Gerard Gilbert wonders if Sixties classics are best left in the past

Butterscotch Instant Whip. Dig deeply enough into my culinary cerebral cortex – my foodie memory bank – and that is what you would eventually find at source, nestling there with Corona cherryade and a Cadbury's Bar Six. For succeeding generations it will have been Angel Delight – strawberry-flavoured, of course, – but I belong to the Instant Whip generation. The Bird's dessert (just add milk) was born in 1960, the first year of a momentous decade we are now being asked to reappraise for its culinary heritage in a new TV series called Valentine Warner Eats the Sixties. Warner argues that we shouldn't despise and mock the era of vol-au-vents and Vesta curries, but appreciate it for what it was: the birth of now, the dawning, no less, of Foodie Britain.

"The Sixties marked a real split between the way we were eating and the way we've become now," he says. "Britain had been through an utterly horrible time because of the war, but then rationing hadn't ended, and in the Sixties people enjoyed themselves through their food. It was a chance to lighten up."

This is true. But is the current boom in retro recipes good for us – or even good to eat? Should we be trying to recreate that optimism on a plate, or, as someone wise once said, is nostalgia the death of hope? There's a telling scene towards the end of the first episode, in which Warner serves a selection of "people who lived through the Sixties" (considering this was the height of the post-war Baby Boom, there couldn't have been a shortage) a high tea featuring curried eggs, a shepherd's pie made with tinned peas and carrots and topped with Cadbury's Smash, and – lastly – a bowl of Angel Delight. The guests, having fondly recalled their childish pleasure at downing this pink gloop (except Mary Berry, who primly says she only let her children eat bananas and custard), suddenly looked rather shell-shocked at tasting it afresh with evolved taste buds. No Proustian bliss this, and rarely has the glow of nostalgia been so cruelly extinguished for all of us to see.

Is this indicative of the decade's food as a whole? Is the whole retro food thing just a weapon for ironists and a comfort for oldsters wanting to retreat back to their salad days (with Heinz salad cream, of course)? But more of these questions later, for Valentine Warner is knocking on my front door with the ingredients for chicken kiev and prawn and avocado cocktail, as well as a copy of Len Deighton's Action Cook Book. The spy novelist who gave us Harry Palmer was also an enthusiastic chef who wrote a newspaper recipe column throughout the Sixties. "This is actually a really good little cookbook," says Warner, showing me the cover of a man ladling spaghetti from a saucepan as a girlfriend encouragingly tousles his hair from behind (this is the 2008 reprint – knowingly sexist). "There were more men left to their own devices to get on with it... the bachelor in the kitchen."

Chicken kiev is a dish I've only ever eaten as a ready meal. Chicken kiev, Maryland chicken, chicken à la king... chooks feature heavily in the recipes of the time – hardly surprisingly when there were more of them about. Chicken consumption rose dramatically between 1950, when one million birds were eaten in this country, and 1965 when we munched away at 150 million of the critters, and the main driving force was refrigeration.

Fridges replaced pantries and now poultry could be stored both before and after cooking. These days, of course, thanks to Nigella, pantries (or store cupboards) are highly desirable things. The same goes for the once-again fashionable ceramic Butler sinks, which were ripped out en masse and replaced with stainless steel sinks – kitchens changed generally, with waist-high units, plenty of storage and electricity sockets for the all-important Kenwood Chef. "The Chef does everything but cook... that's what wives are for!" reads the Kenwood advertisement, just in case anyone thinks that Mad Men is far-fetched.

But back to chicken kiev. Look more closely at the ingredients and another story about Sixties Britain reveals itself – for the garlic and the parsley are not the sort of ingredients much appreciated before the era of mass tourism. Foreign holidays in garlic-eating countries changed all that, as well introducing the British to fresh herbs and spices. Indeed the Sixties saw the arrival of that must-have accessory – the spice rack. Not that we were quite the spice sophisticates that we have since become, and our knowledge of curries was such that Vesta freeze-dried varieties could become a runaway hit. They are still in production today, and Warner prepares one in his series.

"Vesta curry was the low point for me of making the programme," he says. "Rabbit droppings in curry-flavoured mucus, it was really unpleasant. But they're still made today, so whatever I say, they're still popular."

"There was a lot of optimism around in the Sixties," says Mark Donnelly, author of Sixties Britain: Culture, Society and Politics. "New technology was going to transform the way people live their lives – they were just going to have so much more leisure time available, and it's probably only in that context that you could make sense of freeze-dried mash potato."

Ah, Cadbury's Smash, surely the nadir of the convenience food. The justly celebrated 1970s TV advert in which a group of Martians laughed at the manner in which we humans used to go to all the bother of peeling spuds, boiling them and mashing them has now been turned on its head so that Smash is the big joke, and it's we humans with our real potatoes who are laughing our heads off now.

Surprisingly, Warner is more forgiving of Cadbury's Smash than he is of Vesta curry. "It smells like fart in a bag when you open it, but once you add water it's kind of all right, dare I say it." Smash was introduced in the Sixties, but only really a runaway success after that 1974 advertisement ("For Mash Get Smash"). The Sixties was, by no coincidence, the decade in which food branding really took off.

Captain Birdseye ruled the waves on TV – Ahoy there me hearties, fish fingers for tea. "The fish finger was born out of accident in 1955", says Warner. "Clarence Birdseye II was very keen to get the British to eat something called a herring savoury. But no one liked the herring savoury but everyone liked the fish finger."

The freezer sections of the newly opened supermarkets stocked the fish fingers – and the new-fangled frozen vegetables. Shoppers were glad, it seems, to be rid of the tyranny of "service". "You were your own boss", as someone puts it on Warner's programme. "You didn't get people fussing around trying to physically sell you stuff."

Anyway, after a shallow fry, Warner and I eat his chicken kiev, which is very tasty, and he then sets about preparing the avocado and prawn cocktail – avocados, like grapefruit, being an exotic newcomer to our kitchens. As it happens I often make Rick Stein's prawn cocktail, and Warner's retro version differs only in using tomatoes instead of cucumber, and in the garnish – slices of lemon and three or four prawns hanging over the lip of the glass like drowning men dragged out of the river. The whole effect is pleasingly colourful and retro – something straight out of a Fanny Cradock cookbook, or the Cordon Bleu cookery cards that my mother used to collect.

Colour, science, convenience and fun... these were the watchwords in the Sixties kitchen. The only chef doing that sort of thing these days seems to be Heston Blumenthal, a man more likely to deconstruct a quiche lorraine or a chicken kiev than to slavishly recreate one. The general trend for the past 20 years has been away from everything Sixties cookery stood for – back to real ingredients, back to offal (very popular until the Sixties), back to earth and away from food science and the dominance of the ready meal and TV dinner. The kitchen today is now the focal entertaining room in the house, not just a grease-stained adjunct, with serving hatch, to the living room.

Salad cream, corned beef, pineapple slices with everything (even the breakfast fry-up), tinned tomato soup as a makeshift sauce, tinned vegetables, tinned Fray Bentos steak and kidney pudding... these things must have tasted good at the time or people wouldn't have eaten them. Even black forest gateau can be delicious with the right ingredients – although not the one Warner baked on his show from an original Sixties recipe. "It was very bland," says one of his tea guests. "Probably our taste buds have changed so much over the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties." And that's the point surely. We can't – and we shouldn't – go back, except for a bit of fun and reminiscing (the baked Alaska was apparently a powerful memory jogger), but it's still good to know where we come from.

'Valentine Warner Eats the Sixties' starts on Yesterday channel on Wednesday 12 October

Avocado & prawn cocktail

You'll need glasses with stems (big wine glasses will do). Judge the amounts by eye for a rough-and-ready retro starter

Ingredients

Atlantic peeled and cooked prawns
Iceberg lettuce
2 x ripe avocado
Salad tomatoes
Tomato ketchup
Mayonnaise
Paprika
Sherry
Salt and pepper

1. Shred some lettuce and put in base of the glass. Add layer of chopped tomatoes.

2. Mix some prawns with some chopped avocado and spoon on top of the tomatoes.

3. Mix some ketchup, mayonnaise, paprika, sherry, salt and pepper to make a Marie Rose sauce, and then dollop on top of the prawn-avocado layer.

4. Decorate the rim of the glass with a slice of lemon and four of the prawns.

Comments