A Whizz In The Kitchen


Restaurants are the by-product of travel.

There’s a café near me called the Capannina Café. I’m always tempted to push open the door and ask, ‘Pardon me sir, is this the Capannina Café?’ It’s the equivalent of those place that always feature in American movies with old waitresses, plates of waffles and endless pots of burnt coffee. Except that in the UK version you’re never far from a sausage.

In London they’re still ubiquitous but are largely unnoticed. In smart areas they’ve been transmuted into coffee shops, but if you follow a builder you’ll usually be led to an old-fashioned one.  The difference is that the US diner is a great leveller while the UK transport café has class attached to it, which is why you can’t find one in Hampstead. I suppose all their Polish plumbers have to make do with brioche.

In the immediate postwar years eating out was not exactly an urgent issue and remained the province of the upper classes, although the thought of Jacob Rees-Mogg eating anything that nanny didn’t make is anathema. Everyone ate at home, and after five years of war and more than double that of rationing nobody knew what to cook anymore.

Restaurants are the by-product of travel. Coaching inns provided fresh horses but also served fresh food. During and after the war no-one travelled far. A bigger problem was that outside meals were resolutely masculine. Gentlemen ate versions of boarding school dinners in clubs, while aspirant merchants ate in taverns. Women had no place in restaurants except as decoration, and were actively encouraged to remain at home and cook for their families. I remember seeing a poster that said, ‘If you really love her, you’ll buy her a grate.’

Smart restaurants usually meant French food, but gradually other European dishes appeared, pre-arranged on great platters English-style until the small plate revolution took us back to the Georgian way of doing things. In ‘Scoff’, Pen Vogler walks us through a history of food in Britain, drawing out its links with class. It’s a refreshingly clear-eyed, debunking read that reminds us just how good and bad British food can be.

It reminded me of another such book published in 1971, as much about appetite as food. Philippa Pullar’s ‘Consuming Passions’ is a history of food incorporating such apparently unconnected subjects as phallic worship, cannibalism, agriculture, roman mythology, wet nursing, prostitution, witchcraft, magic, aphrodisiacs and factory canning.

Her chapters include ‘Pudding, Pepys and Puritanism’ and ‘Culinary Erections’. Her style was scattergun and frequently hilarious, incorporating recipes, jokes, historical anecdotes and a persuasive explanation about why the English lost the art of cooking – an art still only in the early stages of revival.

She explains how mediaeval cuisine was really Roman, and how spices like ‘galingale, mace, cubebs and cummin’ were added after the Crusaders returned with Eastern influences. As in Vogler’s ‘Scoff’ there are descriptions of dinner etiquette and the experience of table gatherings. One imagines the steaming trays of cranes and swans being served, the chamberpots being passed around, the men nodding off, the women stepping into the larder ‘where the jars made a cold crack on the marble shelves as the potted meats, the confections and the pickles were taken up to admire and set down again’.

‘Consuming Passions’ is a treatise on the art of taste, but there are other authors who had written about gastronomy without merely delivering a list of recipes. I’m keen on having a crack at porpoise with wheat porridge, a rare recipe from culinary horror ‘The Curious Cookbook’, a collection culled from various anonymous authors by Peter Ross. He offers up mashed potato sandwich, roasted peacock, viper soup, parrot pie with beef and lemon peel, and curried kangaroo tails.

I’d happily live on Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Mexican cuisine, anything other than the ‘lamb chop, potatoes and peas’ British fare delivered by my mother, who had lost her taste buds at twelve and only excelled (as all mothers did) at cakes.

The pandemic has upended the fine dining revolution, forcing us to concentrate on flavours we like and food we can make rather than dishes we experimentally order in restaurants. If and when this slow-motion apocalypse ends (that’s what it is for us in the UK, at least – oh, to be in the Far East) we may venture out and sample the next fad, fusion-Indonesian, say, or nouvelle Spanish. To grow up in a city is to have a thousand choices. Until then, the perfect omelette will suffice.

50 comments on “A Whizz In The Kitchen”

  1. Don says:

    I thought “A Whizz In The Kitchen” is what happens when you come rushing in from the cold and just know you’re not going to make it upstairs to the loo?

  2. Martin Tolley says:

    Peanut butter, pickled egg and pilchard sandwiches for me. Works better than you’d imagine. Discovered after a boozy night down Byres Road in Glasgow.
    Once had a friend visiting from Germany who discovered a builder’s caff in London he was delighted with (a long time ago in Hampstead as it happens). He was adamant that the name of it was “Cafe Open” – it was on the rotating sign outside. We never found it again.

  3. Jo W says:

    Thanks Chris, I now have the tune of Chatanooga Choo-Choo stuck in my head.
    Mashed potato sandwiches were excellent with either black pepper or HP sauce,but my old insides wouldn’t like it now. I’d need a rennie sandwich for afters!

  4. Brian Evans says:

    I used to like the greasy spoon caffs that used to be littered around London, and often run by Italians. The “Modern” in Kings Cross by the Scala. It was modern in the 1950s with its Formica etc, but had become a lovely period piece. There was a similar one by Tottenham Court Road, round the corner from the Dominion Cinema, by the fabulous film book shop. There was another in Villiers Street, handy for the Players Theatre as it was just opposite. And one in Camden Town, on the corner, a few doors along from the Odeon.

    Then there were about 3 “Stockpots”, one which was in Panton St opposite the Comedy Theatre. Again, Italian run, where you could get a very good cooked three course meal at budget prices.

    Notice the fact I use cinemas and theatres as land marks which happily indicates my social life in days gone by. Especially the Players Theatre, which through the 1980s was virtually my second home. Chris did a blog about that the Players while back.

    Going further back, I used to favour the Kardomahs, as immortalised in the film “Brief Encounter”

  5. Barbara Boucke says:

    Thank you Brian for the mention of the Stockpot. In 1980 my brother, his wife, and I had a meal there – very good. We sat – I think – upstairs at a large table with other diners. After the meal we went on a wild taxi ride to get to Sadlers’ Wells before the curtain went up to see the Mikado – the driver pulled it off and we gave him a good tip. I think there was something called The Egg Institute near the Stockpot restaurant.

  6. brooke says:

    I can’t see the image very well — is that fool man in the apron about to use a Presto, known for over heating and blowing the stew ceilingward? No wonder the little wife has smirky look.

  7. tony williams says:

    What a good post

  8. brooke says:

    If you’re looking for non-British/USA recipes, take a look at these new cookbooks: The Rise, Jubilee, and In Bibi’s Kitchen. Although my parents were fabulous cooks and farmers, I confine myself to boiled eggs and tuna sandwiches. In the olden days if I had to cook I relied on the great Edna Lewis’ A Taste of Country Cooking or In Pursuit of Flavor.

    I’ve read a little English food history; can’t say that I found it interesting. But I still have my copy of Dorothy Hartley’s classic. Everyday food prep and consumption, i.e. food for working people, is much more fascinating as its practices adapt to human activities rather than class based inactivity.

  9. Frances says:

    My grandmother never ate in a restaurant during her long life. Very occasionally my grandparents ate in a hotel (Brown Windsor Soup) if travelling – domestic travel only. My grandfather took my mother and her sister on a tour of the continent (i.e. France) where he drove them mad looking for some “good British food”.

    In the 1960s my cousin asked me what spaghetti tasted like. Later she found a tin of spaghetti in tomato sauce and decided it wasn’t for her. She was also curious about pumpkin. I was defeated trying to describe flavours and don’t know if anyone would find it even possible. In those days we used to go to the caff which seemed to be attached to every cinema if we wanted to eat out. Everything came with chips, including beans on toast. Our parents went to hotel restaurants if they wanted a meal out. Stand alone restaurants were uncommon. As you say, most of their clientele were men having lunch.

    I think I remember Stockpot. Was it in a basement?

  10. David Ronaldson says:

    I remember when I was at primary school visiting the local Chinese restaurant, The Blossom Garden, with my parents. Having no idea what to order, we went for the Set Meal for 3, which must have comprised the blandest dishes on offer. A rare meal out was disappointing. Now, the World’s cuisine is (or once was) on the doorstep and I find myself disappointed that my favourite Afghan restaurant, Caravan Serai on Paddington Street, closed during hostilities in Helmand Province.

  11. Brian Evans says:

    Barbara, great memory, and I love the “Mikado” or the Mick-a-dooo as we call it in our house. I used the Stockpot virtually every day for a while as I used to work round the corner. I don’t remember the Egg Institute, but there was a Stockpot in Earls Court so could it have been near that one? I know there was a similar place over the road to the Stockpot in Panton Street that tried to compete. Now, I’m not one to gossip, but it was not unknown at the time for the odd customer to end up with food poising from that one- ie people I worked with.

    Frances, the Stockpot had a ground floor and an upper floor, but I’m not sure about a basement. If it did, I don’t remember using it.

  12. Wayne Mook says:

    I can vouch for the mashed potato sandwich too, a step above the chip butty in my opinion and that’s saying something. My mum used to ‘hide’ swede/turnip (not mentioning these in a food reply in this blog almost seems criminal) in the mash potato. I told her I would eat them but no she had to be clever and ruin perfectly good cream potatoes – mash pots with milk & butter – nice with a little salt & pepper in the mix. She did it so I would eat some greens as all veg is called even carrots. Although meat and two veg was a well known phrase especially if you were hit in them. They also made the mash lumpy and so ruining the mash potato butty. The bread needs thickly spread butter on it and the mash melts and mixes with the butter.

    I worked on the buses data collecting round Greater Manchester and the greasy spoons were a must, sit down chippies (that also did traditional take-aways) and butty shops that did bacon butties , either mobile or not, [there was a place toward Rochdale, it was actually a small bakery, that did large oven-bottom muffins filled with bacon which was a real life saver at 6.30 in the morning (arguments as to the name ensued – large flat bap – barm cake, roll, to a lad from Newcastle they were a stotty , he let us off not being able to speak properly as we were a good sort.)] . Plus a number of legendary pie shops in Wigan. In one was asked if I wanted gravy with my pie, as it was a steak pie it was served in a paper bag with a tin tray (thick foil actually). Thinking I have to see this, I said, ‘yes’. The lass promptly poured gravy into the the hole on the top of the pie. And as they say round that neck of the woods it was ‘Champion.’ If a bit messy.

    My wife is from a Iraqi Kurdish background, and does rice kubba with turnip and lamb, it’s an old family recipe and very nice.

    I agree about the choice of food in a city, it’s one of the things I miss.


  13. Peter T says:

    Brian, I remember the Italian caffe (or caf) in Villiers Street well. There was also a great one on Bayswater Road next door to what used to be the Coburg Hotel (as seen in a Htchcock film set mainly around Covent Garden with Barry Foster strangling people). And there was another good one on the Edgeware Road near George Street. We got to know those places and some good pubs, when we learnt that in London it’s better to spend more on the hotel and eat where the food is less expensive. There were also those tiny corner places that sold wonderful, simple sanwiches for lunch – and accepted ‘luncheon vouchers,’ whatever they were.

    Before I reached school age, Friday morning was the time for big decisions. Did I go to the shops with my mother or stay at home and play with my Grandad? If I went with my mother, there was another decision at mid-morning: trifle or meringue in Cranage’s tea room? The best choice was stay at home and hope she’d bring one back. At least cakes were good in the 1950s.

  14. Derek j Lewis says:

    Lamp chop, potatoes and peas…..every bloody Wednesday when I was a kid. Mid-week cook dinner in the 1960s. I was hoping i’d forgotten it, but now I can even smell the gravy again. Don’t start on Monday wash day.

  15. admin says:

    I remember the Stockpots well – most of the menu contain a lot of rice. I suspect the Modern is still there, or only just went. There was another cheap chain, The Three Lanterns, and of course Conrad’s in Belsize Village – serving more hippy rice meals.

  16. Barbara Boucke says:

    Brian – I went onto Ancestry and looked at a couple of old British phone directories. The Stockpot was at #40 Panton St. and the Egg Information Service at #37. I think there was a huge egg in the window, and I remember thinking “Only in England would I see something called The Egg Information Service”. No disrespect to the British was meant and I don’t even know why I thought that, except I didn’t think I would see something like that in the States. The performance of the Mikado – or as the Times misprinted it The Mikardo – was great.

  17. Frances says:

    Brian, perhaps it was the Chelsea Kitchen I was remembering?

  18. Andrew Holme says:

    Mashed potato sandwich? The best sandwich was Marlon’s from ‘The Perishers’ comic strip. An inch thick spread of tomato ketchup between two slices of bread.” But Marlon, what happens when you bite into it….?”

  19. Kevin says:

    The Stockpot – I was taken to one sometime in the 1980s (I think), by a student friend who lived in London at the time, and for many years after, it became my regular feeding place whenever I came up to the big city for a visit. It was good basic food, nothing fancy, but cheap and filling, and they were always busy when I was there.

  20. mike says:

    There’s nothing like a dash of pipe ash and tobacco smoke smelling clothes to season a home made soup.

  21. chazza says:

    Regularly ate at the Stockpot in Earls Court. Paella and chips on Sunday morning after a Saturday night of sex, drugs and a few bottles of L’Hirondelle. One of the few memories I actively revive on a regular basis as well as the Macaroni Cheese at The Sun in Splendour at the top of Portobello Road, of course…

  22. admin says:

    I can’t think of Marlon without remembering ‘the eyeballs in the sky’.

  23. Roger says:

    There used to be a Japanese/French fusion caff in Fulham – product of a marriage, I assume – but it’s gone now, whether from divorce or Covid round 1 I don’t know.
    There are still Ethiopian and Burmese caffs/restaurants nearby.
    I remember seeing builders in a coffee shop – they were archetypal builders – and hearing the question “‘Ere, Joe, is yours a skinny latte or a decaff flat white?” The end of civilisation as I know it.

  24. Paul C says:

    In a similar vein, I really enjoyed ‘A History of the World in Six Glasses’ by Tom Standage : beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola. Delightful book……….

  25. Andrew Holme says:

    ‘The eyeballs in the sky’ strips were Dawkins vs The Creationists of their day. The battles between the fundamentalist preacher crab and the scientist crab as to the meaning of the ‘eyeball’ phenomena, unfortunately, are still having to be fought.
    2+2=4. You can refuse to believe it but it doesn’t alter the fact that 2+2=4. Of course for a child in the Seventies the greatest cultural gift of ‘The Perishers’ was ‘go faster stripes’. They really did work on yer go-kart!

  26. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Wellington and Boot were my favourites.

  27. Brian Evans says:

    I had forgotten the rice at the Stockpot, Chris. There were lots of chips too, which helped to keep the price down. It was enormously popular right through the day and evening.

    Lamb chops, potatoes and peas are still a staple in our house. So is jelly (jello in USA I think) and blancmange for pudding. We don’t feel as though we have eaten unless we have two courses. I suppose if I’m honest we have never successfully left the 1950s behind.

    The Chelsea Kitchen brings back memories as well. I’m glad the location of the Egg place has been sorted out. That brings back memories of the “Golden Egg” chain. There was one in Leicester Square, bang in the middle of the West End. All this brings back a memory of an American friend I have. We were walking past a caff that had a big sign in the window- “Genuine English Cooking.” He said it sounded more like a threat than a promise. To be fair, he didn’t have much good to say about US cooking either. He said that everything looks perfect, lovely to look at and bigger than in UK. Then added it is unfortunate that they then seem to wave a bag round and totally get rid of any taste. Having toured round the US by train, I did find that to have an element of truth in it, though a little exaggerated. What surprised me was, that having heard about the wonderful friendly service I would get in US, it was a bit of a shock when everyone behind a counter or waiting at table turned out to be more like Thelma Ritter than the type of lovely friendly person I was expecting. Actually, I found that oddly re-assuring.

    There is deff one big improvement that the greasy spoons have these days compared with them in the past, and that is the introduction of the “all day breakfast.” Until recently, they were only sold till about 11am. To those from abroad, UK breakfasts are best described as “death on a plate” Bacon, sausages, egg and tomatoes with fried bread, preferably swimming in fat and grease. Play your cards right and they may throw in a bit of black pudding-basically bits of brain in congealed blood. Really, I kid you not! We love them over here-breakfasts that is. Black pudding is a bit more of an acquired taste.

  28. Barbara Boucke says:

    I remember the Golden Egg as well – there was one in the Bloomsbury Centre I think. But the discussion about sandwich fillings reminds me of Arthur Bryant’s beetroot sandwiches. Now that is not something I had ever heard of until he pulled one out of his coat pocket.

  29. Ian Luck says:

    One of my earliest memories is of a ‘Transport Caff®’. My dad would often let me go to work with him at weekends, which often meant at some point, we’d stop for refreshments. Occasionally a beautiful, greasy fry-up, with everything, (kickstarting a love of Black Pudding, Mushrooms and Bubble and Squeak that has remained since) Tea, of course, although if Tizer were available, I’d have that. If it were lunchtime, though, it would be Red Leicester cheese sandwiches, with tomato ketchup, neither item being allowed at home by mum. No matter. They were me and dad’s little secret. Furthermore, a lot of the Transport Cafe’s sold American Marvel and DC comics. I’d never ask, but dad would always hand me a couple as we got back in the car, with the usual mantra:
    “Don’t tell your mum.”

  30. Ian Luck says:

    Brian – small point: there is no brain in Black Pudding. Blood, yes, no brain matter, but cereals, and spices. Brain in food, has been illegal since the CJD crisis many years ago. A great pity, as one of my favourite cooked meats was ‘Brawn’, which is basically, brains made into a kind of luncheon meat, with aspic and herbs. I used to get it from a butcher in Ripon, who made his own. It was utterly delicious.

  31. Peter T says:

    Lamb chop, well cooked, left for a few hours to cool to ambient temperature, pure ambrosia, especially washed down with a bottle of Greene King IPA.

  32. Brian Evans says:

    Ian, I’m glad to hear it re black pudding. I remember brawn as well, but unlike black pudding, I could never bring myself to eat it. Another delicacy I could never touch, nor fortunately my family, was tripe and onions. Coming from oop north where it was especially popular you could see it on the counter at the butchers. For those who don’t know-it is cows stomach lining. Need I say more? No, Ian, please don’t tell me you loved it!

    Talking of family and food, let’s hear it for our dear old mums. I bet I’m not the only one on here whose mum was from the school of cooking-if you could still count the sprouts, then they weren’t cooked enough*

    * I must give credit for that gag to Barry Crier (I think it was) on an edition of “I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue”

  33. John Griffin says:

    Fancy dissing tripe. Tripe ‘n chips with salt and vinegar, divine. Having been dragged up in Oldham you also had rag pudding (suet pudding with steak/mince and onion filling, wrapped in a rag and simmered).
    If you grill the bacon, sausage and black pudding, dry fry the eggs etc, quite ok health wise.

  34. Martin Tolley says:

    My mum used to “put the sprouts on” in early December.

  35. Helen Martin says:

    Used to see a sign advertising The Hub restaurant in “downtown” Vancouver when I went on the streetcar. Saw the sign on a piece of 1907 film the other day and wondered if it was still there, especially as I saw it not long ago. Found it on Google but it is marked as permanently closed. The sign was a wagon wheel hub with neon flashes where the spokes would have been. I saw the sign not long ago and had had no idea it had been there that long.
    I was introduced to haggis as a mature adult and decided it was one of the finer things in life. Much like black pudding?
    Mother didn’t boil sprouts that way but she did cook them more than I do now. I am astonished that people who say they don’t eat sprouts still insist on them for Christmas.

  36. Roger says:

    You can still get brawn, Ian Luck. It’ss boiled pig’s head. They just take out the brain before they split it. You can make your own as well.
    I remember tripe butchers years ago in LAncashire – literally nothing but tripe. Very nutritious, cheap and easily digested and tasting of nothing at all. Invalids’ food, because only invalids would eat it.

  37. Brian says:

    Hard to believe that this is a book blog.

  38. Ian Luck says:

    Helen, Haggis is awesome. I like it as a breakfast fry-up item, with square sausage if I can find it.
    I made myself a sandwich once that was suggested by a Monty Python sketch: a ‘Spam, Egg, Sausage and Spam’ one. Terrifying calorie count, and I could feelmy arteries hardening as I ate it. Like most really, really bad foods, it tasted phenomenal. I then had to sit down for an hour or so, and think about what I’d just done.

    Talking about food, and not mentioned Turnip Tops!


  39. Ian Luck says:

    Roger – I believe that’s what Americans refer to as ‘Head Cheese’. The most mystery of all the ‘Mystery Meats’. And just because of THAT name, I’ll pass. A huge swerve of a pass, in fact.
    I’ll just stick to my memories, I think.

  40. Peter T says:

    For those who can’t stomach tripe there’s chitterlings (or chittlins), the small intestine of sheep in the Midlands, but anything else elsewhere.

  41. chazza says:

    Gawd! This has given me such a hunger for ALL of the above! So much flavour! Fuck kale and smoothies, the latter being only dysentery in a glass….

  42. Peter Dixon says:

    Black pudding is, of course, pigs blood with some cereal and additives. It is already cooked, so you can eat it without frying if you prefer. I remember sitting in a crowded bar in Newcastle in about 1975 when a brown paper bag was passed around. Lots of fingers stained with nicotine were dipped in and the bag eventually reached me – it contained cubes of ‘raw ‘ black pudding and slices of raw tripe soused with salt and vinegar ; I passed it on saying that I had just had a Kit-Kat.
    My girl friend worked a Saturday job in her uncle’s butchers shop and once slipped a genuine pig’s tail into my jacket pocket while we were on a date. I discovered it when I went to the urinals and almost caused a scene with grown men projectile vomiting. This was when I found out about butcher’s humour which often involved bull’s testicles and sheeps eyes. I asked her boss about White Pudding which you can still sometimes get in the North, he said it mostly contained ‘lips, eyelids, fanny’s and arseholes’ which sounds like something Gordon Ramsay would describe about someone but not use on his menu.
    By the way – ‘pudding’ in these cases is a corruption of ‘boudin’ – French for sausage.
    Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!

  43. Martin Tolley says:

    My uncle’s advice for healthy eating – 1. Never eat anything bigger than your own head. 2 Never eat anything blue. 3 Never drink anything green

  44. Paul C says:

    On St Patrick’s Day I once drank a pint of green Guinness. I think your uncle is right, Martin…………..

  45. Helen Martin says:

    Ian, you’re right about “head cheese”. It was my favourite manufactured meat for sandwiches or with a salad. A German chemist lady gave me a recipe for a vegetarian version but I haven’t ever seen the point. (The gelatine in the recipe was “agar agar”. She was a chemist, after all.)

  46. SteveB says:

    Yuk and double yuk Is all I have to say to most of the above!

  47. Ian Luck says:

    I’d much rather eat all of that (except Tripe, which is bloody disgusting, no matter how it is prepared – it’s the meat equivalent of ‘Squash’, which no matter what you do to it, tastes of nothing, and has the mouth feel of damp, slimy cardboard), than a damp grey burger, in a limp, sweaty bun, and a ‘McSlurry’, thank you very much. I only used to go to Muck Donald’s when they had rootbeer on tap, and their fried napalm and apple pies (if I was going to eat anything unhealthy, deliberately, it was those.) When they stopped the rootbeer, and mucked about with the pies, I gave up any interest whatsoever.

  48. Ian Luck says:

    Peter – Thank your lucky stars that it was a pig’s tail – if your coat had very big pockets, you might have found a bull’s pizzle in there… Try explaining that away… ; )

  49. Ed DesCamp says:

    Ian, Helen – yes, haggis is a SuperFood ™. I was first introduced to the King of Sausages at my first Burns’ Supper in Hong Kong back in the’80s, and, as I recollect, it absorbs an incredible amount of Scotch whiskey.

  50. Helen Martin says:

    To add to the haggis information: a former minister went up the coast and was introduced to oolichan oil by First Nations people. After meeting haggis he decided that sliced and fried for breakfast would be a perfect reheating. He fried it in the oolichan oil and having tasted it that way, I must admit he had a point. It doesn’t need any extra flavouring, though.

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