iLoveMyGrub talks to Valentine Warner about eating his way through the sixties for his latest TV show, and how Marmite could quite literally finish him off.
Emily Boyd talks to Valentine Warner about eating his way through the sixties for his latest TV show, and how Marmite could quite literally finish him off.
Your new TV show ‘Valentine Warner Eats the Sixties’, is very different to programmes you’ve previously done. What inspired this trip back through history to the sixties?
“It’s the next logical point after the war and the terrible effects that had, and all the struggles people went through. The next time things really changed again, it was the 60s.”
On the show you take a look at the sixties trend of convenience food…
“After fighting with America we picked up quite a lot of influences, and supermarkets were just beginning. The idea that you could go and serve your self, and take what you wanted. The kitchen changed hugely as well. It wasn’t lots of individual pieces of furniture - it was slightly more ergonomically designed in Formica, and it had plugs. People had chest freezers, they were buying frozen [foods], and we suddenly started eating lots of chicken. People were just trying to break away from the past - rationing had only finished in the fifties. Scientists were putting all their clever, clever knowledge into all these labour-saving things like Smash, and Birds Angel Delight, and Vesta Curry, so there was a hell of a lot going on. And package holidays were really taking off as well, so people were coming back with ideas we’d never seen before: Pizza Express arrived in London along with Wimpy, so it was a time of great change, where as before we’d been rather austere, and we’d been really been scrimping and saving.”
Would you say that the kitchen and food in general, were becoming more of a sociable affair for people, rather than a chore?
“People were entertaining a lot more. Everyone had had a really miserable time, and it was like “Right, rationing is over, the war is definitely passed, and we want to have some fun, and we deserve to have some fun. We want to eat with our friends and we want to show off, and get colourful.” And everything suddenly got very colourful, whether it was television, or the clothes that people were wearing, and food did as well. It was as if everything suddenly started flowering, and people started wanting to enjoy themselves, because the run up to the sixties had been pretty miserable really.”
*Heston’s Feasts* programme did something similar, venturing back to significant historical foodie periods a few years ago. The show you’re doing sounds very different - is it much more historical?
“It’s a totally different programme. We were filming people eating, giving people baked Alaska, and cheese fondue, and suddenly all these memories came flooding back to them. They got very excited. In a way, what food should do is make people remember. We used a lot of footage from that time, from the telly or radio or advertisements. What Heston tried to do was make the best Black Forest gateau anyone has ever eaten in their whole life, and that’s really not the point of this. We were trying to make a Black Forest gateau the way it would have been made, and then giving it to people and see what happens, to jog memories.”
Were there any dishes that you thought were actually a bit of a win, and should come back?
“Chicken Kiev. And something I never want to eat again unless I’ve done something very bad as a punishment would be the Vesta Curry. It’s freeze-dried, like Smash, but it’s a curry…”
That sounds disgusting…
“It’s like rabbit droppings.”
In my opinion, the sixties is partially to blame for English cuisine being viewed internationally as pretty poor, and the idea that we don’t know how to cook. Do you think that’s still how we’re perceived?
“I think slightly, in that very British way, we’ve been very proud of being able to go round saying we have the worst food in the world. “Isn’t it funny that we have the worst food in the world?!” But no it’s not, and we didn’t have the worst food in the world. When the influx of French chefs arrived in this country, they went around telling everybody that they were brilliant, and I think we believed them, and started slagging our own food off. But I think our food has always been incredibly simple. It’s not been madly complicated and it’s come from incredibly poor origins, but it doesn’t mean that it’s bad. Maybe we over-cook our vegetables a bit, but I’ve eaten a lot of foul food in every country in Europe. You can find bad food anywhere you want. We’ve certainly been masters of roasting beef, but we did go through a bad stage and started loving over-cooking our fish, and things did go a bit wrong after the war actually. But I think we lived very differently, and now everyone has gone to the cities, we’re not aware of what goes on in the country side particularly. We’re very challenged in our minds rather than our bodies, so we eat far more food that we actually need. I don’t think we had bad food. I think it was simple, and I think we’d have enjoyed a lot of it.”
Are there any particular food issues that are close to your heart, or things that you just can’t bear happening?
“Well, cooking at home is really on the decrease. The amount of kids I come across in this country who say “I don’t like that”, and they’ve never tried it and don’t really want to try it, and you have to really coax them. Even at food festivals, you meet people and you talk to them, and you ask them about cooking and they say they don’t really have any time to cook and I find that bizarre. If you don’t have time to cook, then what’s gone wrong really? The table is an important place that we sit around and we share food, and we share ideas, and talk. To live a life in which you don’t pay any attention to the thing that fundamentally keeps you alive and your brain functioning, I see it as strange.
It’s not so much that we don’t have the time, it’s that we don’t know what to cook. In a funny kind of way, the more perfect cooking you see on TV, the more it seems like another world. How are you expected to just sit down and just make yourself a mushroom omelette?”
What are a few of your favourite restaurants currently?
“I really like Racine, which belongs to Henry Harris. Good old French stuff. Jeremy Lee at the Blueprint Café, and Cay Tre, which is Vietnamese.
Your past TV programmes have looked at a lot of unusual, quirky English producers, such as going to Ampleforth Abbey and looking at the cider making. What were a few of the highlights and the most interesting producers you’ve come across in the UK?
“In a funny kind of way, they all really know about what they’re doing, and it’s a real privilege to go and be with people who know their stuff and can teach you stuff. In the last series we’ve done, which has been a fishing series, I just loved being with everyone there.”
What’s your favourite biscuit to dunk in a cup of tea?
“I’m not a great tea drinker. I’m not a dunker either. But I love a Jaffacake, and I really like Ginger Thins.”
And finally, what’s your stance on Marmite: love or hate?
“Hate. No actually that’s wrong! My view on Marmite is that I actually really like it, as long as there’s more butter than Marmite, but it gives me instant asthma, so I can’t eat it. You could kill me with a piece of Marmite on toast.”
The two-part historical food series ‘Valentine Warner Eats the Sixties’, airs on UKTV’s Yesterday channel (Sky 537, Virgin 203 and Freeview channel 12), on Weds 12th October and Weds 19th October 2011. Valentine Warner’s latest book, The Good Table is out now. Priced at ￡25.00, published by Mitchell Beazley.
Interview by: Emily Boyd