that the new cookbook from elBulli offers basic, homely fare, rather than the recently closed restaurant’s “techno-emotional cuisine.” Heston Blumenthal is another famously zany chef about to bring out a book of “do try this at home” recipes. But do we really need them? British home cooking has an unimpeachable track record when it comes to marrying family cooking with a sense of the spectacular, in combinations that sound insane but wow the crowds. Molecular gastronomy was born in the humble ranges of British housewives.
A quick flick through the old recipe books in our house reveals such treats as “Festive Fish Gateau,” described in Josceline Dimbleby’s Festive Food and Party Pieces (1982) as “a mixture of salmon, crab and prawns on a toasted base and ‘iced’ with thin slivers of cucumber.” Dimbleby adds: “it needs no accompaniment.”
Or there’s the “Savoury Ham Custard” in Celebrity Cooking for You: a potent mix of ham, eggs, milk, pimento and garlic salt, stood in cold water and then baked until set. Serve with a green salad, apparently.
Say what you like about bacon mousse and lettuce in cheese sauce, these sorts of recipes have always ensured memorable dinner parties. ElBulli may have served tiramisu made from tofu and green tea, but would chef Ferran Adrià have been able to get away with such concoctions if festive fish gateaux and their ilk hadn’t laid the groundwork? Recipes that sound like a foul mix of ingredients assembled by a madman, but that turn out to be, in fact, quite nice, are nothing new.
And we may see a return to avant garde cuisine at home. As the recession continues to squeeze household budgets—meaning less money for trips to fancy restaurants—elaborate dinner party menus present a light-hearted, thrifty alternative. Nigella Lawson’s last few TV series have shown us how to make “Mexican lasagne” using nachos instead of pasta sheets, “mini roast potatoes” fashioned from shallow-fried gnocchi, and a lurid green cream pie based on a Grasshopper cocktail.
And what fun it all is! Blumenthal and Adrià might not be able to imagine people wanting anything more than a really good omelette of an evening, but we know better. The bacon mousse will be back.
Tweet your favourite 70s concoctions @prospect_UK using the #retrorecipes hashtag
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Try this at home – ElBulli’s food is famous for its extravagance, artistry and complicated production. So, asks Adam Gopnik, what can we expect from chef Ferran Adrià’s new cookbook?
Airline meals – It’s embarrassing to admit, but I enjoy airline meals. Marion McGilvary confesses to a taste for vacuum-packed curries
The Fat Duck – Could Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant The Fat Duck really be the best in the world? William Skidelsky went to lunch there with his mother, who usually hates fancy food
The best lunch in the world – William Skidelsky says farewell to elBulli, which finally closes its doors this weekend