A Short Reverie On The Classic ‘Sixties Dinner Menu

“A gin and tonic says a lot about you as a person. It is more than just a drink, it is an attitude of mind. It goes with prawn cocktail, a grilled Dover sole, Melba toast and Black Forest Gâteau.”

Nico Ladenis, My Gastronomy

St Patrick’s day is in March and that got me thinking about Irish coffee – one of my favourite drinks – warming, sweet, strong, smooth… I remember it as being the last, essential component to the classic ’60s Berni Inn meal.

A lot of people were… still are…. quite snobby about those hackneyed, clichéd maybe, dishes. We’re talking about prawn cocktail, steak, and black forest gâteau, all dishes I positively relish. I thought I’d hit upon a very novel idea in my plan to fight the wave of negative opinion. But about five seconds into my research I found legions of other, rather more heavyweight, champions of ‘60s cuisine.

Heston Blumenthal

Heston Blumenthal, a chef about whom I knew very little, except for his proclivity to surprising combinations of food, has made an in-depth study into the construction of the classic, traditional Schwartzwälderkirschtorte, producing an impossible, improbable masterpiece (see The Perfect Black Forest Gâteau Without The Tears, for Blumenthal’s adventures with carpentry and vacuum cleaners, and my shortcut, less eventful version).  It turned out that Blumenthal had made a similar study into steak.

black forest gateau recipe
Heston Blumenthal’s adventures with vacuum cleaners and carpentry..

The Prawn Cocktail Years

Meanwhile I discovered that Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham had even written an entire book entitled The Prawn Cocktail Years which includes all the recipes for the dinner menu above and a whole host more.

The ‘sixties – a golden culinary age

I take some of these recipes so much for granted I didn’t even know they’d been given the hackneyed sixties classification… dishes such as spaghetti bolognaise, coq au vin, and quiche Lorraine. Rather than food of ‘enduring ridicule’ then, I was completely mistaken, that decade must have been a gastronomic golden age.  Other classic, and also enduringly excellent ’60s and ’70s dishes include Smacked Mack and tournedos Rossini.

Berni Inns – and the damage to the reputation of the food of the time

In fact that gastronomic  ‘decade’ really had a span of some twenty years, starting in the mid-fifties when the first Berni Inn was established by brothers Frank and Aldo Berni and their business partner, Paul Rosse. The most commonly ordered meal was prawn cocktail, steak ‘garni’ (two mushrooms and two tomatoes in a hot oven for 20 minutes), and Black Forest Gâteau – aka the still-popular Great British Meal. By all accounts the standards were high, but deprecation crept insidiously into the perceptions of customers due to the mock-tudor architecture, and the sheer ubiquity of the chain. The brand failed to reinvent itself as society developed more sophisticated tastes and fell into decline.

List of classic ’60s and 70’s dishes and drinks

best prawn cocktail recipe
prawn cocktail

Books to read

These are the best of the crop – there are, of course, many.

  • Cook Now, Dine Later by Caterine Althaus and Peter ffrench-Hodges
  • The Good Food Guide Dinner Party Book by Hilary Fawcett and Jeanne Strang
  • Readers’ Digest, The Cookery Year
  • Basic French Cooking, by Len Deighton

The music to listen to as you try any of these dishes

You might want to get into the mood as you prepare any of the dishes above, and the music to listen could very appropriately be the soundtrack to the film, The Boat That Rocked, about a fictitious ‘sixties pirate radio station. The track includes songs from The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Procol Harum, The Beach Boys, Dusty Springfield, The Seekers and The Who to name but a few – great film, see trailer below.

sixties music
Dusty Springfield

Alternatively, the soundtrack to Made in Dagenham  includes further treats by Sandie Shaw, Desmond Dekker, Lulu and the Small Faces. The film is about 1968 strike at the Ford factory when 830 women walked out in protest against sexual discrimination (bottom clip) which contains quite a few references to Berni Inns.

Or you could buy the new The Solid Silver 60s Greatest Hits, and, if you are really keen, go to one of the gigs on the UK tour of the same name which kicks off in April 2016.

If you have an opportunity, visit the Robert Rauschenbert exhibition at the Tate Modern. Rauschenbert’s collage-like silkscreens of John F Kennedy embody the very essence of the sixties.

The Boat That Rocked

Made in Dagenham

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