We popped it out of its plastic case steaming hot and treacley, the whole candied orange at its centre peeping out like a jellified jewel in the crown. So what was it about Heston Blumenthal’s Waitrose Christmas Pudding that made it December’s hottest buy? Whilst my canny mother had bought ours in November for what at the time seemed like a rather pricey £13.99, come Christmas these limited-edition puds were selling like, um, hot cakes for as much as £200 on eBay. £200! For some contraband sultanas in sponge? For a nation that once accepted boil-in-the-bag cod and a bowl of Angel Delight as fair game, such frenzy over food seemed like something of a revolution. And that’s exactly what it is.
Jamie Oliver and olive oil, Yo! Sushi, those Marks and Spencer’s food-porn ads, knowing how to pronounce “prosciutto”: 30 years ago this was all a distant dream, a foodie paradise found only in more clued-up countries like Japan or Italy. Over the past few decades however, there’s been a tsunami of a sea-change in the UK's view of food. Whether it's Nigella, Jamie or Gordon whom we have to thank for, it's now considered cool for a man to cook up scallops with a cauliflower foam on a casual night in. It’s de rigeur these days to know your rose from your white veal, your snail porridge from your black cod in miso and your scampi from your langoustine (spot the trick question there). The cultural heights of the Westfield London Shopping Centre alone reveal a Benetton-like variety of eats, including Vietnamese, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Lebanese, Greek, Thai, Japanese, Indian and British. Our stomachs may be steadily expanding, but at least we’re letting them have some fun in the process.
And if you needed any more proof that what we eat now is a hell of a lot more exciting than what it was 30 years ago, cast your eye over this restaurant menu from 1981 (click on the picture and zoom to see it up close).
The Beaujolais in Manchester was one of the city's finest restaurants, serving what was considered top nosh at the time, with top nosh prices to go with it. The images are taken from a total treasure of a book, a compilation of menus from contemporary '80s restaurants called Adventures in Dining: The Gourmet’s Guide to Greater Manchester and North Cheshire. I may have only scanned in one menu to show you, but rest assured, each page reads like a gastronomic Groundhog Day. In 1981 it seems every restaurant – and I mean every single one, whether pricey like The Beaujolais or a cheap little bistro – served the exact same blend of bastardised French fare. To paraphrase:
Starter: Prawn cocktail, avocado, melon, egg mayonnaise, pâté, onion soup.
Main Course: Steak in cream, chicken in cream, pork in cream, sole poached in cream. Pudding: Crêpe Suzette, baked Alaska, crème caramel.
No sushi, no houmous, no nothing. So when your weekly trip to Wagamama starts to seem a little humdrum, just cast your mind back to a time when noodles were considered nouvelle cuisine and slurp up that bowl of ramen with a smile on your face.
But returning to the pudding quickly - did Heston deserve the hype? Chock-full of fruit and doused in orange-scented syrup, it tasted delicious, if a little dense. Given it's high-profile past, I’m predicting a pre-emptive August rush on this year’s delivery. Elbows at the ready foodies...